Doune The Rabbit Hole | Rating: **** | Cardross Estate, near Stirling
It seems unfair to judge any festival in Scotland based upon the effect of the weather, but a comparison between Saturday’s overcast and drizzly afternoon and the party going on under the brightening, red-lit skies which emerged that evening leaves a certain sense of ‘what if?’. There’s little doubt that Doune the Rabbit Hole is something special; a festival which is family-friendly, extremely well programmed and bearing a strong sense of localism in terms of its suppliers and its responsibilities. So special, in fact, that it didn’t deserve to be bucketed on for as long as it was.
Yet its crowd are a loyal bunch, and they stayed the course – not just over 2016’s weekend, but in a wider sense, as well. Doune the Rabbit Hole’s existence has been a six-year trek around the countryside surrounding Stirling, held first in Newton, near Doune (hence the name), then Duncarron Fort from 2012, and now onto the Cardross Estate, near Port of Menteith. It’s a beautiful, accessible spot, on a downward slope which tails off to the horizon and featuring a curious old tree whose roots have been cleared of earth, creating a compartment within which children shelter and hide.
The feeling throughout was one of laid-back and arty creativity. Each of the five stages had its own name (Jabberwocky, Baino, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and so on), and was decorated with this and whatever else might brighten it up in attractively colourful style. In fact, the Parabola stage in the lower field looked like an art project in its own right; curated by Stirling’s Tolbooth with an array of local bands, including much-enjoyed psych-pop explorers Colonel Mustard & the Dijon 5, it appeared to have been cobbled together on the spot out of spare wood and tarpaulin.
It’s a compact festival, with the campsite very close by and a reported capacity of 1,000, yet the people who were there fitted snugly into a site whose perimeter could have been walked around in ten minutes. Bands played indoors and out, with a central bar area under canvas playing clubby beats of ever-increasing volume throughout the day, and a wide and extensive kids’ area which surely made this one of Scotland’s most hugely recommended festivals for parents with children. There were circus games, stories, Lego, ping-pong, and even a giant foam fight on a spread-out tarpaulin early on Saturday evening.
Musically, the blend of artists involved was eclectic, but well-chosen in terms of both quality and a certain adventurously diverse spirit shared across all those involved. A reduced Friday evening programme included the alternative folk sound of Glasgow’s Trembling Bells; dark and atmospheric electronica from Blanck Mass; and a rousing, horn-led showstopper from the ever-dependable Treacherous Orchestra.
Saturday took a while to get going, thanks in no small part to the weather, and main stage (in democratic fashion there wasn’t what might be termed a ‘main stage’, but Jabberwocky was the largest outdoor space and it held all the recognisable acts) artists Jo Mango and De Rosa attracted only modest crowds. The latter were well-suited to the situation, an understated but hugely emotive indie-rock experience. Yet many chose instead to crowd into the tent hosting Glasgow’s Bass Warrior soundsystem for some deep and bass-heavy reggae grooves, in a tent with an all-purpose seated ‘manger’ at the back and the darkened feel of a late-night club.
Highlights elsewhere included indoor indie-acoustic folksiness from Howie Reeve early in the day, with revered contemporary folk musician Richard Dawson talking to the same stage later. Hailing from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Dawson appeared in resolutely unstagey fashion, wearing a shaggy beardy and slouchy jacket, and belted out a heart-stoppingly raw a cappella song. Then the jacket came off and he strapped on a beaten-up miniature guitar, battering out a raw and dexterous riff which was noisily amplified; his set is like no other, raw and authentic and exciting.
Back on the ‘main’ stage, singer-songwriter Rozi Plain and her band powered through an hour of fun, sugary psych-pop, before Mercury Prize-nominated singer-songwriter C Duncan and his band played before a filled-out audience which included a bunch of their parents, once more demonstrating the family-friendliness of the event.
Admiral Fallow headlined the day, with – after time of writing – American singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis and boundary-pressing Welsh pop composer Cate Le bon scheduled for the Sunday. Yet the joys of Doune the Rabbit Hole were to be found in all shapes and sizes, including the all-ages Glad Community Choir playing a medley of Bowie hits, including a version of Starman which inspired a feverish singalong, and the Upjumped Brass Band delivering a set rich in jazz influences. Something for everyone was here, at a festival characterised by fun, family-friendliness, and not so much by the rain after all.