INVERARAY CASTLE, ARGYLL
Winning recipe: mud, the man in brown and music
CONNECT - FRIDAY
IT SAYS much for the masochistic and eventually even dehumanising experience of attending a music festival that the first familiar sight, on the first day of the first ever Connect, was mud. A 30-minute trek along a forest path of it, to be precise, from car park to campsite. "Nearly there," promised a bright-and-breezy hand-painted board installed along the route by the organisers; by Sunday this had been kicked over and daubed with the word "LIES" in wet soil.
Still, we wouldn't be the Great British festival-going public without an in-built tolerance for such setbacks, and few complaints were heard as the crowds filtered into the stunning site. Set in the grounds of Inveraray Castle, Connect is hemmed in by thickly wooded hills to the north, Loch Fyne to the south and the village of Inveraray to the west. It's indisputably beautiful.
Run by the same team that do T in the Park (although accurately aimed at the slightly older music fan and refreshingly free of its big cousin's usual contingent of sun-pickled, shirt-off beer monsters), Connect's bill was expertly picked. Despite the presence of The Go! Team, Amy Macdonald, The Aliens and Aereogramme (playing their last ever show) across two outdoor stages and a large tent, Friday night's bill on the main Oyster Stage - built into a natural amphitheatre sloping away from the castle - offered the most impressively concentrated array of talent over the weekend.
First, 2007's festival stalwarts CSS kicked things up a gear around teatime, with singer Lovefoxxx rubbing in the existence of backstage dressing rooms just a little in an immaculate, rainbow-sequinned catsuit.
"Look at us", yelled the little Brazilian, "we love Scotland!" Another satisfied customer.
Then came the much more astutely attired Jarvis Cocker with, as ever, just the right words for the occasion. "Johnny Cash was the Man in Black because he said he'd wear white when the world was pure," he said. "I'm the Man in Brown 'cos the world's shit." Then he gave us the magnificent Running the World and an impromptu closing cover of The Skids' Into the Valley, perhaps having underestimated the distance between Inveraray and Dunfermline.
The recently reconvened Jesus and Mary Chain were a revelation, although not - as many may have secretly hoped - because they started a riot and stormed off trading blows after 15 minutes just for old times' sake. No, their "Best Of" set was raggedly professional, offering up the eternally great Just Like Honey and Some Candy Talking, a mind-bending cover of Syd Barrett's Vegetable Man and the perfectly cathartic Reverence, with its catchy chorus line of "I wanna die" repeated ad nauseam. Whether you hung around for the Beastie Boys' bright, all-action show or headed across-site to enjoy the more poppily pastoral Super Furry Animals, the J&MC experience would have already satisfied many.
Gold sequins and festivals - a perfect match
CONNECT - SATURDAY
HAVING tolerated the drizzle-afflicted campsite for the first night and retired to the incredible food tents to sample local oysters, salmon or lamb washed down with Champagne and real ale (yes, really), it soon dawned that it was possible to navigate Saturday's bill without acknowledging the existence of any non-Scottish music, should you feel so inclined.
On the main stage, the bracing power-pop of Glasgow's 1990s bled into the short, sharp post-punk shock of Edinburgh's Fire Engines. After a quick detour to investigate the sound of the Mercury-nominated Bat For Lashes (like Bjrk covering Cat Power, and really rather good), the afternoon allowed for some talent-spotting. Impressive Edinburgh house-rockers X-Vectors drew a large and appreciative crowd in the Manicured Noise tent, while the novelty factor of Glasgow's Parsonage Choir - a dozens-strong amateur vocal outfit who perform almost ecclesiastical versions of Ring of Fire and Love Will Tear Us Apart - didn't detract from their perfectly upbeat simplicity.
While Teenage Fanclub played on the Oyster Stage, the ever-glamorous (gold sequins and festivals are a perfect match, it seems) Sons and Daughters showcased some great new material on the Guitars and Other Machines Stage, including a phenomenal version of Adamski and Seal's Killer for guitars and drums, and possibly the first ever psych-glam-rockabilly track in history, Goodbye Service.
As the mist-like rain - the weekend's only real adverse weather - began in earnest, the Oyster Stage's two top-billed acts provided solace. In Mogwai's case, they were just so dependably epic amid this grand setting that the weather was almost a cinematic afterthought.
With Primal Scream, however, we were dragged roughly towards revelry by the sheer noisy force of their set.
Within two songs, bassist Mani had threatened to cause bodily harm to whoever launched a pint at him with some force, and by the end the band had moved past all the dirty electro-rock into proudly unveiled versions of little-played anthems Loaded and Moving On Up.
Despite the rapidly dissolving ground underfoot, Connect 2007 was proving to be singularly satisfying.
CONNECT - SUNDAY
BY SUNDAY, much of the natural beauty of the Connect site had been churned to that particularly glutinous type of mud which claims the wellies of those who linger when they should be powering onwards. But at least the Scottish water torture of relentless drizzle had wrung itself out overnight and the sun poked through on occasion.
The relatively civilised haven of the Circuses & Bread field was populated with the battle-weary seeking sustenance from the gourmet mess tent, which was serving festival food so fresh, well-made and delicious one had to wonder what the catch was. (Oysters slurped straight from the shells, hot smoked salmon rolls and mussels in a creamy soup, since you ask.) The organisers of Connect may not have been able to control the weather, but they knew how to sweeten the pill of a post-apocalyptic campsite, even for those who could not afford any of the various bespoke camping options.
However, mud has a habit of cleaving to everything. The giant Connect 4 in the Speakeasy Caf was looking the worse for wear, and the atmosphere in this spoken-word den was more dazed and confused than bohemian and urbane. The Champagne Bar retained some decadence and glamour from the waist up, while the high-rollers could pretend they were in Vegas, baby at the eponymous club's all-day event in the small and rather stuffy Unknown Pleasures Tent.
Scouse chanteuse Candie Payne provided a suitable Sunday-afternoon comedown soundtrack in the Manicured Noise Tent. Although this newcomer still lacks a commanding stage presence, her porcelain reproduction of slinky, seductive 1960s pop was serene and soothing.
Over on the main Oyster Stage, the sun was emphatically out for the duration of Craig Armstrong's set. Scotland's musical renaissance man - he has been teenage jazz musician, twentysomething rock guitarist and now makes a buck or two scoring Hollywood soundtracks - was one of the most successful artists on the bill, yet remained a mystery to most of the Connect audience. We were no further enlightened by the end of his set, which oscillated between anaemic chill-out trip-hop with vocal cooing and Jean Michel Jarre-style synth compositions. An inoffensive soundtrack for sore heads, but a far from arresting performance.
In complete contrast, Regina Spektor held a busy main arena in the palm of her hand from her opening a cappella piece to her closing ode to the Ghost of Corporate Future. It is a joy to have witnessed this idiosyncratic singer/songwriter's promotion from professional coffee-house kookster to bona-fide main-stage attraction. Her influence on lesser mortals such as Kate Nash is evident, but there's only one Regina. And she was even showing festival solidarity by wearing patterned wellies.
The full extent of festival wear and tear became evident during MIA's set. While she pranced around in her stripey tights, braying along with her homegirl in the comedy leggings, sections of the audience who, on Friday, were sane, functioning members of society smeared mud on each other's faces and vented their inner pagan warrior. Respect to her, however, for managing to be thoroughly entertaining and for getting away with inciting a full-on stage invasion at the end of her set, thereby ensuring she was the only act of the day to cram more people on stage than The Polyphonic Spree.
It was a triumphant return to these shores for the Texan symphonic rockers, who slayed the Guitars & Other Machines Stage at the far end of the site. With 22 musicians and singers on stage giving it their all, they didn't have to try too hard for impact, but they also had the songs to keep up the energy levels. Somehow they maintained discipline amid potential chaos - the six-strong choir of hip valkyries were more streamlined than before, although frontman Tim DeLaughter hasn't lost that air of potential dementia. They showcased the rockier songs from their new album The Fragile Army and the utilitarian outfits to match before nipping offstage to change into their trademark robes for the second half of the set.
There were more robes back on the main stage, courtesy of Bjrk and her Icelandic colliery brass band, but the overall atmosphere was more reverential than celebratory. Bjrk has always indulged herself and this set, the most eagerly awaited of the weekend, was no different. Former singles such as Jga, Army of Me and Hyperballad were eaten up voraciously but she obviously favoured her more recent, tune-free material. At least the tribal incantations of Earth Invaders and Declare Independence cut through the indulgence, and the visual spectacle was second to none.
LCD Soundsystem had their work cut out for them following the star turn, and their monotonous, derivative electronica failed to provide the party flourish which would really have rounded off the inaugural Connect festival in the style it deserved. Let's do it all over again next year - with more harm reduction efforts to counteract the mud, please.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 9 mph
Wind direction: South
Temperature: 6 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west