ASK anyone who’s been and they’ll tell you, Loopallu is a special festival.
Take a handful of populist big names (this year’s headliners are The Enemy and Newton Faulkner), add some folksy Highland talent and a number of promising new bands, multiply by the stunning setting on the edge of Loch Broom and the array of fringe events in local bars and hotels which turn the entire town into a late-night festival venue, and you have an event which offers more than the sum of its parts for locals and especially for inquisitive cultural tourists.
For a festival with such a solidly mainstream bent, its origins are unlikely. “I took inspiration from the Bowlie Weekender,” says promoter Robert Hicks, referring to Belle & Sebastian’s 1999 self-curated event which would spawn the All Tomorrow’s Parties series of events. “That was at Camber Sands [in Sussex] and they took over a whole holiday park. Ullapool’s a bit like that too, it’s big enough to take an influx of people but small enough to feel intimate.”
It seems strange for an event which has subsequently welcomed high-calibre artists like Mumford & Sons, Franz Ferdinand and Paolo Nutini to the headline slot, but the original 2005 edition of Loopallu was actually a vehicle for headlining bluegrass rockers Hayseed Dixie. The on-air patronage of BBC Radio 2’s Janice Long would help as well as the band’s involvement, says Hicks, but by the Hayseeds’ return appearance in 2006 it became obvious that the festival had a life of its own.
“The town has been bigger than any band in Loopallu’s success, the welcome that’s offered every year,” says Hicks, who promotes gigs across the Highlands and co-owns Inverness’s Ironworks venue. “Most years it’s actually the headline acts who approach me because they’ve heard good things about us, even when they could be playing bigger shows for more money. We’re very flattered it’s caught people’s imagination. Everything on paper says this shouldn’t work, that it’s in the north-west of Scotland and in September, but I think people appreciate the sense of escapism and adventure that brings.”
Besides the headliners, Hicks picks out Roddy Hart as one of the artists he’s keen to see this year, not least because he released his new album over the summer.
“I’m also really excited by The Temperance Movement,” he says. “It feels like they’ve come out of nowhere, even though Phil Campbell has had a career as a singer-songwriter for a while. We’ve also had a huge public response to Reef coming, although they’re approaching their 20th year as a band.
“That makes me feel old, but the excitement has gone off the scale for them.” • Loopallu will take place in various venues around Ullapool, 20-21 September. www.loopallu.co.uk