Saturday got underway in earnest with RM Hubbert on the main stage; I arrive, a little late, to him announcing: “Radio One won’t play pop songs about depression…”
He describes ‘Bolt’ as a more upbeat number (facetiously described as his attempt to get mainstream radio plays), but it is followed by what, in his own words, is a sad song.
He dedicates it to his late father-in-law who he reveals had a major influence on his own life, relating that loss to the loss that the festival has been enduring this year.
It’s a beautiful sentiment, one reflected by Hubbert’s sensitive and gentle mastery of the fret-board, and only reaffirms why Hubbert, a previous SAY award winner, is such a gift to the Scottish music scene.
The set ends with ‘Car Song’, where Hubbert is normally accompanied by Aidan Moffat (who he guesses is still in bed); what I find surprising is how vocally similar the two are – as when he sings Moffat’s part, it really is uncanny.
Withered Hand is an artist who I have not seen live in some time – in fact it was just before he released his first album, Good News, in 2008 that I was engrossed by his live performance.
It was, therefore, with much excitement that I made my way towards the Scooter tent, only to find he was already half-way through his second song (it turned out that all the acts for Saturday had been brought forward 15 minutes to allow for the Wickerman Burning at midnight – making all our schedules incorrect).
Third song in he plays ‘New Dawn’, an imposing and up-tempo number that begins to stir the crowd.
Wearing a trucker cap, with a Black Sabbath T-shirt, it’s clear Withered Hand has gone through a bit of a change since last seeing him.
Brimming with confidence and heading a tight, five-piece band the new dynamic has introduced greater complexity and ambition from his older writing.
A good example of this is ‘Love in the time of Ecstasy’, where the slow, solo build up gradually builds to glorious cacophony integrating the plethora of sound that the five can produce.
It feels like a different song in this context, an upbeat gospel-inspired song that bares some resemblance to The Eels live version of ‘Climbing to the Moon’.
After a huge response from a now full Scooter tent, we are introduced to a newer track, ‘Horseshoe’, followed by original break-through hit, ‘Religious Songs’ (dedicated to all the Pagans on site).
The song order alone shows how far Withered Hand has come, his stagecraft is considered and routinely accessible.
This sometimes seems to feel almost at odds with the original awkward, theological and sexually obsessed roots of the material – lines such as “I beat myself off when I sleep on your Futon,” are now sung like proud anthems of personal revelation by a devout group of fans; in short it all works wonderfully.
Mere moments from the Scooter tent, Emma Pollock takes the stage in the Phoenix tent – 15 minutes early of course.
She admits that this was a bit of a homecoming as she had lived in Castle Douglas for six years and completed her sixth year of school at Kirkcudbright Academy.
The surrounds are somewhat distant from her spiraling, sun-drenched Californian sound, and despite being in a dark tent, the weather seems to be obliging, bestowing some golden shafts through the open spaces of the tent.
The stand out track in the set is ‘Red Orange Green’, which she plays shortly after introducing her new backing drummer.
Generating excitement on the Summerisle stage, Neneh Cherry seems ready to capitalise on the improved weather conditions.
Her Saturday evening starts with some poetry, as she floats onto the stage, immaculately presented, easily winning the award for best shoes on show.
She decides not to reflect the clement weather, plunging straight into ‘Blank Project’, a dark, moody track, seemingly inspired by elements of contemporary German sound and production, typical of her new approach to music.
It’s hard to fault, her movements are perfectly timed to the bass-driven percussive elements and it immediately sends a signal to the crowd – this will not be an exercise in 90s synth pop nostalgia; quite right.
Despite thoughtfully enjoying Neneh Cherry’s set – it felt as though we had been denied some upbeat, sunny festival vibes.
It was a fleeting concern as next up on the main stage is Jimmy Cliff.
Needing no introduction, and before he even arrives, the Summerilse stage is as busy as I have ever seen it.
The crowd eagerly anticipates Cliff’s arrival and he does not disappoint.
Soon into his set, ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ lifts the atmosphere and hordes of people are up and dancing – providing an upbeat festival sound, a sound which Cliff provides with suitable aplomb and the audience welcome with joyous revelry.
Hit after hit surge festival goers into action – not since Chic played two years ago have I witnessed such an optimism in a Wickerman crowd and by the time he finishes with the eternally enlivening ‘Wonderful World, Beautiful People’ spirits have well and truly been lifted.
Sharing a similar trajectory as WHITE, who entertained on the previous night, C Duncan is currently riding high on a wave of promise.
Unlike WHITE he has a lot of songs (a product of a very busy year) to draw upon; the twenty five year old Glaswegian is becoming a radio favourite and he fills the small Solus tent within minutes.
His magnetism is evidenced in opening song ‘Far’, a steady, lilting sound, accompanied by whistling harmonies that immediately reminds me of Sufjan Stevens early album Seven Swans.
In recording, the soloist has a multi-layered approach and live, in the tailored confines of the tent, he manages to reproduce it with a well-rehearsed group.
His sound is full of craft and intrigue, during ‘Here to There’ he manages to get a very excited (and lubricated) Blochestra to kick off with contagious dancing.
He finishes on a high, with the singular Garden’, particularly impressive.
C Duncan has a well-developed and distinctive sound – and undoubtedly shines as one of the big hits of this year’s Wickerman.
For the final act of the festival I decided to avoid main stage headliners Example and DJ Wire in favour of fierce Glasgow five-piece Outblinker in the Solus tent.
They, like Ubre Blanca the night before, deal exclusively in sustained, immersive instrumentals and I was excited to see them, as a few weeks earlier I had documented a live session with them and was eager to refamiliarise myself with their live output.
They do not disappoint – opening with ‘Pink’, they demonstrate tight intricacy with assailing blasts.
They are a collective of some very talented musicians and they power though their (regrettably short) set goading the crowd’s excitement for the Wickerman Burning.
I feel however, as I felt to a certain extent with Ubre Blanca, that this type of sound doesn’t lend itself well to a short (30 minute) set in a festival environment.
Their music is long and enveloping, demanding attention – definitely one to check out in a dark, beer-stained venue!
The festival ends with the annual burning of the Wickerman; as always the firework display is outstanding, although unlike previous years the organisers had decided to leave the main stage empty forgoing acts like Public Service Broadcast and Utah Saints who had played that slot before.
Overall, the festival is a hit for me; I’ve always thought that the smaller tents of this festival had more fascination, showing a more esoteric breadth of talent than the main stage and with the addition of the Pheonix tent it felt like another step forward in this respect.
Problems with the scheduling and weaker Summerisle acts can be easily fixed for next year, and I am convinced that these issues are in part influenced by the trauma the organisers have had to undergo this year.
Next year the Wickerman will be entering its fifteenth year, and I believe that after this year of transition, the long-term improvements will be felt, and enjoyed by larger numbers than ever.
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Words/Photos: Gordon Ballantyne