The Insider

21 Jun 2012 in Festival, Highland, Music, Showcase

Inshriach Estate, by Aviemore, 15-17 June 2012

GIVEN that the concept of combining music and sport was partly what put paid to the Outsider festival – inadvertent parent to the contrastingly bijou and successful Insider – back in 2009, the Olympic theme at this year’s fourth Insider might have seemed somewhat foolhardy, had it not been an exercise in the purest tomfoolery from the outset.

CHEEKILY stealing a march on the just-launched London 2012 arts festival, the Insider Olympiad (“featuring possibly as many as none of the world’s finest athletes, sportsmen and celebrities”) followed on from 2011’s Victorian motif as an open invitation for its sellout 1,000-strong crowd to join in the fun and games, by decking themselves out in all manner of sporting attire, and entering the customised track-and-field programme that ran alongside the music.

Rachel Sermanni

Rachel Sermanni

Among the outfits and accessories on display were full Nordic skiing gear (including the skis), water wings (worn over waterproofs), country tweeds, a preponderance of headbands, home-made medals and football-supporters’ wigs, lots of inappropriately figure-hugging Lycra and an array of the sleaziest, shiniest tracksuits ever to clash with the surrounding Speyside scenery. Giant-size white capital letters (borrowed from the previous weekend’s RockNess festivities) spelled out CONKERS at the site’s highest point, and while seasonal shortages actually precluded that particular pastime, the adjoining miniature football pitch (aka the Insider Stadium) hosted others that ranged from cabbage juggling to a brass vs percussion team obstacle race, which required competitors to keep playing their instruments as they negotiated the course.

Saturday’s official opening ceremony cast Insider co-director Gordon Reilly as Boris Johnson (complete with rakishly askew shaggy hairpiece) launching such events as the weekend-long, audience-wide relay race and the three-legged bar crawl, before the lighting of an Olympic flame that seemed to be greeted with rather more enthusiasm than the real one was in many quarters.

While the damp, chilly weather tested the assembled Olympians’ mettle somewhat, it turned out considerably less wet than forecast, and as ever brought out that extra determination to party which frequently characterises Highland festivals. And as an escape from the drizzle, there could be few more tempting options than the pop-up version – housed in a yurt, warmed by a wood-burning stove – of the Gardener’s Cottage restaurant, shortly to open in Edinburgh, which was serving a delectable yet bargain-priced four-course menu, with matching wines, twice daily throughout the weekend: surely one of the finest festival dining experiences to be had anywhere. Not that your bog-standard burger van was the only alternative – far from it. Wood-fired pizzas, hand-made ice-cream, wholefood platters and home-made cakes were the order of the day, washed down with local craft beers and malt whiskies – all in keeping with the non-corporate emphasis on all-round quality enjoyment for which the Insider is already so widely renowned.

Admiral Fallow

Admiral Fallow

And nowhere was this more in evidence than in the line-up, which must surely have been the envy of many much larger events, thanks in part to the word-of-mouth the festival has generated among Scotland’s musicians as the hot date of the summer. From high-profile post-rock/indie-folk headliners like the Phantom Band and Admiral Fallow to the beautifully lyrical traditional and contemporary balladry of Alistair Ogilvy; from the thrillingly eloquent, richly musical hip-hop of Stanley Odd to the 11-piece swing extravaganza of the Loveboat Big Band; from self-styled “extreme funk” combo Federation of the Disco Pimp to the bewitching voice and songcraft of Rachel Sermanni, the programming ranged boldly but always discerningly across genres and style tribes. The same cross-section was winningly reflected by the boutique-sized but uniquely diverse crowd, all of whom felt like each other’s pals by the time Monday morning dawned around the final campfire.

Never less than memorable, the Loveboat crew played possibly the best gig of their career to date – it was certainly their first to witness crowdsurfing – playing up to both halves of their name with a mix of nautical-themed classics and amorous anthems, dividing the crowd between those dancing their socks off and couples getting seriously misty-eyed with one another. Admiral Andy Thorburn, at the piano, was on his second gig of the day, after a brilliantly freewheeling set with maverick folk five-piece Babelfish, whose restlessly inventive instrumentals were stirringly complemented by Jock Urquhart’s eloquent, uplifting spoken-word interludes.

Babelfish fiddler Adam Sutherland was also on double duty, later appearing with Session A9 to close out the main stage in suitably euphoric style, while Louis Abbott of the aforementioned Admiral Fallow – ahead of their garishly Spandexed Sunday-night slot – popped up at the helm of Blochestra, a specially-convened, 17-strong collective drawn from his weekly open-mike night at Bar Bloc in Glasgow, who performed some richly diverse original songs before a deliciously dirty cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya”.

Friday highlights encompassed another blistering set from folk power-quartet Kan, an unexpected treat in the shape of tribute band par excellence The Paul Simon Experience, and the finest of folk-laced grooves from DJ Dolphin Boy. If the 12-week London 2012 behemoth includes anything as gorgeously cherishable as the Insider weekend, it’ll be scoring in the gold-medal class.

© Sue Wilson, 2012