Most people take a plane to the Ullapool guitar festival, yet the romantic idea of traveling up the English and Scottish east coast by train seemed pretty cool to me, so I took the land option. Sadly passing beautiful countryside at what seems like the speed of light for almost ten hours isn’t all that fulfilling, so I can’t claim that the countryside was enough – the journey was pretty painful. The on-board bar was my saviour in sedating me enough to forget how long this journey truly was, and to help pretend the tweets and text messages from fellow guitarists arriving at inverness airport five hours before me was not real. I had to change trains at Edinburgh and head to Inverness, this is where the real frustration and fatigue set in – I was actually beginning to believe I would never arrive. It was pitch dark, my only concept of where I was, was based on the sat nav on my phone. I was confused and irritated. Where was I?
I arrived at Inverness to be greeted by guitarist and friend Will McNicol, I was disorientated to the point where I couldn’t actually grasp why Will was at the train station! The welcoming Scottish gentlemen who was picking us up tried to shed light on our movements but in all honesty nothing was really making much sense. Clive Carroll then appeared wielding his guitar, this seemed equally surreal and I was feeling as if I was about to be dragged into a remake of a cult 70s TV series. We piled into a mini bus and began our final leg of the journey to Ullapool. We drove for about an hour, as well as stopping at the airport to pick up an audience member – we talked all the way. By this point I was finding my feet as a human being, but really needed reassurance that my now 11-hour journey for a 35-minute slot was worth it. Clive, in particular, had been coming to the festival since it began. Stories of John Renbourn and late night jams, fine ales and friends were comforting. He also told me Ullapool was one of the most beautiful places on earth. A true mecca for guitarists, perhaps?
The next morning everything changed, I was experiencing a real moment of enlightenment. I had arrived yesterday in the dark, and even though I knew I was to be surrounded by stunning scenes, I hadn’t quiet grasped the extent and impact of the surrounding beauty, atmosphere and ethos. After taking a walk along the shoreline – which was about ten meters from the hotel door – I engulfed the most amazing breakfast formed from locally made goods. Completely inspired by what I can only express as one of the most beautiful places in the UK (Clive was very right!) I began walking up to the venue for my soundcheck. A lady staying in the same hotel pulled up in her car beside me and offered me a lift up. By this point I actually felt like Ullapool was actually hugging me! I had gone from being an embittered homesick train-lagged (if that’s possible!) gremlin of a human to someone who had been turned into a submissive guitar-wielding kitten by the warmth and friendliness of Ullapool as a place, the people, and the visiting guitar festival-goers!
The festival venue is a school and there is no other way of dressing it up, but the organisers don’t try. On reflection, it does seem a little strange, but when you’re there it just works – this event is about music and enjoyment only – it’s that simple. The entrance hall is essentially a trade show, but Ullapool-style, which means it’s going to be welcoming and friendly (if my short Ullapool experience is anything to go by). Two handfuls of incredible guitar makers, chatting, smiling and enjoying watching all types of players starting impromptu jams on their incredible instruments. The main hall, where my performance was that morning, is a theatre with tiered seating, the stage boasting a huge screen and PA. Things were a little behind schedule that morning, so I began my warm up routine in the dressing room (classroom?) a little earlier. When I say warm up I really mean: “try to deal with extreme self doubt!” Fortunately for me, several players were buzzing around and warming up, too – they were interested, friendly and supportive. Exactly the kind of people I needed! I had been hiding in the dressing room too long, I headed out of my hiding hole and was greeted by a queue forming for the theatre – a big and bustling cue, people hungry for music…
I walked on stage. I danced about, I smiled, I performed – I felt the audience was my friend, the other artists were my friends, in my head everyone in Ullapool was my friend at this point. The reaction was great and I left the stage feeling appreciated and very welcomed.
I spent the next few hours in the theatre. On the schedule were Tristan Seume, Jimmy Wahlsteen, John Goldie, and Remi Harris Trio. All fine players and very, very different – it was a true pleasure. There were so many truly incredible performances throughout the whole weekend!
Once the concerts had finished it struck me my ears were exhausted, so I headed into the town with two fine guitarists – Will McNicol and Elliott Morris – for scallops and chips. The perfect snack for refreshing your ears, if you come here make sure you do the same (and be sure to sit by the lough).
The evening concert was Clive Carroll, Jan Akkerman and John Smith, a real mix of players and worth noting not just instrumental guitarists too. The audience reacted as they did throughout the whole weekend – positively, respectfully and excitedly. John left the stage at 11pm and the audience clearly weren’t ready to leave!
Then what seemed like the entire theatre headed down to the Arc, where I was staying, and where the festival late night party takes place each evening. There is a back room where there are continuous performances and impromptu jams from the world’s finest players whilst the main bar is a mix of festival folk and locals. The atmosphere here is like a family. Someone described this as the heart of the festival – it really is. What is truly incredible is the majority of people are eagerly and respectfully listening to every note being played in the back room, it’s understandable when you have Clive Carroll and John Smith playing world-class music. After a good six hours of listening (and bearing in mind this carries on until four in the morning) you can start to see that the Ullapool crowd is a very special bunch! I have never witnessed such a large group of people so hungry for music and willing to listen for so long.
The next day I began with a workshop at 10am. Tristan, Will, and I, all due to give workshops, decided to pull together and jointly deliver. We asked the workshop attendees what they wanted to learn. A few expressed, looking directly at me: “none of that tapping stuff.” Several others nodded in agreement which in reality cut pretty deep – I felt there was some kind of mutiny going on! An Elton John-style hissy fit was about to rear its head. Fortunately, many of the workshop attendees were fascinated by more exotic techniques and were keen for a healthy dose of that “tapping stuff” – my ego was finally restored to its former self when the entire workshop kindly became very engaged in as I delivered my section of the workshop. Joking aside, this was all pretty symbolic of the festival. Three very different guitarists delivering a workshop to a room of very different players. This festival is as much a mix as the music is.
The guitar transcends almost all genres of music, and so does the audience here. This audience is a collective, a dedicated mix of people who embark on an epic journey to one of the most glorious places in the UK, to listen to music. The guitar is the focus, a focus that represents variety and revolution. There is a feeling of festivity, there is feeling that somehow you are all in it together – artists and listeners. It seems like a pilgrimage, a journey that when you do it you will wonder why you hadn’t before.
The organisers schedule a mix of guitarists and the audience welcomes all variety. The Ullapool audience is committed and hungry for musical experience like no other. Did I mention the beer is also good? Make sure you go to Ullapool guitar festival, but when you do, make sure you fly!
See Chris’ latest video, below.