FESTIVAL REPORT: Howlin’ Fling
Susan Le May , August 2nd, 2014
Susan Le May heads up north and then further north for the Howlin’ Fling, one of the UK’s most remote festivals
“It’s been a difficult year,” exhales Johnny Lynch, as sweat, rain and glitter sparkle around his bright blue eyes. Relief and exhaustion are palpable as Away Game By Another Name hits the midway point. There have been dramas, and the heavens have opened for the foreseeable future, but we’re all here and it’s sold out and everyone is having a magical, Lost weekend.
It’s been roughly a year since Lynch and Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote, finally fell out for good, with Lynch leaving the Fence label he had dedicated the past decade to building up, and launching his own Lost Map Records, with many of the acts signed to the original label sticking with their guy. The inaugural Howlin’ Fling is in full swing, and it is everything and more that it had hoped to be.
The trip to the stunning, largely self-sufficient Hebridean Isle of Eigg, which Lynch co-owns with less than 100 other residents, takes in one of the most beautiful journeys in the British Isles. The train snakes through the Highlands, whirring by mountains, shimmering lochs and the unmistakable flora of the west coast. The carriages dance over the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct, through quaint Victorian stations bathed in ever-changing Scottish light.
A chartered ferry carries you from the mainland, gliding through the still sea. Sunlight sparkles on the water and dolphins and porpoises leap alongside the cosy craft.
The beacon of an Sgurr, Eigg’s volcanic monolith, is framed by a brilliant blue sky and pristine sandy shores. As the boat pulls in Johnny Lynch is waiting to greet us as we pile on to his idyllic home; artists and punters alike form part of the human baggage chain to unload the vessel.
Guests snake across rough tracks and foliage-lined canopies, lugging booze over burns with slippery stepping stones that prove trickier as the night progresses. The campsite perches over the beach, amongst the grazing sheep, with the cuillins of Rum a breathtaking view to wake to and the oystercatcher’s rhythmic peep a soothing lullaby as the sun rises in the wee small hours.
Lynch has gathered his heroes and influences, as well as his new label’s hopefuls. Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor woos the Ceilidh Hall early on, before earth mother Beth Orton glides in to the marquee, complete with children and husband/musician Sam Amidon in tow. The breezy folk-pop draws a good crowd, with mid/late-90s hits ‘Central Reservation’ and ‘She Cries Your Name’ proving most popular.
Next in the hall are Julie, Michael and multi-band member Susan – Lost Map’s young pop punk trio Tuff Love, who strip it down with the sound of mid-90s summers and mucking about with your pals, all Breeders-esque harmonies and fuzz-grunge guitars.
But this night belongs to Steve Mason in the pink and blue tent, and his set doesn’t skip a beat, from opener ‘Lost And Found’ through to call to arms closer ‘Fight Them Back’. Though not directly a part of the original Fence collective, Mason as frontman for the Beta Band was always on the fringes of the Fife/St Andrews crowd. The hipsters and city kids are hitting it hard on their Friday night in the wilderness with more than ‘A Lot Of Love’ for his inimitable style. Mason is centre stage in the marquee and completely on form through ‘Am I Just A Man’, ‘Boys Outside’ and the rousing ‘Fire’.
Then it’s back to the hall to squeeze all members of Randolph’s Leap on to the stage – time to dance and get messier on the ‘Isle Of Love’. The nature-laden ‘Hermit’ is a particular highlight of the set, proving this eight-piece behemoth is going from strength to strength.
We’re eased into the afternoon after the night before with the ambient sounds of WOLF, before a beautifully gentle, lo-fi set from Canada’s Woodpigeon, complete with Woodpigeon vs eagleowl collaboration – the two acts intrinsically linked and Bart Owl also intertwined with the Fence/Lost Map story.
Has anyone seen Seamus Fogarty? He breaks hearts with his traditional Irish folk drawl and solemn tales of human tragedy. He is also capable of disappearing into the night under a vast blanket of booze, with the clarity of Finnegan struggling with his own wake.
Next to take to the tent is the main man himself under The Pictish Trail persona, beer can in hand and beefed up by band, including Tuff Love’s supercool Suse and a guitarist with perfect rock-whip hair action. Lynch’s disciples are enraptured by his strangely joyous Secret Soundz and their live steroid boost, as well as the inclusion of some Silver Columns electro. He shows his unmistakable talent as a musician and songwriter, but it’s also the chance to say thanks to his invaluable support team, before the immense ear-bursting sounds of The Phantom Band’s pounding ‘The Wind That Cried The World’.
Rick (Redbeard) Anthony and his gang have had a terrible time in the past few days despite the acclaim for their recently released third record Strange Friend. Their gear was stolen down south and their van died en route, but tonight they are bold and brilliant and are clearly heartened by this reception, with mile-wide smiles from drummer Iain Stewart and daring drunkrobatics from he and Anthony.
Over to Kid Canaveral, whose playful pop is always near perfection, with or without a skinful. How Lost Map lynchpin Kate Lazda manages to perform at this time on a Saturday night after buzzing about for days (weeks) is a modern miracle. The group is understandably fatigued, tonight and in the wider sense, with a third album yet to be penned. But to the crowd in the hall, David MacGregor and Co’s tunes are the injection of indie pop we need to bounce and cheer and power through, the infectious hooks of ‘And Another Thing!’ and ‘Who Would Want To Be Loved’ keeping us going. And if you were still standing by Monoganon’s 4am outing, then serious kudos to you.
Sunday sees the stirring sounds of local musicians Gabe McVarish and Griogair Labhruaidh, much to the delight of the babies tied to their mothers on the breastfeeding bench at the back. Flax seed snacks are shared round by ladies in walking boots, and the Woman Who Took Photos of Everything carries on snapping.
As they prepare to disband, Mersault give it their all, an air of sadness regarding their imminent, permanent departure, before the inimitable RM Hubbert finally arrives on the island. Having missed his ferry (not his fault he insists) and his early afternoon slot, the rescheduling to the last act of the festival feels appropriate.
He is of course worth the wait and in absolutely top of his game form. It doesn’t matter that the PA is possessed with the spirit of a thousand bumblebees, it’s the patter that really matters for Hubby’s shows, with everyone in stitches one minute (‘Buckstacy’, ‘Dec 11’) and dabbing their eyes the next (‘For Joe’). With just one pair of hands and a voice there are notes from nowhere and palm-beats to boost – what that man can do with a guitar and his digits is second to none. As he too prepares to hunker down and write (a follow up to the highly acclaimed Ampersand Trilogy), he signs off with a cover of Daniel Johnston’s ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’. What’s next for RM Hubbert both intrigues and excites, but tonight he’s opened himself up to a largely new audience, and unsurprisingly has charmed their hearts.
The traditional beach bonfire gives way to the weary despite a largely dry day. Lynch is too spent and understandably so. The Phantom Band’s Andy Wake puts on the Beta Band’s ‘Dry The Rain’ and the tent disco proves a fair runner up, continuing the merry chaos that went before.
Lynch has undone the shackles of his past, now the commander in charge of his own army. Some devotees are fully versed on his history, old Home and Awaygamers and Fence fans, while others are new to the party (but no less dedicated). Many came from London and surrounds, and Edinburgh, St Andrews, Glasgow, abroad; but we were all the same here, welcomed in with open arms for our willing ears.
The Pictish Trail is not averse to hard graft and it has clearly paid off. He’s got a real house going up on the island to replace the caravan, and there’s always the possibility of mini Picts on the horizon. Things look just fine without Fence and he and former top music journo, partner Sarah Boden (who has returned to her sheep farming roots on the island), are doing great. They handled a leak that stopped all water to the island, a 12-hour rain interruption, and mud-induced broken bones. The first Fling has flung, but almost certainly not for the last time.