There was something for everyone at GONORTH, the Inverness conference and artist showcase now in its 11th year.
For unsigned musicians, the daytime seminars and workshop sessions offered a chance to learn a thing or two about how the modern industry functions – positive and negative – and pass on demo CDs (unfortunately they haven’t yet been replaced by USB sticks in the physical world) to people who might be able to further their careers.
For music fans, the evening schedule presented dozens of live acts for free across nine locations. While my initial thought was that having so many bills running at exactly the same time seemed a bit ill-considered, the ultra-compact layout of Inverness town centre made venue-hopping an absolute doddle, with no two points more than five minutes from one another on foot.
Since the Thursday showcase at Flames featuring Kid Canaveral, PAWS, LightGuides and Indian Red Lopez was curated by me, Peenko and Song, By Toad, there’s no way I could expect you to trust the impartiality of anything I write about it, so I’ll just say that it was probably the most absorbing four-band bill of Scottish talent I’ve ever witnessed and leave it at that. It’s such a buzz to see bands who don’t need reminding they’re in the entertainment business.
There wasn’t really any inclination to leave Flames but I did venture across the road to the Ramada Encore hotel to catch the last 10 minutes of Panda Su and meet Luke Joyce aka I Build Collapsible Mountains for the first time, both highly enjoyable experiences.
The seminars I attended were a mixed bag. A lot of the topics covered the same ground that Wide Days did in April so, personally, I didn’t get as much out of them as I would have hoped. A recurring theme was the difficult balancing act between the commercial and creative worlds. During the Modern Management panel, for example, Idlewild manager Bruce Craigie – a no-bullshit, baseball cap-wearing Scot who gave the impression that he’d walked the walk – revealed that he’d actually signed Scouting For Girls (which he attempted to justify with ”my mum likes them”). I suspect I wasn’t the only member of the audience who died inside just a little at that moment.
The only word for the Worldwide Radio Summit panel was surreal. Alongside DJ Jim Gellatly and Jeff Zycinski, head of radio at BBC Scotland, was a guy called Jesse Rae who was clad head to toe in full Braveheart regalia for reasons nobody thought to ask. Rae dented the charts a couple of times in the 1980s and now works as a broadcaster on Brick FM in the Borders, but it’s hard to take someone seriously when they’re dressed for a battle that finished eight centuries ago. The undoubted highlight of the talk was when Rae and Gellatly disagreed about something, prompting Zycinski to put his hand on Gellatly’s shoulder and say, “Jim, he’s got a sword.”
The keynote interview with Feargal Sharkey on the Thursday was a huge letdown. While you can’t argue with the man’s pedigree with The Undertones, the anecdotes he told about his anti-everything punk roots couldn’t have been further removed from the latter half of the conversation about his current role as head of UK Music and rock ‘n’ roll tales of government lobbying and the minutiae of England’s licensing laws.
The one on the Friday with FatCat co-founder Alex Knight was infinitely more engaging and candid, especially with regards to the Brighton-based record label’s signing of Scottish trio Frightened Rabbit, We Were Promised Jetpacks and The Twilight Sad, as well as their challenging relationship with eccentric Icelandic geniuses Sigur Ros before they moved on to EMI.
Knight described Frightened Rabbit’s unexpected defection to major label Atlantic as “very frustrating on a personal level”. When asked if FatCat had the resources to take the band’s career to the next level, Knight replied: “We were as well placed as the label they signed to.”
Olaf Furniss then hosted a walking tour of Inverness, taking in the picturesque banks of the River Ness and some historically significant landmarks before a piper led everyone over an alarmingly swaying footbridge to Eden Court theatre. Mercifully, the three screenings were brief since Robert ‘Boab’ Canavan from Campfires In Winter and I had our sights trained on Jamaican restaurant Kool Runnings. Curried goat: yum!
The Friday evening showcase was full of acts I was less familiar with but that, in turn, lent itself to a series of pleasant surprises, beginning with Lucy Rose, who is as close to an English version of Feist as you’ll find.
However, her 30-minute set at Mad Hatters was just as memorable for the fragile, tender beauty of her music as it was for the loopy behaviour of a girl in the front row. The fan’s actions included clapping out of time on her own during slow songs, initiating awkward conversations with the London-based singer and stomping off to the bar mid-song before coming back with two unrequested drinks and plonking them down on the stage.
You could have forgiven Rose for heading straight to the emergency exit at the end of her performance, but to her credit she hung around for the rest of the night and was bopping along to the charming twee-folk sounds of Edinburgh group Chasing Owls at Hootananny downstairs.
Back upstairs, the musical shenanigans were rounded off by The Second Hand Marching Band, who were chaotic and bonkers, but in a merry, non-obsessive, no-need-for-a-restraining-order way.
So, to sum up my GoNorth 2011 experience…
Lesson learned: The general consensus was that radio, especially Radio 1, is still imperative to the success of breaking a new act, so arguably there were fewer figures more influential at GoNorth than Vic Galloway, Ally McCrae, Jim Gellatly and Jeff Zycinski, who were all in attendance either as panelists or delegates.
To be continued: I was told about one or two genuinely exciting developments within the Scottish music scene which will be unveiled and debated about when the time is right. Patience, peeps.
Room for improvement: GoNorth have an extensive Fringe programme which runs the day before the event’s official start date. Given that this follows the same pattern of seminars/workshops/showcase gigs, the organisers really ought to just advertise GoNorth as a three-day event, thereby encouraging more people to turn up 24 hours earlier.
In conclusion: GoNorth is a thoroughly worthwhile event for anyone with even a passing interest in the music scene in Scotland and/or the industry as a whole. It has so many things in its favour – the fact that it’s not in the Central Belt helps it avoid being insular or parochial in its outlook; it shines an all-too-rare spotlight on the creative talent that exists in the Highlands; it provides an invaluable platform for making helpful contacts; and all the fun is completely free.
Lucy Rose – Night Bus
Chasing Owls – Magic Land
Campfires In Winter – Before The Owl Will Fly