I went to Bute on holiday last year, and everywhere I went, I saw posters advertising the then-upcoming Butefest 2016. I had never heard of Butefest, but looking at the line-up they had some pretty decent-sized names as headliners (Idlewild, The Magic Numbers) which I found surprising for, well, Bute. When I got home I looked it up and thought it might be worth checking out in the future. Fast forward a few months and a certain favourite band of mine, We Are Scientists, announce a smattering of summer dates in the UK, including Butefest 2017. I have to admit, I was taken aback. I couldn’t reconcile quiet, unassuming, land-of-country-estates-and-fancy-gardens-and-Victorian-Toilets Bute, with loud, energetic, New York-based indie rock. I asked around some local fellow WAS fans but no-one was keen to spend the time or money that attending a gig on an (albeit very accessible) Scottish island entails. Initially I thought I would have to give it a miss too, but there was something about the festival that was very appealing – it looked small, but with big ambitions, it gave off a friendly and chilled vibe, it clearly had a focus on music-lovers and promoting and supporting artists, rather than the commercial side of things and the location was idyllic. I explained my musings to a friend, and she said, “Let’s do it!”. Well, that was all the encouragement I needed. Childcare was arranged, annual leave was booked and tickets were bought. Operation Butefest17 was go!
I have never taken a ferry to a gig before. It added to the excitement, however, and we could tell this was going to be a special weekend.
Stepping off the ferry, it was still surreal to see We Are Scientists listed on the banner
We decided to go for the all-in festival experience and attend for the full weekend, including camping. Which, if you are at all familiar with weather on the west coast of Scotland in summer, was a choice not taken lightly. We knew we would either be battling the rain or the midgies, but not ones to be deterred by water nor wee beasties, we set up camp.
Tents pitched, the festival was our oyster.
And what a gem of a festival it was!
Our first impression was that it was tiny, but there was so much going on that it was very soon obvious that it punched above its weight. There was 1 main stage, 2 tents and a campfire stage. They were all very close together, and we experienced occasional noise bleed, but due to carefully considered positioning and scheduling, this wasn’t generally an issue.
There was also a small range of food stalls, shops and campaign stalls. Shout out in particular to the owners of the cutest wee tea stand who kept us in supply of earl grey tea when the weather meant we couldn’t fire up our wee stove, and the hippie goods shop who supplied us with appropriate festival attire and mementoes.
We had anticipated an easy-listening mix of folk and indie. We got that, but we got a whole lot more on top. Whoever curated the line-up has excellent taste and a keen sense of what music fans like and respond to. Whilst the majority of artists were Scottish, their music spanned genres far and beyond folk and Scottish indie. There was also an impressive range of non-Scottish acts. We heard drum & bass, ska, reggae and a multitude of fusions that I can’t even describe. There were certainly more trombones and saxophones than I, for one, was expecting. Which is definitely a good thing. The standard was exceptionally high. On a couple of occasions we drifted away from a performance, but only because the style wasn’t our taste (Russia’s answer to Coldplay, anyone?), it was no reflection on the talent on show. I would never in a million years have anticipated seeing and hearing such an incredible variety of music from 1 stage and a couple of tents on a playing field on Bute.
Despite the near-constant presence of, or threat of rain, the atmosphere was positive and uplifting, yet chilled. Those attending were clearly either seasoned festival goers, or used to holidaying in Scotland, and were prepared for the rain, mud, midgies and more. There were also a lot of locals in attendance, which was great to see. I grew up in Dundee and at that time there was nothing like this, I can only imagine how cool it is to grow up on a Scottish island and suddenly be able to attend an event like this and be exposed to live music from around the world. All the locals I spoke to were keen to find out where we had come from, why we had chosen Butefest and were set on ensuring we had the best time ever. Which we did. Citizens of Bute – you are the best.
In some down time one morning, we took a stroll down to Rothesay town and had a wander round the harbour. We also popped back down for some fish and chips one evening. Well, it would be rude not to… Everyone had a smile and a friendly nod and seemed to bear no resentment that hundreds of sweaty, muddy hippies had descended on their town.
Back at the site, we drifted between the stages, seeing some bands we wanted to check out and discovering others by chance. The stages were close enough together that you could easily hop between them if something took your fancy. We danced in tents, jigged in mud, rocked by the main stage, chilled out by the campfire and soaked up the festival vibes on hay bales (or bay hales, as they became known) while sipping tea, or something a bit stronger.
Unfortunately, Phil had to leave suddenly mid-afternoon on the Sunday, and for a millisecond we had doubts about me being alone at a festival. But we both agreed we felt safer here than we did back home. The only unwanted attention had come from a 16-year-old local who, hilariously, fled the minute he found out how old we were. Even the campsite was cool, with lots of families around.
Over the course of the weekend these artists, in particular, caught our attention:
Manran – due to the proximity of the campsite, we were able to continue to enjoy the music when we popped back for food or extra/dry clothing. We heard Manran mainly from there, and they were a lively group of folk/trad-rock, combining traditional instruments and sounds with funky beats and arrangements.
Samson Sounds – when we stumbled across these guys it sounded like drum & bass with latin sounds from the brass and sax on top, then it melded into reggae and then something else entirely. Genre-splicing, extremely danceable fun.
The Coaltown Daisies – Duo playing jaunty Americana style folk about serious topics, but with a heart and a smile. Also allowed P and I to play “place the accent”. We were close.
100 Fables – one of the few bands I had seen before I was keen to catch them again having been impressed last time. They didn’t disappoint this time around, owning the main stage and judging by the comments I heard from other punters afterwards, they won over many new fans. 80s-inspired electro pop.
The Begbies – Scottish indie rock with added sax and ska influence.
The RPMs – More straightforward indie rock, from Brighton and mightily confused by the crowd suggesting “Rothesay” as a title for their as-yet-unnamed song, the band were tight and talented and I was obsessed with the bass player’s hair.
Gluten Freaks – Possibly my favourite find of the festival. When we saw the description of “9-piece party ska” we were there in a flash. Loud, colourful, high octane and fun. We danced and danced and didn’t want them to stop.
Sophie Rodgers – we were walking by when we heard a Stevie Nicks-esque voice float out, so we went in to check her out. She was worth the chance – interesting vocals and melodies, beautiful but simple guitar accompaniment. Folk with an upbeat poppy feel.
The Chair – Saturday night headliners, traditional Scottish music with stomping drums. We tried to ceilidh dance but got literally stuck in the mud. Cue some inventive upper-body-only dancing.
Maxiroots – Another favourite find, another Latin/funk/fusion mix that got us dancing in the tent until the close of play.
Flog the Dog – Irish band doing a mix of traditional Irish/Scots/Celtic tunes. Had us tapping our toes and singing along. Also turns out their bass player is a massive long-time We Are Scientists fan so I got chatting to him at the main stage barrier later. He even got a request in.
James Edwyn and the Borrowed Band – I stopped into one of the tents with a cup of tea to warm up and escape the rain, and came across these guys. Low-key folk but beautiful arrangements and great to chill out to.
Dopesickfly – Feeling a bit melancholic at this point, running through some reflective thoughts, I parked myself on a log outside one of the tents, taking advantage of the rare sun break. I was soon drawn to the performance inside the tent. Dopesickfly are a cool combination of funky beats, groovy bass and engaging vocals switching between melody and rap/spoken-word-set-to-music. Another genre-defying act with elements of funk, soul and jazz, they were just what I needed to pick me up, get me back in the moment and enjoy what I had in front of me.
Single by Sunday – I was taking a breather by the campfire when these guys came on the main stage. A bit too boyband for my taste, but they kept me entertained while I sat and replenished my energy for the evening. Lively guitar-based pop.
Elephant Sessions – excellent trad-rock on the main stage, I had a wee sway and a bit of a foot tap while I scoffed a pizza ahead of the headliners.
And, well that leaves me with We Are Scientists.
I think I’m still processing it. All through the weekend, it would occasionally dawn on me that the guys would be coming to this wonderful wee festival. Even as I saw them set up, it didn’t seem real. I wanted to secure my usual barrier slot, which had the benefit of being on a small base plate and would get me temporarily out of the mud. I quickly made some friends on the barrier, who were real fans of the band and as awestruck as I was that they were here on Bute.
I had expected that a festival set would be largely hits and singles. Boy, was I wrong. It was a long and varied setlist, including some songs I don’t think I have heard for a long time (Can’t Lose!!!). There was more from BTM than I have seen in recent time, and they had been given the usual tweaks and twists that the boys like to play with. Lethal Enforcer, which my Flog The Dog bassist friend had requested, was particularly nicely done, with extra funk. It may have been the gin, but I definitely uttered a few “wow”s as this band, whose songs I know inside out and who I have seen live *ahem* a few times now…continue to surprise and delight me.
Admittedly, I had had a wee drink, and it seems drunk me has a propensity for doing actions along to songs, but it was so cool to be alongside enthusiastic fans, who were not shy about belting out every word and cheering their favourite song, “Yeaaaas, Sprinkles, this is ma favourite song, mate!” was typical of the reactions. We danced, shimmied, clapped, threw our arms in the air and air-drummed throughout. One guy saw how much fun I was having and insisted on taking my phone so I could have a pic of me with the guys in the background. It didn’t really come out well, but I appreciated the gesture. The WAS-family really is the best.
In fact the crowd was one of the best, most enthusiastic I have ever seen at a WAS gig. During Textbook, Keith roved into the audience and was lucky to get out intact. There was a nice moment when he was singing with a guy I had been chatting to, who was one of the locals involved in organising the festival.
The guys, always responsive to a good crowd, looked like they were having a blast – Keith dancing and jumping around, Chris cool and steady but with his usual ridiculous stories between songs, and Carne alternately deep in concentration then grinning like the happiest man on earth.
I had to keep reminding myself where we were, and would often look back at the crowd, the fairy lights of the festival and the night sky (if you’re the night sky…no, wait..) and just wallow in the beautiful perfection of it all.
As it was a festival headline set, it was longer than I was used to seeing, but still didn’t want it to end. Sadly, there was a midnight curfew so we ended with Too Late, which the crowd kept up the chorus to long after the band had exited the stage.
I chatted to my new buddies a bit, then was able to get backstage to have a chat with the guys. It was so nice to see them again and talk about, well mostly random nonsense and Victorian toilets, but that’s the way it usually goes. Except not usually with the toilets. Yes, I am a bit obsessed by the Victorian Toilets. Gin certainly embellishes the flow of nonsense talk. Then it was hugs all around before we said our goodbyes. I will no doubt see them again, but I doubt any occasion will compare to that.
So all in all, thanks to Phil for making our trip to Butefest happen in the first place, it was one of the best decisions I could have made. What a magical wee festival in a very special place, organised, run and attended by some very special people.
If I ever need to conjure up a happy place, Butefest17 will be it.