Eleven years old this year Southern Fried continues to occupy its position as the best Americana and roots music festival in Scotland and perhaps the best of its kind in the UK (although there are three contenders who might challenge that assumption). The festival doesn’t rest on its laurels however and this year saw its headline shows expanded to include the Thursday night while there was the welcome return of the renovated Perth Theatre to the roster of venues as it hosted ticketed and free events. What doesn’t change however is the mixture of world famous acts, the cream of international and UK roots music and a generous helping of more local musicians all adding up to four days of joyous music concentrated within the centre of one of Scotland’s most beautiful cities.
Southern Fried prides itself on featuring headline acts appearing exclusively here in Scotland and so it was this year. Steve Earle and The Dukes kicked the festival off on Thursday evening but unfortunately your intrepid reporter didn’t get there until Friday (bah!) but we were present and correct for the remaining three concert hall events. Rodney Crowell, billed last year but who cancelled for health reasons, this time turned up despite the best efforts of a train company to derail him. Opening with his Scots related song, ‘Glasgow Girl’, Crowell, flanked by fiddler Eamonn McLaughlin and guitarist Joe Robinson, ran through a fine selection of his songs with ‘I Wish it Would Rain’ particularly delightful while there was spontaneous applause as he began to sing ‘Til I Can Gain Control Again’. He reminisced about the late Guy Clark before his delivery of ‘Stuff That Works’ and also rocked up a bit of a storm on the double whammy of ‘Come Back Baby’ and ‘Frankie Please’. A hard act to follow but Iris Dement managed although her set was quite the obverse of Crowell’s rootsy approach with her religious upbringing casting a spell on several of the songs. Engagingly chatty and a little bit dotty as she introduced her songs and with a voice which evokes both Appalachia and a childlike wonder she was at her best when seated at the piano for ‘Sing The Delta’ and ‘Morning Glory’ with her playing here reminiscent of Randy Newman’s keyboard style. She sang several of her settings of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova but it was on her church like songs such as ‘The Kingdom Has Already Shone’ where she really shone. Of course she could not get away without an encore performance of ‘Our Town’ which left the audience truly satisfied.
Saturday night belonged to Graham Nash, a man who justifies the tag, legend. Billed as an intimate evening of songs and stories one was almost expecting Nash, Jackanory like, to sit and regale us with tales of rock’n’roll excess and sing a few songs but instead he offered a ninety minute set of his tremendous back catalogue, a nostalgia fest for sure but with many of his songs still pertinent. He did tell tales, of his days in The Hollies and CSN&Y, sailing with the Croz, recalling Joni (and informing us that she is on the mend) and making no effort to disguise his dislike of the current incumbent of the White House. His distinctive voice still cuts it and who can argue with a set list which included ‘Carrie Ann’, ‘Bus Stop’, ‘Carousel’ and ‘King Midas in Reverse’ before moving on to ‘Marrakesh Express’, ‘Just a Song Before I Go’, ‘Military Madness’ and ‘Immigration Man’. Some of his latter day songs did pale in the company of these exalted siblings but Nash and his musicians (Todd Caldwell on keyboards and Shane Fontayne on guitar) pulled an excellent rabbit from the hat with a stunning rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Day in The Life’ right up to its famous crescendo with Nash remarking after that he just really loves the song. The crowd went bananas at the end and Nash came back on stage twice. First off for ‘Our House’, dedicated to Joni, and then a ferocious ‘Chicago’, an agit prop song almost the equal of his old buddy’s ‘Ohio’ and quite chilling to hear in this day and age. And then back again for Buddy Holly’s ‘Everyday’ (a nod to his old band) and then finishing with ‘Teach Your Children’ with the audience singing along, some surely, with a lump in their throat. A truly memorable evening.
Gretchen Peters closed the festival on the Sunday night in the concert hall. Now Ms. Peters has been appearing the length and breadth of the country over the summer months but the uniqueness of tonight’s performance was in its set up. There were two sets, the first featuring requests received in an online poll (with only one wag requesting ‘Freebird’ she informed us) while the second had Peters perform with a string quartet assembled specifically for this show. With Barry Walsh on piano and accordion Peters sang the requested songs to an enthralled audience opening with ‘Dark Angel’, a song she recorded with Rodney Crowell on ‘Hello Cruel World’, she roamed throughout her career singing ‘Independence Day’ (“a song which changed my life”) from her debut album and bringing us bang up to date with the title song from her latest disc but the loudest cheer of the set came when she launched into Tom Russell’s ‘Guadalupe’ and transported the audience to a cantina for a short while. Returning with the Southern Fried String Quartet Peters continued to delve into her back catalogue with only two songs, ‘Arguing with Ghosts’ and ‘Love That Makes a Cup of Tea’ coming from the latest release. In comparison to the austere beauty of the first set the strings added a vibrant and at times energetic pulse to the songs with the murder ballad ‘Blackbirds’ transformed from a brooding rock number into a sweeping string laden melodrama. The arrangements, written by violin player Patsy Reid and worked through with Peters in the run up to the show were sublime, the woody timbre of the cello adding so much to ‘The Secret of Life’ and a brave sense of drama to ‘Hello Cruel World’. Peters paid tribute to the late Jimmy LaFave on ‘Revival’ before offering the audience ‘When You Love Someone’, written with Bryan Adams and then a real crowd favourite, ‘On a Bus to St. Cloud‘. The encore, ‘When You Are Old’, had the audience offering a standing ovation which was tonight much deserved.
In contrast to the formal concert hall shows the late night shows at The Salutation Hotel can be rowdy affairs with the audience only spilling out around 2 am. With two stages, one acoustic, one for full blown band affairs, it’s an opportunity to pick and mix and even maybe grab a drink or two. Eli West made a welcome return following the demise of his duo with Cahalen Morrison as he took the upstairs audience on a dark and spooky trip into that old weird America digging up murder ballads from the likes of The Louvins and regaling us with his own songs on gambling and such, along with a fine line in banjo jokes. The Worry Dolls unveiled a drummer who jacked up their own take on smoky mountain ballads but that old banjo sound still punched through. As for the bands, Perth’s own Red Pine Timber Co. proved again that they are perhaps the best roustabout party band working in the field these days banging out twangy country rock in the best GP Las Vegas tradition while also rooting around in New Orleans and southern swamp music with their horn section giving it, as we say in Scotland, laldy. You can’t not dance to this band and one prominent songwriter who was watching the band with us said that they were the best band he’d seen since forever and that they had brought a broad smile to his face. Yola Carter played on the Saturday night despite suffering from a tummy bug which curtailed her usual exuberant performance as she sat on a stool throughout the set. The bug didn’t affect her voice which remains a powerhouse and towards the end of the set she was sounding like Aretha Franklin fronting The Band. Playing songs from her EP and several from an upcoming album, Yola and her band were in fine form with ‘Free to Roam’ just outstanding. Dean Owens and The Whisky Hearts were also outstanding as they powered through songs from his latest album, ‘Southern Wind’, adding a fine Celtic punch to his latest swampy songs while there was a grand swing to more poppy numbers such as ‘Elvis Was my Brother’ and ‘Mother’ alongside gentler moments such as on his song written for Rodney Crowell, ‘Love Prevails’. Whether this relates to the atmosphere of the late night sessions or to Owens’ popularity with the crowd it was telling that when he asked at one point if someone could bring him a Guinness to the stage, four pints were soon set down in front of him, the only lack of coordination we noted over the weekend.
In the daylight hours the music continued with free shows inside and out. Our uncommonly good weather had broken by now but the rain held off for the most part only pouring down overnight allowing the outdoor stage to go ahead. The Americana Music Association UK showcased six acts of which we saw four, all of them boding well for the future of home-grown talent. Martha L. Healy, James Edwyn & The Borrowed Band, Anton & The Colts and Son of The Chief had the opportunity to shine and shine they all did while there was a host of other acts who were engaging with The Strange Blue Dreams and Gordie MacKeeman & His Rhythm Boys in particular firing up the crowd on the outdoor stage. The free indoor acoustic stage in the refurbished Perth Theatre had repeat performances from The Worry Dolls and Eli West along with The Wandering Hearts and Meaghan Blanchard.
With so much music going on it’s impossible to see everything so we missed sets by the likes of Darrell Scott, Amythyst Kiah, Daniel Meade, Lucas & King and The Grahams along with an all day rock’n’roll event with four bands and DJs. We did join some early risers for one session of Classic Americana Albums, a cosy event held in the local hi-fi shop which allows attenders to listen to and discuss a vinyl album chosen, respectively over three days, by Yola Carter, Gretchen Peters and Amythyst Kiah while also enjoying a free breakfast!
On this showing Southern Fried is definitely the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s festivals with its superlative mix of acts and venues surely able to satisfy all but the most curmudgeonly amongst us. There’s no camping or glamping, the venues are all comfortable and only a few minutes’ walk from each other. There’s an excellent soul food menu in the concert hall which is very reasonably priced. Items included seafood chowder, fried chicken, pecan crusted catfish, southern crab cakes, pulled pork, Cajun burgers, southern style mac and cheese, Cajun fries, collard greens and poor man’s caviar and we can attest that the dishes we had were all excellent.
It’s a total experience over a long weekend but two shows really stood out for this writer. Blue Rose Code, Ross Wilson’s moveable feast of a band, appeared as a five piece accompanied by a fifty piece choir in the refurbished theatre. The Southern Fried Voices Choir, recruited locally, sang with the band on a cover of Charlie Rich’s ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and on a magnificent blend of Wilson’s ode to his hometown, ‘Edina’ and The Proclaimers’ ‘Sunshine on Leith’ but it was Wilson’s emotionally wracked deliveries of songs such as ‘Sandaig’ which really stood out. We’ve seen Wilson on several occasions and in different formats but this show was outstanding as the songs poured out as if his heart was breaking although he was able to inject some light and joy into the proceedings as he spoke of his fortune in becoming a father. Mesmerising, hurt, humble and yet grateful, Wilson is a force of nature and the audience responded with an abandon before queuing up to buy all of the merchandise on sale with not one album or sticker left for the stragglers. Our other highlight was the unassuming Portland, Oregon, artist Wesley Randolph Eader. He opened with a Woody Guthrie like number and then a very humorous talking blues which railed against Walmart. However he then delivered a brace of songs which left us just gobsmacked as he showed himself to be a songwriter in the vein of Townes Van Zandt and John Prine with one song, the magnificent ‘Eliza (Saint of Flower Mountain)’ truly transcendent. This was Eader’s first appearance in Scotland and hopefully it won’t be his last. Meanwhile Southern Fried goes from strength to strength and we are already looking forward to next year.