The Ullapool Guitar Festival is different. Here’s the basic plot: the venues are the high school theatre, where there is an afternoon performance and an evening performance, and a local hotel bar, where a late night jamming/drinking session continues after the evening performance until about 5am. The crucial point, I think, to understanding why anyone could care less, is the calibre of the artists.
Mostly playing solo acoustic guitars, the performers in Ullapool over the weekend 10th – 12th of October seemed absurdly incongruous with the size of event. Hugh Burns, who played on the Friday evening, has played for Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney, sounds like an entire band battering out whole jazz arrangements even when playing solo.
On the Saturday afternoon a delightfully exuberant duo, ‘Wingin’ it’, played utterly spectacular arrangements for acoustic guitar and mandolin with both breathtaking speed and the unearthly precision to do it in unison.
Don Ross and Andy McKee from Canada and the USA respectively played an outrageously funky set, which, although it lacked the variety of styles which marked out some of the festival’s other acts, was mesmerising, played as it was on two acoustic guitars.
Clive Carroll is a man whose playing I can’t describe – go and find a video of him live, and politely concede that your ghast has been severely flabbered. The musicality which some of these players manage to inject into such virtuosic displays is extraordinary.
There were many others, not least Andy Fairweather-Low, session man to Eric Clapton, the Who, David Crosby and many more, whose electric blues carried off the Saturday evening beautifully.
Ullapool is set apart from other festival in other ways: there are workshops. After finally reconciling yourself to just how miserably inferior your playing is, you can amble back up to the school in the morning and join in a free lesson with one of the best guitarists you’ll ever hear. They all roll along to the bar after the performances and jam jazz standards and Leonard Cohen until the locally brewed ale is all gone. They hang around to watch the next act, and call each other onto stage for impromptu duets.
Outside, Ullapool in Autumn is gorgeous, and the fans wander the beach, climb hills, sit on the harbour or just listen to more guitar music. It’s allowed. Fans, staff, artists – everyone smiles, and they all come back.