Downhill Downtown

Feature by Stu Lewis | 19 Jun 2012
It's not often that Fort William – Scotland's outdoor capital, dontcha know – is blessed with a festival that features such a strong convergence of contemporary homegrown musicians, but to coincide with the annual cash bonanza for Lochaber that is the Mountain Bike World Cup, some smart promoters have provided just that.

Enter Downhill Downtown. With King Creosote and Admiral Fallow both surfing waves of acclaim in recent months, boosted by the presence of the ever-inventive Phantom Band, and a handful of local youngsters, this gig was surely nailed on to draw in the event spectators and indigenous rock loving populace, as well as the bikers and media that were packing out the town. What could be a better way of unwinding after a long day of watching riders at the top of their sport charge through the muddy Lochaber woods than a line-up of quality bands?

Maybe it was the Euro 2012 match kicking off at the same time. Maybe everyone was knackered from being up a mountain. Maybe it's possible that mountain biking and indie music aren't as compatible as other match-ups like skateboarding and North American pop-punk. Either way, there has to be some reason why the Nevis Centre – a multi-purpose leisure site – is barely half full for the occasion.

It can't be the bands' fault. All acts put everything they've got into the evening, including Aberdeen's The Little Kicks who offer a few good reasons why they've generated plenty of positive chatter and are one of the Granite City's latest hopes for a breakthrough. Their guitar pop with a few lashings of synths isn’t anything desperately innovative, but the songs are there and the jarring beats of Loosen Up helps the second stage (tucked away in a decent sized ante-room) audience loosen those limbs just nicely.

The later start to the gig and the near-carnival atmosphere to the town – the corporate brand-fest that is the Olympic Torch Relay has also passed through today – means that while the crowd may be few in number, they've had more than their fair share of the bevvy with a mini-ceilidh threatening to break out in the main room at the front of Admiral Fallow; their obvious national pride lends itself well to such shenanigans. Leaning heavily on new album Tree Bursts in Snow, The Paper Trench sounds like a future crowd pleaser and the Appalachian stomp of Isn't This World Enough provokes a big clap-along from what turns out to be the best crowd of the night. The driving percussion of Old Balloons and Squealing Pigs wrap things up on a massive high. Fort William may not have known much about them before tonight, but everyone walks away impressed.

Entirely different fare is on offer over on the second stage. Homework sound like LCD Soundsystem being fronted by a rambling Scotsman and prove they're just the ticket. Lead Homeworker Oli Kass is a bundle of energy and whips up a small and enthusiastic crowd into a bit of a frenzy, ending the set by thumping a cowbell while dancing offstage. The guitar is only broken out for a couple of songs, otherwise, keys, synths and bass are the order of the day creating a maelstrom of thumping dance tunes. Good on record, very good live, they barely pause for breath during a tight, brisk set.

The Phantom Band have been relatively quiet this year, allowing frontman Rick Redbeard resume his solo work while they otherwise work on album number three. On tonight's evidence it's set to be another quality slab of melodic eclecticism. The clanging guitars of old favourite Folk Song Oblivion still sounds raucous and the thunderous A Glamour is a highlight. If there was any justice the Phantoms should be headlining and packing out venues like this regularly. Here's hoping that third album takes them where they deserve to be.

By the time tonight's headliner King Creosote takes the stage at a greying whisker short of midnight, the crowd has thinned considerably. At best there's a few hundred in the Nevis Centre's main room and only around half of them are paying attention. It's taking it's toll too as Kenny Anderson lobs a view cheeky verbals into the mix ("this song's call Dial C for Cradle, but you don't give a fuck, do you?").
It's a tough shift for the Fence legend and his seven piece band, but pre-Diamond Mine success but he'll surely have played to worse crowds. Despite everything, the band are on form and pumped up versions of You've No Clue Do You and Coast On By at least get the heads nodding. A female backing singer and bongo player add a chamber pop feel to the rattling guitar sound and let’s not forget Anderson’s sweet-sounding and unmistakable voice. John Taylor's Month Away, played in a much more bombastic fashion than its Diamond Mine version earns the best reception, no surprise given how critical acclaim for the album has almost spiralled out of control.
We hear more than one comment in the crowd that this wasn’t what they expected of King Creosote, even though jangly guitar pop has been his modus operandi for years. It seems that the stripped back Jon Hopkins collaboration has changed perceptions of the man, or prompted assumptions from those who didn’t know him before. This should have a been a victory lap for King Creosote but it just hasn't turned out that way tonight. Ironically, they wrap up with the Aliens' Happy Song and Gummi Bako, on guitar and shrieks, takes centre stage before some thumping dance beats kick off to entertain the last of the night's stragglers.

Undoubtedly Downhill Downtown has been a great idea and splendidly organised, but in a packed summer festival landscape, the organisers already need to start thinking about how to take advantage of Fort William’s captive audience if it's to return next year. With thousands of people watching maniacs fly down Ben Nevis on rickety bikes the next day, there's real scope to make the music an integral part of the occasion.