I first heard C Duncan a few days before his debut album, Architect, found its way onto hipster coffee shop soundtracks the UK over, and before Duncan found his way into a demanding summer touring schedule, including The Wickerman and Latitude Festivals and a spot opening for Glasgow compatriots Belle & Sebastian.
I love the album (and reviewed it here) and was quick to book a ticket for C Duncan’s show at the Glasgow Centre for Contemporary Arts this pat June. The meticulous maestro had taken a gorgeous album – one he crafted entirely himself, in his bedroom, calling on his skills as a multi-instrumentalist and his wits to build lush tracks out of handclaps and chairback stick-slaps – and turned it into a fast-paced and emotional live show, a one-man labor of love transformed with an excellent backing band before an eager audience. Duncan and I chatted in the CCA cafe a few hours before the show: read the fully interview in The Skinny here, and listen to the recorded sit-down here.
Strathallan Castle sits aloof above its new tenants, the Tennent’s carting and swilling masses camped in colorful tents swathed in mist and and smoke from portable grills. It’s noon on Friday, and campers are still pitching, and soundcheck rumblings aside, the music has yet to begin. Shod in Bass boatshoes instead of (I see now) the requisite wellingtons, the T’s new pastures look to me as desolate as muddy and trench-cut Verdun, as God- and manforsaken as a potter’s field on Pluto.
And yet, in their bright wellies and slickers and headbands of plastic flowers, in their sweats and straw hats, carrying crates of Tennent’s and Manger’s cider in wheelbarrows and on sleds through the sludge, the bedazzled and bedenimed children stomp in the mud, celebrating from 10-12 July nothing but their own blessed and blemishless juvenescence … and Tennent’s lager.
[From (my notes for) The Skinny: Friday]
I pitch my tent in the Pink fields, as scenic a spot as a T’er could ask for, under Strathallan Castle and near a pond. I don’t need the two people my tent’s instructions require for assembly – my long arms and determination are enough – but it isn’t long before I feel the first frosty fingers of doubt about my decision to forego pillow, blanket, and sleeping bag, and weather two nights under a comically small fleece throw-thing. I raise a Canadian flag in hope of attracting my Torontonian friend and bandmate James Gilbert, along with my colleagues from The Skinny; but I can’t hang about, there’s work to be done. I take a Cherry Bakewell for the road and head to the Media tent. And …
If you want chronology, check out the Skinny’s coverage of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with reviews of the best bands and fun scene setting stuff – the reason I actually went to T. I joined Skinny writers Claire Francis, Chris McCall, and Stu Lewis to review the bulk of T’s acts – but while I was jotting down Randy Jacksonesque notes about pitch problems and my own emotional fluctuations, I learned quite a bit about T, what makes this magiscule Scottish festival different from the other US and UK and EU mud-love-and-music fests. So what follows will not be chronological, nor strictly musical, but anthropological, in style somewhere between Melville’s Maldive sketches and Goethe’s “jottings.”¹ For example:
I should start by apologizing to my friend and frequent traveling partner, Steve Coffed. I used to give him grief every time he suggested going into a Starbucks, anywhere in the world. The coffee, I said, is inconsistent from city to city – and nothing to write home about even at its best. The atmosphere can be sterile, the clientele often a mix of high schoolers, bluetoothing businessmen, and the unfriendly type of medical student. But shortly after I came to Edinburgh (a city awash in espresso, with enough comfy unpretentious top-notch java joints to give anyone a caffeine headache), something changed: basically, my parents sent me Starbucks gift cards.
What can we send our poor starving postgrad son? they thought, Our son drinking pint after pint of Tennent’s Lager, because it’s only £2.50? Money? No, that would send the wrong message, he’ll think he can come home and move right back in … So they settled on Starbucks gift cards, and I settled back into a comfortable middle class lifestyle – at least, that’s what it feels like every time I pass beneath that fish-woman’s spreading tails to wait for a cup with my name on it, or whatever variation of a loosely A-sounding name these Scots come up with, from “Owen” to “Hadrian’s Wall.” I started to take my Starbucks breaks further afield from the university, trying to see if the world’s biggest and best-known coffee chain could produce any significant change in atmosphere. A project began to take shape: I would visit and review each Starbucks from New Town to Newington, and share my findings with the world. [Nota: I’m not the first with this obsession. See the folks at Every Single Seattle Starbucks.] I found out that the Starbucks locations scattered across Edinburgh do vary, if sometimes subtly, in atmosphere and clientele – even while some franchises in Edinburgh are within a Frisbee-toss of one another- and even more interesting, my Starbucks survey soon turned into a new way of mapping this strange and diverse city: A Celestial Cartography of Corporate Coffee. Even if I can offer nothing more than tips on hidden views, rush hours to avoid, and, of course, musings on jams and jellies, I hope something in what follows is of some small value.
Art, at its best, is a kind of uncontrolled yet disciplined Yelp, made by one of us who, because of the brain he was born with and the experiences he has had and the training he has received, is able to emit a Yelp that contains all of the joys, miseries, and contradictions of life as it is actually lived. That Yelp, which is not a logical sound, does good for all of us.
-George Saunders, “The United States of Huck”
Done with my final papers, done with the last draft of my novel, done with funding applications and travel plans – done with, it seemed, life, at least until I was to touch the tarmac at the Buffalo Niagara Airport – I sat propped up in my bed Saturday night, swilling the last of a £10 bottle of juniper, and letting Henry Adams lull me into an uneasy sleep with his musings on American life at the close of the nineteenth century. There was nothing profound in the realization that I had to brave the cold, throw myself back out into the city and squeeze what I could from it in my last five days here – or else grow quietly mad (and fat) in my flat. One Edinburgh “attraction” stood out on my list of yet-to-dos: the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
St. Andrew’s Day, celebrating the patron saint of Scotland (the one with the jaunty cross), is for many of us at unis across the country a celebration of the end of our first semester’s classes, and the free museum openings and cultural events from the highlands to the lowlands, from Fraserburgh to the Firth of Forth, make this an excellent opportunity to take a break before papers and exams. With exactly that in mind, I booked a Megabus ticket for Stirling (£4 round trip) to take advantage of free entrance to Stirling Castle, about which I knew nothing, other than that Mel Gibson once captured it from the British.
After a drive of about an hour and 10 minutes (reading the critic Johannes Voelz on Emerson – I couldn’t make a complete escape from Uni) I started off from the Goosecroft bus station below the Thistle Shopping Centre and did my best to find the castle – as always, in Scotland, without a functioning Google Maps. I managed somehow to avoid the charming, busy, shop- and pedestrian-filled “Old Town” and wandered instead into a grimy fogged slum of massage parlors and solicitors of the Saul Goodman variety, and also caught no sight of the castle – a true feat, as this massive hulk of different stone structures thrown up across seven or so centuries occupies the highest point in the town. I was expecting something like the dramatic Edinburgh Castle, visible from just about anywhere. Instead I found a few shuttered pubs and a betting office already open at 11. But I did stumble on a sight that made me catch my breath – at least I’m fairly sure it was this, and not the endless incline of the cobblestone street: the Wallace Monument appeared nobly on a promontory in the valley below, only a few shades darker than the mist-wreathed hills all around it.