HIDDEN DOOR FESTIVAL, EDINBURGH

Edinburgh’s Hidden Door Festival delivers a quirky infusion of live music, visual art, dance, theatre and spoken word from the city’s forgotten and unused buildings.

As well as showcasing a fantastic slice of emerging talent, the festival gives the public an opportunity to explore the peculiarities of these quirky old buildings, drenched in a dilapidated wash of history museums can only strive to replicate.

This year’s festival runs from 9 – 18 June at the old Royal High School on the south face of Calton Hill. The neo-classical delight closed as a school in 1968 and although the Great Hall was refurbished to become the devolved Scottish Assembly’s debating chamber in the 1970s, the 1979 referendum results put an end to that old dream. But things are looking up and it’s finally set to take up a new function as the National Centre for Music.

We headed along on Thursday night to check out some live music while also having a wee nosey around the brown-carpeted stairways and dank, dingy passageways before they’re spruced up for their next chapter. Although the building’s a visual throwback to the 1960s version of the school, it’s that thick, fusty, musty smell that really brings home the level of neglect this architectural treasure has endured, invoking the chill of unfinished business. But nevertheless, the army of volunteers who’ve helped set up the festival have made a wonderful job of preparing the venue for its many visitors and there’s a good selection of bars indoors and out along with some mighty fine food trucks.

This year’s Hidden Door festival showcases a medley of live music ranging from the ‘90s electro-pop of opening night headliner, Saint Etienne to the swagger of post-punk closing act, Warmduscher. Tonight’s offerings including Buffet Lunch (the band, not sandwich and sausage roll spread), M(H)aol, Future Get Down, Girl Ray, The Bug Club, Dry Cleaning and LoneLady. We miss the first three bands thanks to the wonders of Edinburgh’s inhospitable road network and current rail fiasco, but the others don’t disappoint with a shining mid-summer mix.

GIRL RAY

Girl Ray have a blast as they perform their fizzy jangle of disco-fringed indie pop on the outdoor stage. Vocalist and guitarist Poppy Hankin admits she can’t look drummer Iris McConell in the eye or she’ll lose her cue, while bassist Sophie Moss giggles away with no pretence in sight. Highlights include 2016’s Trouble, with its retro buzz and layer of mischief, while R&B-fuelled newer numbers such as Give Me Your Love are more synth-heavy. A groovy cover of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dance Floor thrills the crowd, Hankin confessing that she’s never actually checked to see if she’s singing the correct lyrics to the 2001 pop classic. Well that’s certainly one way to make the song your own and she delivers it with endless charm. Girl Ray are the perfect accompaniment to a summer’s evening and even as clouds gather, their sunny demeanour shines through.

THE BUG CLUB

Welsh trio The Bug Club cause more congestion than the local tram works as queues for both entrances to the indoor venue begin to merge. The capacity is 200 but these riotous beasties are selling out venues at the moment, thanks in part to the support of BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley, whose name is being punted about the queue in anticipation. I reviewed them earlier in the year when they supported Bodega in Glasgow and that night they were selling t-shirts emblazoned with ‘The Bug Club played 1000 gigs and I was there’. They’ve possibly reached that threshold with their relentless touring, from festivals and support slots to their own sell-out gigs.

Their raw, melodic garage-rock tunes are short and tonight they again fly through an infectious set from last year’s debut mini-album Pure Particles, including the jive-invoking My Baby Loves Rock & Roll Music and explosive fan favourite The Fixer, with its rollercoaster cartoon riff. As the single opening strum of If My Mother Thinks I’m Happy chimes out, I know I’m doomed as it wriggles into my ears and doesn’t let up for the rest of the night, no matter how may tunes I listen to afterwords. That’s the thing about The Bug Club’s music, it’s even catchier than that irritating virus thingy that’s been going around for the last couple years.

EP Launching Moondream One’s nippy little title track has echos of The Kinks, while the bluesy duet of Checkmate displays the wonderful stage chemistry between vocalist/guitarist Sam Willmett and vocalist/bassist Tilly Harris, Willmett’s nimble fingers thrashing out some superb guitar work. The pace drops for the timely All Of The Scariest Monsters Live In London and we’re also treated to a couple of new numbers, Lay Down Your Roses and ballad Pretty As A Dog In The Light, from Two Beauties, a teaser to their new album which is expected later this year.

They’re literally on fire during Intelectuals (with the clever typo), mind you, they’re not the only ones. How hot is it in here? Drummer Dan Matthew looks like he might combust with pleasure as they cry ‘Our pretty music, is quite amusing to the, the intelectuals, the intelectuals.’  Amusing and pretty darn catchy too. What a set! 

Later, my Bug Club-daft friend notices them strolling past and cries out ‘It’s The Bug Club!’ They look petrified, mind you he does have a Cockney accent and what did they say about scary monsters? Ah they’re just wee timorous beasties really!

Check out our review of The Bug Club at Mono, Glasgow – March 2022 ››

DRY CLEANING

South London’s sardonic post-punk poets are already in full swing on the outdoor stage when we head over from The Bug Club’s show, with vocalist Florence Shaw serving up perfect monologues, enveloped exquisitely by the band’s melodic wall of driving guitar riffs and burly baselines. 

I reviewed Dry Cleaning back in February and it’s immediately apparent that while drummer Nick Buxton’s been concentrating on growing his hair, the other three have spent a bit of time in front of the mirror perfecting their obscure facial expressions. Guitarist Tom Dowse could be a contender in this year’s World Gurning Championships while bassist Lewis Maynard has mastered the evil eye as he scowls at each and every one of us during the airing of new single Don’t Press Me. Crikey, I won’t Lewis, you’re way too scary! This new number is shorter than a Bug Club classic and sees a change in style as vocalist Florence Shaw nonchalantly floats into song. Perhaps we’ll hear more of these melodic vocals on the new album, Stumpwork, due out in October. 

Shaw’s a spectral vision in white, with black claw-like nails and endless tresses which are in for some hardcore twirling and tugging tonight. In fact it wouldn’t be a lie if I said she’d scare the bejesus out of me if I saw her standing at the far end of the former school’s neon-fringed basement corridor, home to Hidden Door’s club sessions.

They showcase numbers from last year’s New Long Leg album and earlier EPs including the energetic Unsmart Lady, with rollicking 70s rock riff and gutsy baseline groove, juxtaposed against Shaw’s wearily delivered prose about body image, the sound as hypnotic as Shaw’s intonation. It’s the humour of the absurd and monotony of the mundane that give Dry Cleaning their edge, driven by Shaw’s laconic drawl. She grimaces her way through the set, looking everything from bemused and bored to worried and down right pissed off. Now and then she looks so startled I wonder if she’s spotted a grandfather clock hanging off the beer stand, well stranger things have happened… But between songs she breaks out into fits of the giggles, seeing the preposterousness of their dramatic but addictive performance. 

There’s an unhinged energy on the punchy Magic of Meghan from the Sweet Princess EP and the soaring groove of Tony Speaks sees Dowse continue his assault on his facial muscles while Maynard’s driving bass looms over Shaw’s disappointment at ‘the collapse of heavy industry’. Dowse quits gurning for a moment to tell us they climbed Arthur’s Seat earlier. Ach, he’s quite an endearing chap really!

As the rain starts to fall, Shaw announces ‘fun fact, we’re supporting Duran Duran tomorrow night.’ She smirks like it’s the most perplexing offer they’ve ever had. Maybe it is but I reckon she’s also quite excited by the prospect, and what’ll old Simon and the Taylors make of all this?

The blistering Scratchcard Lanyard, opening track on New Long Leg, completes the set, propelled by its pulsing baseline and chiming riff. As Shaw declares that ‘I’ve come to join your knitting circle’ I’m the first admit that I’d purl my way into any knitting group that had her skulking around with her big pointy needles ‘n’ nails. Impeccable!

Check out our review of Dry Cleaning at Summerhall, Edinburgh – February 2022 ››

LONELADY

Multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter and producer LoneLady aka Julie Campbell is on vocals and guitar tonight as her set begins in the old Royal High’s jam-packed, indoor venue. Accompanied by her percussionist, she’s elevated by a mighty fine pair of metal heels, which are up there with Florence Shaw’s pointy nails as potential weapons of mass destruction. From the outset, Campbell has the sweltering crowd bopping along to her innovative, punchy electro-pop gems from 2015 album Hinterland and last year’s Former Things. Opening track The Catcher drops me back off in the ‘80s with its dark, bass-driven intro and synth-heavy beats, and as she repeats ‘the future, I’m not going to look at the future’, I think she’s back there with me. Hell, let’s go for a wee glass of Lambrusco while we’re here Julie! 

(There is) No Logic could be straight off an ‘80s movie soundtrack with echoes of New Order in its bruising bass as it juxtaposes upbeat synth and sampling with cynical lyrics. The late night vibe of Into The Cave draws the audience into an ambient groove as she sings ’in night frame all comes alive’, her vocals a soothing tonic amidst the hypnotic rhythm, with a bit of a nod to Prince. The later time slot lends itself perfectly to the cool, immersive soundscape, but means we have to leave before the end. Nevertheless, what we’ve witnessed is a nostalgic and at times futuristic mix of addictive, ebullient electro-pop songs. 

LoneLady supports Primal Scream in Glasgow next month and is touring the UK in October. Catch her if you can!

The Hidden Door festival is more than just a side show. Inspiration oozes from every nook, stirring up future creativity. Whatever location it seeks out next year, it’s sure to be a sensory sensation, so prepare to don your curiosity cap and rummage through the eclectic repertoire as talents old and new reveal themselves in a chilled and friendly environment…you won’t be disappointed.

You can find out more about this year’s festival, and plans for the future at https://hiddendoorarts.org/

Words: Marie P Miller @musingsbymarie
Pictures: Calum Mackintosh @ayecandyphotography