by Mike Ritchie
A HOME-SPUN Scottish music festival that is tiny compared to the Glastonburys of the entertainment world celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Now the Scottish husband and wife team, who have been leading music-loving friends and volunteers for most of the past two decades, are planning a commemorative book to celebrate the remarkable achievements of the Darvel Music Festival.
Neil McKenna is the festival’s producer and Sheila its organising team’s director and chairwoman – and they proudly say that more than 350 acts have appeared over the years in the East Ayrshire town, city of music itself.
Their canny approach meant Darvel was placed firmly on the live music map in Scotland. And, with touring being hungry work, the couple calculate they have fed and watered 50 or 60 of the acts in their East Ayrshire home.
When Hamish Stuart, an original member of the Average White Band, and his band – plus support from Kokomo – played Darvel, 19 people had dinner with the McKennas.
“It’s a vital part of how homely and friendly we wanted the Darvel Music Festival to be,” said Mr McKenna.
“Sheila and I, and others on the festival team, willingly collected bands from airports, brought them to our home, fed them, arranged bed and breakfast accommodation in the area, and made sure they felt at ease.
“One of our favourite bands, Richmond Fontaine, from Portland in Oregon, stayed with us and were lovely guests – they made up their beds very neatly, military style, before they headed off.”
All the shows have been held in the 380-capacity Darvel Town Hall, with the majority of them sell-outs, thanks to Neil and Sheila’s insistence that if an act appeared on a Darvel line-up, they couldn’t play in Glasgow, for example.
“It meant fans would make the effort to come here for a show and many kept coming back year after year,” said Mr McKenna.
Many top Scottish acts have played the festival – Eddi Reader, Hue And Cry, Love And Money, Karine Polwart, Maggie Bell, Mull Historical Society, Justin Currie, and Skerryvore included.
From down south, Paul Carrack and Glenn Tillbrook were big draws while Grammy-nominated bluesman Eric Bibb, and Gary Louris and Mark Olson, the founding members of one of Neil’s favourite bands, The Jayhawks, also made the trip in 2009 to Darvel, known for lace and weaving and for Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin.
Another of the McKennas’ favourites were the stylish Americans, Steely Dan, who have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001.
“While we didn’t get the full band, as I think they’d broken up at that stage, we did get Larry Carlton, their guitarist,” said Mrs McKenna. “The show was sold out and I think everyone in the crowd was a guitarist or guitar enthusiast and they were absorbed throughout: I am pretty sure I was the only woman there.”Even the legendary bluesman Muddy Waters has a connection to Darvel as his son, Mud Morganfield, played there in 2012.
The whole musical escapade was launched in 2002 by the McKennas’ good friend and fellow music lover, Lynn Brown, as part of Darvel’s 250th anniversary celebrations. But the McKennas were determined to keep things going thereafter.
The festival has had support from East Ayrshire Council and a host of local businesses, for whom the couple have nothing but praise.
“They saw what we were trying to do and, of course, it was great for the local economy which enjoyed a boost during the festival,” said Neil.
Music fans from all over Scotland and the UK were soon putting the Darvel dates in their diaries, and so did many people from overseas.
“We had one visitor in 2007 whose name was Emi and she travelled from Japan just to hear Karine Polwart,” said Neil. “She didn’t speak any English so everyone looked out for her and we made sure she met Karine.”
“I believe Emi has some kind of shrine to Karine in her Tokyo home.”
In 2009, a chap named Darvel Silda travelled all the way from Loveland, in Colorado, 2009 to attend, just because he shared a name with the town.
“At first, I thought someone was kidding me but it’s a small resort in The Rockies, and his first name was Darvel. He was really nice, too.”
The style of the festival may have changed – from one set week to a series of shows scattered throughout the year – but the aim is always the same.
“We are all about delivering top quality music for a range of tastes but I do honestly think our homespun, homegrown approach really appeals to people who genuinely enjoy themselves, according to all the feedback.”
The ever-optimistic couple have not given up hope on anniversary celebration gigs in scheduled for December featuring Tidelines and Skerryvore or, further ahead to next year, on rescheduled gigs involving James Grant, China Crisis and The Christians.
After all they did on one occasion approach Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen’s managements to sound out the chances of these icons playing in the town and got courteous replies but the costs were obviously out of their price range.
“We are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year, followed by our 21st in 2022,” said Ms Mckenna. “We are at the early stages of compiling a book looking back over the past two decades, so if anyone has music memories or images to share, we’d love to hear from them.”
“If anyone wants to make a donation towards the cost that would be very welcome as well – we would add their name to a dedicated patrons’ page in the publication.”
l www.darvelmusiccompany.com is where people can make donations to the book via PayPal.