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Beluga Lagoon's Aviemore gig – a group 'to make you fall in love with music again'

By Scott Maclennan

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Beluga Lagoon. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Beluga Lagoon. Picture: Callum Mackay.

Imagine a band whose music makes you believe their songs were conceived in the beauty of the Scottish landscape and carry that beauty with them.

Now consider how perfect it would be if those songs gave you the same feelings you had the last time you were in that landscape. That would be too good to be true – unless you have heard Beluga Lagoon and around 1000 people in Aviemore on Saturday did.

The project is the brainchild of wildlife cameraman and filmmaker Andy O’Donnell, someone who still sounds like he is recovering from the shock of the knowledge that anyone at all likes, far less loves, the songs he writes and performs so brilliantly.

O’Donnell has discovered a way of expressing the experience of what Scotland feels like when you are, for example, walking through a glen or sitting by a river or out on the sea. He has done this in a way and to a degree that I have never heard before.

Those without musical talent (strangers throw stones at me if I so much as whistle) always marvel at those with it yet don’t feel convinced of their own ability. O’Donnell has admitted that he suffers from nerves before going on stage.

Andy O’Donnell. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Andy O’Donnell. Picture: Callum Mackay.

He told me: “I never intended to be on stage or do gigs – the music was always done for the sake of the music really.

“Growing up I never wanted to be in the spotlight or anything like that so I struggle to get used to that and just trying to put it behind me, in many ways it is a total act because you just have to get on there and pretend you are brave.”

But there was no sign of that when, supported by a band that included his father Jim, he played at The Osprey arena – something which some fans find inspiring.

That isn’t just my view, a young woman outside the gig used the words “vulnerable but brave” and that verdict would suit the music too because it marries intensity of experience and closeness of perception.

Such was the demand that the show sold out in seven minutes. So why The Osprey? Well, that is just one more way they are unusual, he said of one of the most popular tracks: “I am just happy there are a few birds named in it as well.”

By birds he is referring to the dipper, jackdaw, and crow rather than a 1980s description of young women. He adds, joking: “Singing about aquatic songbirds might be a bit sad, but there you go.”

Except that is a joyous song called The Glen and what is there not to love about a track that starts: “I am feeling bold and somehow I know where I am going/ The first clear of cold grey year and lo and behold I am all alone.” Alone but not lonely.

The chorus: “So hope flies in the eyes again, I think I feel alive again” – so if you need a song to cheer up your late winter evenings you may want to give it a listen like the thousand people in Aviemore who were singing it before the band even took to the stage.

Picture: Callum Mackay..
Picture: Callum Mackay..

Their reaction is evidence that Beluga Lagoon is one of the best Scottish musical projects around right now. Comparisons with other acts do not work because they are resolutely ploughing their own furrow of music and that is what is original and great about them.

The gig started slowly and gently with Sunrise was followed by the more assertive Aberlane Ghost Train and Laid Bare before taking another patient step back with Mermaids.

That the crowd knew the words to all these haunting and reflective songs – including one boozy guy who, staring into my eyes, sang Mermaids – testifies to the fact that the crowd were not just there for the ‘hits’.

And that is what impresses as well as the passionate connection he has with the audience and it was apparent in every number that they played. People queuing for drinks let others go ahead when they wanted to focus on a particular song – I have never seen that in Scotland, ever.

How does he do it? Authenticity is the most over-used and misapplied word but here it is appropriate. There is no artifice to artistry and I suspect that because O’Donnell's day job is a wildlife cameraman compelling him to spend many hours in hides waiting to get the right shot has an impact.

What a photographer is doing is looking for that one shot that compresses a whole part of the world into a millisecond by concentrating intensely on a very small area.

His songs strongly echo that intense concentration, take Neverland that was played just before he did a wee solo spot. It is about someone coming back from sea for a night and rediscovering long lost feelings before going back out to sea where the wind in the sails is contrasted with the wind in a woman’s hair. These are not simple songs.

He said: “I don’t want to become a bit of a fraud and be like these cowboy guys pretending they are still in the outback and touring in a tour bus all the time – I maybe think about it too much.”

Fans from Edinburgh. Picture: Callum Mackay..
Fans from Edinburgh. Picture: Callum Mackay..

That is why Beluga Lagoon turn up in places like Torridon for micro-gigs: “The thing is it is a hard graft getting all these things done so if you can do it then you might as well be somewhere that is nice like the Western Isles or the Highlands rather than Chesterfield.

“It just feels it is more fitting and I like the fact that folk say ‘oh, we haven’t had anything here in ages’ so bringing in something to somewhere that doesn’t really get it that much so there are multiple reasons why it works.”

I certainly love Beluga Lagoon. I went to the gig concerned they wouldn’t live up to my hopes but they surpassed them with ease – you have to respect a man who can wear a wool onesie with antlers and make you consider buying one yourself.

The name alone might be the best in contemporary music as it was inspired by successful efforts to rescue Beluga whales from captivity and place them in an open-water sanctuary – they would not have survived in the wild – in Iceland.

So in a world that has become so depressing – have you seen any news lately? – I believe we should cherish Beluga Lagoon as they are.

They may perform less frequently than fans would like but, like the whales who they derive their name from, they need to be left in their natural habitat, fame alone could destroy this sensitive poetic talent.

And that would be tragic because listening to them is like falling in love with music one more time every time you hear them.

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