Last week’s Restless Natives cross-venue festival was an attempt to bring music and film to Glasgow’s neglected East End and invest in the area. Was it a doomed exercise or a hint that there are better things to come?
The East End of Glasgow still suffers from endemic inequality. In many parts life expectancy is low, the number of benefit claimants is high and poverty is rife. There are few music or arts venues on this side of the city – in contrast to the leafy west end where even places like Finnieston have been gradually gentrified.
Even the legendary Barrowland Ballroom feels like a lonely island, surrounded by few pubs or venues that could encourage any kind of nightlife.
These are all points that Restless Natives co-organiser Chris Cusack acknowledged in an interview with The Skinny before the festival, promising that they wouldn’t try to “bring in £3 cappuccinos or alienate people.” One of the festival’s stated aims was to “reinvigorate the cultural reputation and commercial prospects of The Barras and Calton areas of Glasgow’s East End”, and to their credit they went the right way about it.
Some of the venues used were admittedly more established and based closer to the city centre, which is understandable given the resources available. However, there were opportunities to explore venues near The Barras like the new event space Collective Studios and the recently converted church St. Luke’s.
I was also impressed by the events that directly tackled the issues at hand. The screening of ‘Bombay Beach’, a powerful documentary that illustrates the sense of despondency that’s so prevalent in neglected areas, was followed by an interview with Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey.
It felt appropriate that a discussion about cultural and community restoration in Glasgow was led by an artist and youth worker from the city itself. Loki was typically blunt, arguing that arts organisations that are parachuted into local communities tend to accomplish very little in the long term.
His point that “cultural sophistication is not about knowing loads of art but being able to engage with people from different walks of life” also served as reminder that long-standing attitudes remain a huge barrier in the Scottish arts.
It was an informative and inspiring session that was regrettably attended by few. With so many different events on each night it’s possible that my experience wasn’t reflective of the week as a whole, but, generally speaking, the Q&As on local issues drew far fewer numbers than the international music acts.
It was at least encouraging to see Glasgow’s DIY networks so well represented. GMAC Film’s YouTube screenings opened me up to an entire scene that I was less familiar with. Makeup tutorials, artsy dramas and comedy vloggers were all given space to give feedback and connect with each other. Lack of funding, the audience were told, is no barrier, especially as YouTube is no longer looked down upon as a suitable platform.
Elsewhere, some of Scotland’s best music labels hosted showcases: we were treated to lo-fi indie from Fuzzkill Records, madcap punk from No One Knows and Struggletown Records, and a whole range of styles from the ever-impressive Song, By Toad.
Based on the Hot Gems Tunes night, Glasgow’s electronic scene is in particularly fine fettle. HQFU’s set meshed 80s and 90s sounds – from deep house to old school techno – with soaring vocals layered behind for a dynamic contrast. Nightwave was similarly intense; her primal snare-led drum sounds felt like the dominant instrument.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mono’s jazz bill was equally impressive. While The Quarks boasted alt-rock influences and progressive songwriting, BBC Radio 3 regulars the Gus Stirrat Band were a sprawling madness. Their sound was dynamic and constantly moving with their combination whirling saxophones and meaty grooves causing multiple facial spasms in the crowd.
Whether they hail from the East End or not, Glasgow’s clearly not short of talented musicians. Though many of the events weren’t sell-outs, there was certainly a wide array of scenes represented at the festival. Sure, Wu Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah and emo luminary Into It. Over It. drew in distinct audiences of their own, but there were local acts from pretty much every genre imaginable.
From that perspective, Restless Natives was undeniably successful in its aims. The city’s base of musical talent is as strong as it’s ever been; the festival demonstrated that holding gigs in the east end of the city won’t deter people from attending because they expect quality.
To build a festival predominantly off a city’s DIY arts community and make it last for a whole week is an incredible achievement. The fact that it was held in one of the city’s most impoverished areas is even more commendable. Admittedly, the festival’s more serious attempts at rousing debate about local rejuvenation maybe needed wider promotion, but that’s not to denigrate their efforts, especially as I understand that much of the profits have been donated to certain East End charities.
It’s important to remember that Restless Natives isn’t the first festival to ‘look east’; it’s easy to praise such initiatives without recognising that serious long term investment is what’s needed to reinvigorate areas like Calton and The Barras. Still, it’s heartening that there those who recognise that the East End has a rich musical and cultural history of its own. I just hope that the right seeds have been planted and the right connections have been forged – it could make a real difference.