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On the Culture Front: Fairytale of Glasgow

17/04/2014 13:43 BST | Updated 16/06/2014 10:59 BST

As Coachella rages and SXSW becomes a distant memory, I can't help but thinking of Glasgow, a top-notch music city that flies under the radar. I was there last January for their Celtic Connections Festival -- Isn't January the best time to see Scotland? Icy temperatures not withstanding, I was blown away by how serious this city takes music. On one particular evening, I was lucky enough to have dinner with local resident Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, who's as amiable and low-key as he is talented. We talked about the film he was working on (God Save the Girl, which just premiered at Sundance this year), and how he shot it in Glasgow and couldn't imagine living anywhere else.

It's easy to see why. The winding cobblestone streets in the West End provide pathways between elegantly casual restaurants like The Ubiquitous Chip, where we had lunch and delicious single malts to Brel, a personal favorite of Murdoch's that serves refined pub grub in a charming and intimate space that used to be a slaughter house.

Glasgow is full of contrasts like these, melding its industrial past seamlessly into its cosmopolitan future. One of its most popular music clubs, The Arches, was formally a derelict cavernous space below the city's Central Station. The club's retained an expansive and industrial feel while simultaneously feeling warm and inviting. This is due in no small part to the people who populate it. We caught folk singer Passenger aka Mike Rosenberg playing to a sold-out crowd of enthusiastic fans who knew every word and sang along but never talked over the music.

This was a theme I found in the several concerts I attended over a weeklong period. Concert going in New York can become frustrating to say the least when people talk loudly through shows, seemingly oblivious that there's a performance going on. During the appropriately named "I Hate," Rosenberg decreed, "I hate ignorant folks who pay money to see gigs and talk through every fucking song," resulting in a unanimous cheer. This is when I decided I wanted to do a profile on this man.

The festival proper has many traditional Celtic offerings but it was a tribute to Levon Helm that's remained etched in my mind. Levon's band featuring his talented daughter Amy were joined by an impressive array of Scottish musicians including Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchinson who played his own "Old Old Fashioned" to pay tribute to the legend. The show closed with all the guests joining in a spirited rendition of "Atlantic City," written by Bruce Springsteen but redefined by The Band and Levon's mandolin -- "... maybe everything that dies someday comes back."

Glasgow has many up-and-coming talents too and they were prominently on display at the festival event Hazy Recollections. A great set by Dave Frazier and the Slave Laborers brought to mind the melodic grit of Tom Petty and The State Broadcasters are the UK's answer to Arcade Fire, playing a rich orchestral folk with more than a tinge of melancholy. They're also endearingly awkward. At one point the guitar player asked, " do you want to hear sad songs or really sad songs? And he was only half joking. "Trespassers" encapsulates the outsider experience while being utterly melodic.

Across town, I was impressed by the single malt selection and affordability of King Tut's, the famed club where Radiohead got their start. As culturally sophisticated as Glasgow is though, it doesn't take long to reach the famous rolling hills of Scotland. Just 45 minutes outside the city, Glengoyne distillery sits on the border between the high and low lands. From the balcony out back, you can watch a waterfall cascade into a stream, while inside the tours are enhanced by a "blending" session where you get to mix several single malts to create your own blend to take home. Besides being fun, it's a great way to understand the distinct flavors of different whiskeys.

Hotel du Vin sits on the outskirts of Glasgow in an oversized townhouse that feels both grad and intimate. A whiskey tasting with their in-house sommelier is a must. Held in the library which doubles as a lounge, storied bottles are pulled from locked shelves and offered up for your enjoyment. I tried the Caol Ila 18 yr, Jura Superstition 16 yr, and Mortlach 15 yr before calling it a night. The rooms are decorated with a flair for the grand, and I was told members of the Royal family frequently stay there. One caveat is the beds are stubbornly firm, which I've heard is a thing in Scotland outside of the big chains.

The next morning I was whisked away to Stirling Castle (where Scottish knight William Wallace had his last stand) in the midst of a snowstorm by an utterly professional driver from Little's Chauffer Drive, complete with formal uniform and hat. After a brief outdoor tour, I ducked inside to glimpse a few rooms including the kitchen, where an exhibit on daily life informed me that drinking beer was safer than water back in the middle ages. Ah, the simpler times.

A short drive from the castle, Cameron House, sits impressively and expansively on Loch Lomond. Formerly a private residence, the endless maze of elegantly appointed rooms give a glimpse into a day in the life of a king. I can't tell you how many times I got lost, utterly lost, on the way back to my room from dinner. Long winding hallways and staircases that don't climb to all floors proved to be a formidable foe in the presence of an extensive scotch collection. One evening before dinner I was poured an Auchentoshan Three Wood, Cragganmore 12 yr, and Ardbeg Uigeadail before a lavish seafood dinner. Equally impressive were the steaks and endless breakfasts, where I tried haggis (heart, liver, and lungs of sheep or lamb chopped, seasoned and then enclosed in the stomach lining of the animal, in which it's cooked) for the first time. As off-putting as it might sound, the taste is subtle and refined, making it a satisfying breakfast meat.

The Loch frames the property with a natural tranquility. From my room, it looked expansive and endless but on a boat the surrounding houses and buildings are more apparent as is the striking and unforgiving wind. Afterwards, I drew myself a hot bath and was taken with a sense of calm as I reflected on my trip and the beautiful contrasts that lie in and around the city of Glasgow.