I have no doubt that the organisers of Stendhal were feeling the weight of expectation on their shoulders given that they were named as the Best Small Festival in Ireland two years running. Rather than dwell on this thought they set about improving the festival and of course booking another quality bill of music, theatre, comedy and more. For the third year running I filled my car and made the journey from Belfast to Limavady.
► Day one – Friday
There are no queues to get into the car park this year, thankfully due to a lack of rain and some much needed new drop off facilities. Yet one always forgets how long it can take to put up a tent particularly when they are only required a few times each summer. Despite our best intentions we unfortunately miss the folk stylings of No Oil Paintings and the rather ferocious noise from Axecatcher (although they can be heard from the campsite, good work lads). Yet my ears perk up at a few notes of ‘Fuq’, jangling across the festival site from alt-rock darlings, Little Arcadia. The young four piece are full of confidence right now and ‘Fox Polar’ leaves us anticipating their forthcoming EP.
A short jaunt down to the tented Karma Valley stage paves the way for a sumptuous set from the man on everyone’s lips, Ciaran Lavery. I regretted missing Ciaran’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival show earlier this year where he was accompanied by strings, so I was relieved to find he was in this format at Stendhal. The strings add a real substance to Ciaran’s gravelly voice and breathe new life into favourites like ‘Left For America’. There is a feeling that the Aghagallon native is still adjusting to his increased popularity, and finds it hard to believe when the quite full tent shouts back his name when he asks who people are looking forward to seeing at the festival.
After a lovely chat with Mr Lavery it was on to the leafy confines of Woodtown for a suitably engaging set from Sullivan & Gold. The present line-up may just be Benjamin playing solo but none of the charm from the ‘For Foes’ record is lost. It could be argued that it is even more charming live with Ben being forced to kneel on one knee to play his keyboard and then pausing during ‘Forget Myself’ to thank some of the audience for raising their hands at the mention of Castlerock.
Last year we rather enjoyed a set from Glenn Rosborough on the main stage and were pleased to see him return to the bill albeit under a different moniker. For all intents and purposes there doesn’t appear to be much difference between the two, what Rosborough is however, is a whole heap of fun. In fact the two highlights from the set, ‘Did It For You’ and ‘Never Gonna Let You Down’ were on his debut album last year. Glenn is the first artist of the weekend to give in to cries of an encore despite a lack of material to play. The result is another boisterous rendition of the latter track which is still imprinted on my mind as I write this. A short walk to the main stage finds the evergreen Booka Brass Band bringing their brand of urban brass to Limavady. The sight of seeing the stage packed with musicians clearing enjoying themselves in front of an appreciative crowd is exactly what we have come to expect from the festival.
Our focus tends to be on Northern Irish music but I was particularly excited to see Glasgow alt rock specialists, Fatherson on the bill. Previous experience of them (supporting our own More Than Conquerors) was a treat and they didn’t disappoint. The tent swelled as their set continued with many enjoying a band who were clearly in their element. It was plain to see on their faces that they weren’t expecting (a) quite the turnout or (b) the reaction to their music.
Billed as 2015’s big headline act, there was a palpable excitement from the older generation at this years festival while there was a curiosity from the younger generation to see an inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For Donovan, it is a completely solo show tonight but you can’t help but smile as we are told “I’m gonna cool you down tonight but I’m also going to rock you.” It proves to be a greatest hit set from the legendary artist throwing in ‘Sunshine Superman’, ‘The Little Tin Soldier’, ‘Season of the Witch’ before rounding out an extremely well received set (reggae accents aside) with the classic ‘Mellow Yellow’ and ‘Atlantis’. An impressive booking for an ever impressive festival.
I missed the intriguing combination of talent by Ciaran Lavery and Ryan Vail earlier in 2015, so I made sure to wander back to the woods to find out what all the fuss was about. The duo are an unlikely pairing given their different genres but sitting beneath swaying trees bathed in coloured lights, you could call me a convert to Sea Legs. Ciaran’s vocals are haunting when combined with Vail’s sparse electronic interludes. This performance will be the last we see of the project for a while but a beautiful rendition of SOAK’s ‘Sea Creatures’ leaves me delighted to have witnessed the surprising crossover.
I’m determined to see one last band before heading back to our tent and so off we set to see The Bonnevilles. Oddly the walk to the stage seems darker than earlier and on arriving at the stage it is clear there is a power outage. After a long delay the power returns and Andy & Chris dive back in without a proper sound check. The result is a performance that isn’t quite up to their lofty standards through no fault of their own. The gigantic bluesy riffs and soul destroying drums are still present during ‘You’re Not Alone’ and ‘Son Of Reverbio’ but the sound isn’t quite right despite all of the duo’s energy. Ahead of their forthcoming third studio album we are introduced to ‘My Dark Heart’ which unfortunately is cut short by yet another power cut. A short break later and more tense communication between the band and sound crew, they are back and finish what sounds like another great addition to their repertoire. Not long after ‘Army of One’ the power goes for the third and final time without a proper end to a set. The band deserve huge credit for playing through their sound difficulties but could definitely have commanded a bigger stage given their calibre.
► Day two – Saturday
A relatively decent night’s sleep combined with a nice and greasy breakfast bap mean that I’m all set for a 12 hour plus shift of checking out all the other live music Stendhal has to offer. First stop this morning was to Keady Corner for Susie Blue. Susie came highly rated from my two Chordblossom colleagues and has definitely grown from quite a shy performer to appearing full of confidence in front of the festival’s early risers (if you can call 11.30 early that is…)
Freak’s have been awfully quiet of late so I was pleased to see the boys from Strabane even if they were (self admittedly) a bit worse for wear from a late night session in the camp site. Nevertheless their infectious brand of pop rock makes for a good start to the day and it raises a smile to see their trademark festival flag being waved down at the front. From ‘Red or Green’ (where is the official release?) to easily one of the best tracks to come out of Northern Ireland in recent years, ‘A Minute More’, it is an early morning treat. A short stop off at Keady Corner for prospects Riot Upstairs proves to be worthwhile. The youngsters are still very much learning their trade but support slots with the Wood Burning Savages & Lost Avenue are beginning to pay off and their grungy indie rock is really coming to the fore.
On the opposite site of the spectrum, it is back to Karma Valley for a beautiful set from Hannah McPhillimy. The songs in the set swell and flow under the guise of her full band ensuring that everyone in the nicely packed tent is well and truly under her spell. It doesn’t matter how many times I hear it but standing at the back of the tent, I’m left with goose bumps yet again during ‘Still’. We have a pressing engagement at the end of Hannah’s set and it is that our Kickstart 2015 winner, Lauren Bird is playing the Woodtown stage. Her set is full of breezy ukulele songs and self-deprecating humour which is amusing giving how honest and enchanting her music can be. It is also another chance for us to hear her new single ‘Goodbye, Good Luck’ in the flesh ahead of its official launch later this month.
Ryan McMullan is an artist I have been keen to catch live for a while and his short set at Stendhal, justified the hype. Effective use of loop pedals, the humorous ‘Innocent Song’ (for all you dirty minded folk) and of course the stunning ‘Holding Me Down’ culminated in a captivating performance from the Portaferry man. Over at Keady Corner, Edward Butler (formerly Scratch My Progress band, HOWL) kicks off the Oh Yeah Takeover in style with a synth based set showing off the full compliments of his soulful vocal range. A quick stopover at Karma Valley, allowed me time to take in tail end of Hurdles set. The band has been locked away in Start Together Studios working on the follow up to their debut EP and it seems that the Northern Irish music community missed them. The busy tent was rocking whenever they unleashed ‘France’ which still sounds as fresh as the first time it graced my ears at Spectrum 2014.
Late afternoon/early evening on Saturday is the beginning of a series of clashes, yet as much as I long to watch the odd full set part of the festival experience is just dabbling in all there is to offer. The spell beings with a short stint watching singer songwriter Jason Clarke bringing a more straight up pop sound to the day. His soulful voice lets us enjoy ‘Gotta Go’ and ‘Ashes’ without feeling too guilty that we should be elsewhere. Yet the opening to Kings of Leon’s ‘Use Somebody’ sends me back on my travels to Karma Valley once again. The artist in residence this time is the winner of the 2014 Northern Ireland Music Prize, Robyn G Shiels. His reputation for writing dark and foreboding songs should not dissuade anyone from catching him live. Though the songs feature depressing lyrics, Robyn’s delivery is quite beautiful and it is not long before he has the audience lapping up every song. A quick jaunt up the hill to Keady corner and I’m ready to experience Shadow Police for the first time. Without a doubt their sound is a throwback to the synth heavy pop music of the 80s and this helps set them apart from other young bands across the province. If that has you intrigued, give ‘Sleep Tonight’ a listen and then keep your eye out for this young duo playing a gig near you soon.
Many would say that a musician like Katharine Philippa deserves to grace the main stage of a festival with a heavy focus on Northern Irish music and you would be right. Her live shows feature both moments of sparsity whilst also being diverse and fractious. Despite gusty winds and the prevailing overtones of a brass band in the distance Katharine triumphs. ‘Broken to be rebuilt’ is a real highlight and the only let down is that more people aren’t there to witness this performance. Part of me wondered whether I would give Go Wolf’s set a miss given the numerous other venues I’ve seen them play but their slick brand of indie-pop keeps me wanting more. The addictive nature of the likes of ‘Running’ and the summery goodness of ‘One More Night’ leave a real feel good factor in the air that many bands would kill for. Across the festival site I manage to fit in a slice of Oh Volcano before foraging for some dinner. Gone is the indie rock of old and in its place the Strathern brothers dabble in foot tapping electro pop. The songs from their debut EP Don’t Know Love make up the majority of a rather enjoyable set and while I miss the guitars of old, their knack for writing big, bold songs remains the same.
After some much needed sustenance it was time to check out a band who literally put a hole in a stage at last year’s festival. Still the organisers must have appreciated how awesome their set was as Making Monsters were invited back again this year. Despite being on a slightly smaller stage, they make sure their presence is felt. ‘Attention’ rings out across the fields while feisty frontwoman Emma, prowls the ground in front of the stage. As well as their tried and tested songs it is also the first run out for several new tracks including ‘Call Me Out’ which is without doubt a typical no holds barred Making Monsters classic in the making. Back at Keady Corner, Shannon Delores O’Neill’s Sister Ghost are making similar waves to an attentive hoard of local music fans. Unfortunately I’m too late to hear their cover of Radiohead’s ‘Just’ but ‘Scent’ and ‘Little Lamb’ provide plenty of aural enjoyment for my ears. In all senses the band just seem to be playing music they love to people they love, is there anything better?
Despite all the hype (mainly from local musicians it must be said) I only manage to catch ‘Peaks and Troughs’ from We Were Promised Jetpacks which fills me with regret given how engaged most onlookers seem by the Scots. Yet that sacrifice allowed me to catch all of R51’s set, and yes they knocked it out of the park. People may get sick of us preaching about how incredible this band is but until you see them in the flesh you simply can’t comprehend. From the sweet shoe-gaze of ‘Slowhound’ to the beastly rock of ‘I Hate This Too’ and in tribute to an earlier Oh Yeah show, a truly rip-roaring cover of Bjork’s ‘Play Dead’, this is a band in top form. With a bit of luck I manage to sneak down to the end of a set from Rainy Boy Sleep, who is surrounded by a huge crowd at the Air tent. The crowd are clearly delighted to have him up in Limavady and sing back every word of his latest single ‘Manchester Post’, his debut album can’t come soon enough.
One last walk to the canopy of trees in Woodtown as a stripped back Amidships (JP & Chris) serenade us. ‘The One’ and ‘Sine Waves’ are tantalising prospects particularly when watched from a wooden bench in such stunning scenery. My final engagement of the festival is a return to Keady corner to watch the first festival headline slot for the hottest indie band in Northern Ireland right now, Hot Cops. I was a bit worried how they would fill a slot of nearly an hour but I shouldn’t have worried, it was easily their best live show to date. Nearly all the early shyness is gone and instead Carl, Nathan and Conor sound tight and seem confident in their own skin. Their nearly 50 minute set is a good mix of old (If you can call March 2014 that) and new. ‘Kenzie’s Farmhouse’ is savagely unrestrained but it is the double whammy of new singles ‘Decay and ‘Six’ that provide real hope for the trio’s future.
It was never in doubt but Stendhal Festival of Art 2015 was another brilliant experience. With the weather holding for the most part, we witnessed a sense of goodwill, camaraderie and just a general level of enjoyment that only this event at Limavady brings, year on year. Year five of the festival was another one to be treasured, and I left with feelings of warmth from memories created but also a twinge of sadness that I’ll need to wait another 12 months to do it all again.