Stendhal Festival, Limavady. For many this will have been a long time coming. Two years since the last the summer festival, a little less since the last time we’ve witnessed live music. Some of course will have been in attendance at Stendhal’s July event, with numbers greatly reduced but a welcome restart to bringing back live music to Northern Ireland. Up went the hand sanitiser dispensers; covid tests introduced for performers and social distancing encouraged for festival goers. By and large however, for many, it will feel like Stendhal had never really been away. Despite the measures taken, the reduced capacity and undoubted apprehension from many, Stendhal’s 10th anniversary felt like the festival had never really been away.
With that sense of business as usual still brewing, Friday afternoon brought the inevitable. Rain and missing some wonderful artists whose set times proved too early for our travel arrangements. Laytha, Sarah Toner and The Magazine Club to name just a few, all unfortunate casualties. Thankfully two hugely gifted songwriters were my first re-introduction to live music on a festival stage. Joshua Burnside and Laura Quirke have been on run of tentative live shows since the release of their collaborative EP, this being the first performance I have managed to catch. Two songwriters with talent and charm, the pair switch between guitar, banjo and piano while their voices weave even and out. Burnside’s regular appearances at Belfast’s folk clubs shine through alongside Quirke, this is simply two folk singers playing through a set of originals and covers. Songs from the EP and older tracks like Burnside’s ‘Holllogram’ intertwine like their beautiful voices in the humidity of Friday afternoon as the rain clears, harmonies floating together. A gentle and warm introduction to myself and many to the festival weekend.
Over on the Air stage, there’s just time to catch Gemma Bradley before a walk back to the campsite for some tent admin. Bradley is flanked by Rwanda Shaw and Sasha Samara, herself due to perform tomorrow. The whole set up is exquisite. Bradley’s music has taken a turn into a more produced pop direction recently, but here at Stendhal with a more stripped back set up, her raw talents shine through. The three voices in perfect harmony are joined simply and sufficiently by some rhythmic acoustic from Bradley. There’s older tracks like ‘Hollow Heartbeat’, ‘Rumours’ and a new one ‘Better’, all given the laid back, acoustic treatment with the beautiful, layered vocals.
Dea Matrona as a live prospect have intrigued me for a while. How I’ve managed to miss them with their regular busking performances in the city is anyone’s guess. But their rooted in classic rock sound seemed like it would be perfect festival fare. And with their rocked up set on the Karma Valley, they proved that to be an absolutely spot on prediction. The three-piece have done numbers online, with a big social media following and views racking up, and it’s not hard to see why. The twin-headed musicianship of Orlaith Forsythe and Mollie McGinn are backed up by sister Mamie McGinn on drums. McGinn & Forsythe switch up instruments, pull out all manner of stage moves and generally play to the crowd and the cameras. There’s originals, there’s covers, and they’re all delivered with virtuosic ferocity and fun. A rip through of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ is a standout, as well as witnessing McGinn bust into an impressive slide solo, but their own tracks including latest single ‘Stamp On It’ carry similar energy. Dea Matrona attract a big crowd on Friday, and fill the slot perfectly by raising pulses for those looking a little rock. A very different set carries on over on the Henry McCullough stage as Malojian brings out his soft psychedelia. With old songs brought back with the latest incarnation of his band, new tracks are brought out of his living room and onto a stage for the first time. Songs awash with melody, given texture by reverberated guitar noise and all held together by Stevie Scullion’s soft voice and chords.
A quick flit between Pat McManus (bursting into fast paced innuendo filled blued rock), pizza and Conor Scott leads me to David Keenan finishing his set spectacularly, adorned in waistcoat and face paint. A real highlight here a couple of years ago, word has clearly got around. A big crowd, many pushing towards the barrier for the first time today, gather as Keenan and his band of brothers build their way through slow-burning anthem ‘Love in a Snug’. Its big singalong reprise of ‘rain, rain go away, I’ll come down another’ is just asking for the skies to open up but, to the relief of many, stays away all weekend. A line perfect for any festival celebration. The song wilts into slower moments and erupts into life, but there’s still yet time for a last encore after a little debate with the soundman. He could hardly deny the chants of ‘one more tune’ thrown at the stage.
Jealous of the Birds, led by Naomi Hamilton are approaching veteran status now making their second Stendhal appearance of the summer. Parts of the crowd head to the front to singalong, with a great play through of ‘Russian Doll’ and ‘Blue Eyes’, with its fiery guitar, baby, summoning dancing amongst those assembled. There’s time to bring out the whistled ‘Goji Berry Sunset’, a well-worn favourite by now and always a crowd pleaser, just before a blast of ‘Young Neanderthal’ closes things out. It’s easy to forget that JOTB’s last album Peninsula is really getting its live debut, released in a year without shows.
No doubt about it, the Stendhal site is a great setting itself, but it never looks better than when the light begins to fade behind Karma Valley and the lightshow of a big performance carries into the sky. The lights and colours emanating into the darkness above the crowd are just one sign of one of Northern Ireland’s favourites taking to the stage. Ash are back, blasting through favourites including ‘Oh Yeah’ and ‘Walking Barefoot’, their memorable back catalogue and the buzz of the crowd seem to envelope the whole festival. It’s a rather different setting in the woods as BRØR return to the stage, following their return to new music over the last year. Departing from the scene for a couple of years they’re a bit of an unknown secret, with a man in the crowd asking me if he should hang around to check them out. A short while later, there’s a big grin and a wholehearted thanks as he tells me they’re the best band he’s seen today. There’s no pretence about the two brothers, drums and guitar and beautiful vocals. Every song is well received whether it be the rockier numbers or the slower ones. There’s bafflement as the band tackle the spoken one parts of their songs, Ben’s high-pitched “I was out with the girls” is brave. The band haven’t missed a track in their time away, they just gel with genuine songwriting and a genuine performance.
Stendhal have rolled out some of their greatest hits this year, and few seemed to have propelled themselves from a great set in previous years as much as Jordan Adetunji. On the Stevie Martin stage for a 10.45pm start time, Adetunji has the festival jumping. Starting into ‘Riot’ with his band behind him, he jumps between rapped verses, sung choruses and constant words of encouragement and incitement. The crowd shouting back the words ‘they don’t want to no smoke’ like there isn’t a choice. There’s funk and groove thrown into these songs, but all delivered with the self assuredness of a rockstar. ‘Party in the Streets’ is a big crescendo of a closer that for many will have topped off their Friday night brilliantly. For me however, there’s time to catch a new one to me in Losta Plot. The Kneecap man is the closing act on the Wooly Woodland stage with a heavily accented, idiosyncratic performance. Electronica rap? Who’s to say, but it’s brilliant. Beats come in and out, his words filled with classics like “you didn’t go to rule school”. It’s a party atmosphere in the woods, and there’s no complaints when he rolls out ‘Shitfaced’ for the second time in quick succession for an encore. A song with the feel of late night euphoria giving way to the early hours.
After a late night at the campsite, there’s always a collective spirit about Saturday morning and the first set of the day, with those gathered at noon nursing coffees as they settle at the main stage. Lonesome George are the lucky, or unlucky, performers with this first slot. The trad trio take no time finding their feet, each song weaves through its movements and flows into the next with gentle vocals from Myles McCormack leading the way. Fiddle, guitar and mandolin trade alongside shared vocals, with the relaxed nature easing in as the sun threaten to break through the clouds. A Portishead cover sits alongside new tunes like ‘Thunder Wizard’, which yes, agreed is a great name for a song. Following an extended run through of latest single ‘The Lying Devil’, they explain the next song was written pre-pandemic, that a line against restrictions isn’t anti-lockdown and flat as an earth isn’t McCormack outing himself as a flat earther and a regular attendee outside Belfast city hall on a Saturday afternoon. Anyway, Saturday afternoon at Stendhal with Lonesome George is all gorgeous melodies, rhythms and musicianship.
Another dreaded clash gives me a few songs of No Oil Paintings, fixtures and favourites of Stendhal over the year and gearing themselves up for a new single and debut album. Songs new and old are thrown into the mix by the band, tight as ever, with element of folk, rock and country. New track ‘Blitz’ is a rolling number that should be soundtracking a country and western film of old, led vocally by James Doone followed by ‘Release Me’, where they allow brother Sean to sing one. Harmonies and a tight band that doesn’t sound like they’ve been away can’t unfortunately keep me from ducking out early to catch the next act on my list. Sasha Samara, donned in an eye catching red dress with a band in black behind her, is not messing about. She announces her forthcoming debut EP, and narrates her every action on stage, with a full band set of big pop energy. Opener ‘Sunflower’ about unconditional love is our quieter introduction as she plays solo with ukulele, the way many are accustomed to seeing her, but after that she pulls out all the stops with the band. ‘Under my Skin’ is given a rockier sound, with Samara’s spirited performance and front of stage dancing bringing the crowd closer. Her new music seems to have new depths, with a more polished, perhaps more mature sound that’s echoed by the musicians alongside her on stage. ‘Broken Vessel’ is reimagined with a slower burning approach that’s almost hymnal with its dreamy keys until Samara takes a moment, adds some reverb to her guitar and the whole thing kicks in with power. From her spirited pop to her friendly and easy going charm on stage, Samara will have found herself a few new fans.
Circling back to the Stevie Martin stage a while later, Dani Larkin is joined on stage by frequent collaborator George Sloan, fresh from his set with No Oil Paintings. Warming up on harmonium and backing vocals for Larkin’s ‘The Mother Within’, one of many ethereal tracks that make up Larkin’s recent debut album. It’s soon followed by the persistent rhythms of ‘Bloodythirsty’, with Larkin swaying between the plucking of banjo and guitar strings and acapella parts with arresting vocals. Larkin describes the set like she describes her album, soon moving from the dark into the light which is heralded by her masterpiece ‘The Magpie’. The virtuosity of the song’s first half is dynamic and engaging, intricate fingerpicking, percussive tapping that builds in intensity before falling away to soft vocals. A twisting track with interesting movement, before she slows it down again with older cut ‘Samson & Goliath’.
A little bit of ROE follows as she plays her new sound that debuted at July’s event to a big crowd at Karma Valley today. A slower emotive effort much unlike anything she’s done before closes out her set. String quartet Scala Strings take on the dinnertime slot playing through a varied and fun selection of songs including the Super Mario Theme, Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ and Toy Story theme ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’. A relaxed and family atmosphere, they even bring cheers from the crowd with every page turn.
The weekend begins to catch up with me, with set clashes accelerating as my legs do the opposite. Two years out may have taken away my festival stamina but not my enthusiasm. The reduced numbers here this weekend scarcely shows, with good crowds finding their way to the stages and piling forward for some of the bigger acts. As restrictions eased days later, there seems to be little in the way of social distancing at times with friends remarking that there’s a very different feeling from July’s festival. Stendhal like those of us watching live music on a stage for the first time in a long while, are still finding their feet.
A delayed start and straight into ‘In The Heat of the Night’ for Soda Blonde. The Dublin band born out of Little Green Cars released their incredible first album Small Talk just last month, like many unable to fully support the release. It’s no surprise then to hear vocalist and frontwoman Faye express the emotions of being back on stage. Overwhelmed with the feeling, she barely speaks as the band instead let their polished, record-perfect performance dictate things. ‘The Dark Trapeze’ and ‘Terrible Hands’ invoke moving feet in the audience, while ‘Love Me World’ is all majesty and beauty in the August sunshine that peaks under the stage onto the band’s faces at select moments. The band end their set with ‘Small Talk’, an 80s pop song that the band offer to the crowd effortlessly. One of a number of acts making their way up north, unable to take to the live stage in the South just yet. Soda Blonde’s journey to Limavady was well welcomed.
Kyoto Love Hotel, an electronic two-piece from Tipperary and now scattered between Belfast and Cork, walk onto the purple and pink illumination of the Woolly Woodland stage on the other side of the site a short while later. Their sparkling electronica reverberates into the woods and a crowd of friends and newcomers. ‘I Float’ is given a dancier beat but there’s subdued music and spoken poetry elsewhere, plus a stripped back track from a new EP out later in the year with guitar and keys taking over from their usual electronic polish. A set full of ethereal reverb and enrapture best encapsulated in ‘Machine’. With face glitter successfully applied it’s time to race back up the hill for something a little bit ‘special’.
Hand on heart the best moments of the weekend were almost all provided by one man and his long-time cohort Chip. Duke Special was a favourite of mine in his Songs from the Deep Forest but time apart only enlivened my experience of an absolutely triumphant performance on the Stevie Martin stage. The Duke, his piano, and percussionist (drummer doesn’t quite cover it) Chip pull me in with ‘Brixton Leaves’ and it’s big chorus from that wonderful album before romping through ‘I Let You Down’, with Chip battering the drum with a giant hammer, obviously. Duke Special’s set is delivered with comedic charm and masterful playfulness that bring a smile to my face instantly. ‘Nothing Comes Easy’ hits with aplomb and a powerful outro. Queuing up his gramophone after a much more introspective number, Duke Special revs into shouts of “I could go to London” in ‘Salvation Tambourine’. As discordant and raucous as one can get, it goes over brilliantly before the tempo drops again for ‘Freewheel’. Approaching the stripped back bridge, Duke Special weaves in words on Stendhal, dropping the names of acts like Joel Harkin and And So I Watch You From Afar and the joy of feeling alive in a field in Limavady. ‘Digging an Early Grave’ is met by cheers, dancing and singing in a moment of joy and rhythmic catharsis. The whole performance is a wonderful, fun and captivating tour de force. I’ll not be leaving it so long again to catch Duke Special on stage again.
The capacity crowd at The Bonnevilles quickens my pace to ensure I spend with quality time with Newdad. The band starting late, go straight into it as soon as they can. The four-piece bring a wash of shoegaze rock under the awning of the Henry McCullough stage. The stage really is something else at this time of night, bringing an intimate atmosphere with its set up. Plenty are in attendance as word of Newdad’s promise continues to spread. A flash of a pass and assistance from Stendhal’s well travelled photographer Ciara McMullan gets me in behind The Bonnevilles for the last two songs of their set. The crowd is packed to the very front, with others queuing to get into the stage as the festival try to limit numbers for obvious reasons. The band tear rather ferociously through those last two numbers as Andy is lost in riffs, yelps and movement and Chris hammers through cymbal and snare. They’re joined by harmonica for a finale jam that runs on and on through fits and starts. A band made for the stage, no airs and graces, just a big helping of blues rock as their blast their influences out into the crowd.
The next hours blur as phone batteries breathe their last, friends scatter and drinks pour with a bit more vigour. There’s time spent at Kíla and Flash Harry. Both deliver two very different but equally seductive sets from the Karma Valley stage to big crowds. The first with their incredible, danceable Irish trad and the latter, well with Queen classics. Kíla are hugely enjoyable and a big draw for the crowd Stendhal attracts every year, their weaving and restless tunes carry long into the night and toward the cocktail bar where I find myself. After that, it’s hard to argue with the joy of ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ blaring out across the night sky. And So I Watch You From Afar do their thing with a massive light show and non-stop riffs from the main stage. My final pit stop of the weekend sees me experience Drew Makes Noise for the first time. The former Ed Zealous man Andrew Wilson put out some interesting singles over the last year, and for Stendhal he’s joined by a full band of keys, bass, guitar and drum, a combination that sounds superb after midnight. The euphoric chorus of ‘Let’s Break the Night in Love’ hits with the energy of indie Springsteen, a set I wish I’d found my way to much earlier.
That final set of the weekend ends, like many, with shouts of ‘one more tune’. After the enforced time away, there’s no doubt Stendhal at least will be back for more next year after getting their weekend’s tenth anniversary under their belt. This summer’s two festivals were an interesting prospect and despite the natural apprehension of finding one’s self close to a big gathered crowd, the overbearing emotion is one of joy. The livestreams of the past year will still have their place, and for many this weekend was still too early. Those trepidations haven’t fully subsided with the personal responsibility of social distancing at an event like this but personally it would have been hard to take a second summer without festivals and in particular Northern Ireland’s best. Stendhal’s tenth anniversary was a joyous way of welcoming live music back.