The best remedy for dealing with the stresses and strains of daily life can be to find a way to get it away from it all. Since my first visit in 2013 to the beautiful Ballymully Cottage Farm, Stendhal has proved to be a very effective remedy for my escapism. Other plans mean a trip to Limavady didn’t materialise last year so I was delighted to make the trip up to Limavady for Stendhal Festival 2018.
Day One – Friday 10th August
After the usual rigmarole of setting up our tent, the first stop was to the Stevie stage where Malojian were filling in for the MIA MMODE. Lying on the grass soaking in Stevie Scullion’s wistful folk proved to be the perfect introduction to a weekend of incredible music. While it was tempting to stay there all afternoon, a Stendhal festival favourite was playing over on the Henry McCullough stage, Rosborough. No matter what stage or set up we find Glenn Rosborough in, he always conjures up a magical performance. This year is no different and we find ourselves enthralled by ‘Burn Blue’ and latest effort ‘Fall To Earth’.
We revert back to sprawling on the warm grass for an Ulster Orchestra collaboration with a trio of Derry musicians in Reevah, Susie Blue and Rebecca Mulhern. It is a treat to see the Ulster Orchestra in a festival setting and the opportunity to hear the trio’s songs in a different light is hard to pass up. After our more chilled out start to the day, we wandered towards to catch one of the most currently revered live bands from the province in Hunkpapa. Despite a promising start that features the infectious ‘Burlesque Warriors’ and the more introspective ‘Losing All’, things soon take a turn for the worse. Front man Weston declares that he isn’t feeling well and will go offstage to get a Berocca to try and remedy it but promises to be back in ten minutes. Unfortunately the illness gets the better of them and we are told that they will not be returning.
Thankfully for Naomi Hamilton and her band, Jealous Of The Birds enjoy a pain free set with no technical hiccups unlike last year. Playing much earlier in the day to a substantial crowd, the reworked version of ‘Trouble in Bohemia’ and current single ‘Plastic Skeletons’ are all well received. Encouragingly Naomi appears more comfortable with the limelight that has come with her success and the tight bond between her band has helped transition her from fledgling solo singer songwriter to the front woman of a band that looks set to tackle the US market.
After checking out some of the more established artists I popped my head into the Nerve Centre stage to see some of the more up and coming outfits. Hailing from Derry, four piece the Luna Kicks caught my eye. Catchy indie pop is the offer of the day but with songs like ‘Something Now’ in the locker, they’ll be hoping to replicate the success of fellow Derry band Lavengro. On the complete other side of the spectrum, the Stevie stage is enraptured by country star Derek Ryan. While not exactly my cup of tea, the Carlow native had one of the largest crowds of the day and left both young and to jive to their hearts content.
Back on the Nerve Centre stage, Dublin’s Atticus managed to cause quite a ruckus. The four piece’s set was a lesson in aggressive rock that saw a mosh pit break out and left several parents running to save their kids from the onslaught. The largest crowd of the Friday gathered down at the Karma Valley stage to catch The Wailers. Quite what the band will have made of the quaint Limavady setting is anyone’s guess but their greatest hits set went down a storm. Featuring classics such as ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, ‘Is This Love’, ‘No Woman, No Cry’ and of course ‘One Love’, there was a real feel good vibe emanating from the farm.
While The Wailers were winning hearts and minds, a quick delve into the woods would’ve led you to discover the majesty of Le Boom. Nestled amongst the trees with the band veiled in pale lights, it felt like a secret rave that the majority were missing out on. Chris and Amie played with a relentless energy that left their audience wanting to reciprocate in kind with plenty of shapes being cut and quite a few of the younger generation wishing that it wasn’t an adults only zone.
Despite the intensity and excitement from Le Boom, my desire to keep checking in on the newest talent got the better of me and led to another visit to the Nerve Centre stage. This time it was populated by one of the most talked about prospects, Cherym. The three piece play with a real swagger that belies their age and relative lack of gigging inexperience. Performances like this will soon have promoters jumping up and down to get them at their next shows. Paper/Boy close out a day of fresh talent and prove to be worthy headliners with a set full of indie punk charm. While the extended intro may not be to my taste, there is no denying that ‘Guerilla Therapy’ is an absolute banger.
The Friday programme is closed out by an exquisite performance by Joshua Burnside. Despite a distinct chill in the air, a good crowd gathered in Karma Valley to witness Joshua play a multitude of tracks from his NI Music Prize winning album ‘Ephrata’. Thrown into the mix are two of his latest releases ‘A Man Of High Renown’ and ‘Northern Winds’ while the anti-sectarian ‘Red and White Blues’ draws large cheers from the crowd. Amongst his own material we get treated to a multitude of covers including a rather lovely version of ‘Don’t Want To Know’ by John Martyn. The real treat comes in the encore though with old school favourite ‘Black Dog Sin’ getting a well deserved run out.
Day Two – Saturday 11th August
Slightly sleep deprived, the first stop of day two was the food outlets in Karma Valley to grab a bacon bap and try and shake off some of the grogginess. The late morning sunshine and the easy going vibes of Glass Wings are a good way to ease back in. Backed by a full band Stephen Jones makes the bold move off avoiding playing songs from the Jana From Barcelona EP. In their place, we get a sneak preview of tracks from his forthcoming debut album. Continuing with the easy listening variety, Runabay draw a strong crowd over at the Henry McCullough stage. Their blend of melodic folk and love of multiple vocal harmonies converts many of the early risers in attendance.
Over on the Stevie stage LORE were just finishing a cover of U2’s ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ but they truly soar when Carolann Carlile launches into their own release ‘That Thing I’ve Should’ve Done’. Today the Nerve Centre stage is the Oh Yeah Music Centre stage and a change in line-up times mean that I catch a quick snippet of Alice LA. Those expecting the same slick electronic production as on her debut release might have been surprised to find her playing a stripped back solo set instead. The mark of any well written song is that it sounds good no matter the format and ‘Swipe Right’ and forthcoming ‘Prosecco’ are well suited to just acoustic guitar.
Back in Karma Valley it is hard to resist the sultry soulful vocals and bluesy guitar of Owen Lamont. It is easy to see why Panarts recently took him out to Nashville to play some gigs Emphasising the family affair he points out his young family and remarks at how confused his daughter looks seeing him up on such a big stage. Over on the other side of the Valley, Paddy Nash and Paul Casey have joined forces to give many of the younger bands a masterclass in song writing. Nash in particular never shies away from covering politics and ‘Wow Wah’ offers a biting commentary on reality TV like X-Factor.
Over in the Woodland it was clear that a special performance was going on and further inspection was required. Blasting through the trees was the vocal powerhouse Amy Montgomery determined to draw as many possible to her siren songs. The woodland was heaving on my arrival and Amy and her band featuring Michael Mormecha on drums had everyone captivated and dancing along.
Having played among the trees last year, Rebekah Fitch had the privilege of playing the Stevie stage which highlights how far she has come over a short period of time. Clearly relishing the occasion Rebekah casts a spell over her crowd with ‘A Love So Crazy’ an excellent reminder of what a talent she is. The prospect of getting up in front of a sizeable crowd and singing fills me with dread but thankfully there are plenty of volunteers for Girls Rock School NI‘s Bandeoke session. The house band provide the backing for a host of fun covers from artists like P!nk, Cyndi Lauper and Katy Perry with all participants revelling at the opportunity to front a band live on stage.
The fear of being asked to get up and sing meant that I ventured back to the woods to catch Vokxen. The trio lean heavily on the electronic side of pop and have crafted two absolute belters in the shape of ‘Running’ and ‘Ignite’. Back at the Oh Yeah Centre stage there is a buzz surrounding the arrival of current indie favourites Hand Models. Their brand of catchy guitar rock isn’t exactly the flavour of the month but ‘Skate Shoes’ is undeniably the summer soundtrack you have been looking for while their next single ‘Banana’ typically has more earwormy hooks to wrap your head around.
Back over on the Stevie stage Derry duo Waldorf & Cannon romp through a set of bluesy garage rock and I share the sentiment of unreleased track ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ as all the running about and a lack of sleep begin to tell. A seat over at the Henry McCullough stages beckons to witness the next chapter in Kitt Philippa‘s burgeoning career. A huge crowd packed under the canopy and were privileged to hear plenty of new material from Philippa’s debut album due out towards the end of the year. ‘Farenheit’ in particular sounds like one to keep an eye out for while ‘Home’ sounds as stunning as ever. Previous live shows would have Kitt nearly overcome by intense emotion but tonight there seems to be a level of quiet contentment which is lovely to see.
While I’d like to sit a little longer the prospect of seeing Cormac Neeson without the juggernaut of The Answer behind him is too tantalising a proposition to miss. Deeply introspective, Cormac bares his soul for all those packed into the woodland to see. It will be interesting to see how traditional fans of The Answer will take the forthcoming ‘White Feather’ record but they should embrace the Nashville infused folk for it is as interesting as anything the band have released. Continuing with the folk tinged rock, last minute stand-ins No Oil Paintings sees a mix of young and old dance in the evening light and perhaps give the organisers food for thought for booking them for next year.
Portaferry’s Ryan McMullan continues to climb up gig and festival bills and is undoubtedly set for stardom in the not too distant future. This raised profile isn’t enough to stop him playing in a field in Limavady and the singer turns in a stately set that showcases his credentials as a songwriter and live performer. Expect to hear ‘Bowie On The Radio’ all over your radios and spotify playlists early in the autumn. Northern Ireland’s other great hope is that of ROE and like McMullan is making a habit of playing venues and events far from these shores. Her set on the farm is full of energy and bite and ‘Hey Thomas’ and ‘Wasted.Patient.Thinking’ sound just as polished live as they do in studio format; quite an achievement given that ROE plays solo.
Despite the looming threat of rain all weekend, the heavens only open before Embrace’s set which is must have been a relief for the organisers given the terrible weather that plagued Sunflowerfest earlier in the summer. Britpop regulars Embrace were seen by many as a savvy booking by the Stendhal team by being suitable for all ages and offering something of a nostalgia trip for those of a certain age. Their set while a little heavy on new material to begin with soon descends into something of a greatest hits sets but the sprinklings of earlier material in ‘All You Good Good People’ and ‘Come Back To What You Know’ help and provide some respite for early technical problems. The undoubted highlight of their performance is a double header of their biggest anthems ‘Ashes’ and ‘Gravity’. Although it truly is pouring many are just too busy singing the words back to the McNamara brothers to care.
Easily the hottest band from Northern Ireland right now, it would have been a shame to miss out on Brand New Friend and judging by the crowd backed around their stage, we weren’t alone in that opinion. Typically raucous, the Johnson sibling fronted band display their relentless energy and passion for playing live with only the fact that the set is being recorded by the BBC, mostly, preventing Taylor from swearing. From ‘Your Friends Hate Me’ to ‘Milk Chews’ to ‘Hate It When You have To Go’, Brand New Friend are the perfect festival band and quite frankly they are impossible to ignore.
Although Brand New Friend could be viewed under a canopy, it was necessary to brave the rain to catch the headliners of the Stevie stage, The Wood Burning Savages. A band renowned for their blistering live show and tonight they put on a performance that will live long in the memory. The sublime ‘I Don’t Know Why I Do It To Myself’ is an early stand out while we get a visit from Waldorf & Cannon on a special version of ‘Living Hell’. The set is filled with front man Paul Connolly’s pleas to love and support each other and most importantly love ourselves, a particularly poignant given the stage they are performing on. Never shy to voice an opinion on issues, during a cover of Tom Robinson’s Power in the Darknesss, Connolly disappears off stage before re-appearing dressed as a Tory where he returns to mockingly lecture us. After some sharp words and finger pointing, the suit is ripped off and normal service resumes – really words don’t do it justice. The surprise of the set though is the re-introduction of old school classic ‘America’ into their set. While it clearly wouldn’t have been a good fit for their debut album, it is an undeniable crowd pleaser that should be in all their sets going forward. Though the crowd are soaked to the skin, an encore is demanded and the band return with ‘Lather Rinse Repeat’ and ‘ Thoughts of You’ which are truly emphatic. The only thing missing from their set was some crowd surfing but there was just too much of a gap between the stage and the barrier to allow it.
The festival is closed out by one of Northern Ireland’s other premiere live bands in the shape of And So I Watch You From Afar. The continuing heavy rain doesn’t dissuade thousands of fans from descending on the Karma Valley stage for one last time. Backed by an impressive lighting set up the band are a truly well oiled act and blast through an incredible set that encompasses their recent album and as well as their back catalogue.
And that was that, a truly incredible weekend of live music that provided an escape for 8,000 revellers in the beautiful Limavady countryside. The festival was blessed with good weather until the late evening on the Saturday and to be honest such was the quality of entertainment on offer most wouldn’t have been put off if it had come earlier. The team behind Stendhal Festival can part themselves on the back for their biggest event yet and surely another victory for the Best Small Festival will be forthcoming. They deserve a well earned rest for a week or two but then they need to get back to the drawing board as they will have their work cut out to make 2019 even bigger and better.
You can check out our Stendhal Festival 2018 Photo Gallery here.