Arriving on Friday to the sounds of Son of the Hound wafting over the campsite, I’m in time to witness Joel Harkin‘s first set of the weekend on Quiet Arch’s Air Stage. As always the juxtaposition of cheery banter with sad, and often morbid songs makes for a compelling performance. After a brief walk around Stendhal’s incredible site, I circle back to catch Gemma Bradley on the same stage. Donned in a purple jumpsuit that is only slightly muted by the overcast conditions, Bradley pulls a good crowd into the stage for her spirited pop to brighten the early evening.
A small skip away is Annan’s Arch, where Reevah‘s soft folk finds a beautiful setting as the evening sun pours through the trees right onto the stage. Tracks like ‘Nights’ mingle with new ones as her full band set goes over a treat. Her already gorgeous music is given a golden glow in perfect conditions.
The Woodtown stage plays host to a few young bands from North West Regional College’s MAPA department. Here I witness Happy Out for the first time, a young band making a buzz up in Derry. While the band may have got into a bit too much mischief for the Nerve Centre set later on, Woodtown welcomes them. A small but loyal crowd watches them rip through tracks and solos with buckets of energy. As Derry young man about town Lochlainn Kelly told me on the spot, for having caught their set, ‘consider yourself privileged.’ Fox Colony follow on shortly after, playing their last ever show with a ragtag line up. Frontman Darren Hill is the driving force as they keep up their energy despite being the three piece. While the inter-song jokes fall a bit flat, the songs do not. For the last time, they end on ‘Fragile’, from soft to loud and back again, it’s a powerful and melancholic way to cap their time as a band.
Friday night rock is where it’s at, with women leading the charge. The first of these I catch up with is New Pagans. The band tear through tracks like ‘It’s Darker’ with a snarl as relentless as the heavens opening up. Vocalist Lyndsey McDougall proves a ferocious focal point for their alt rock sound. The beneficiary of the rain onslaught is Cherym who kicked off concurrently on the more sheltered Henry McCullough stage. Their debut ‘Take It Back’ is the one that still warms my punk heart. The final part of this three-piece set-clash puzzle is Sister Ghost at Woodtown. Mercifully all three stages, as with everything at Stendhal, are all in close enough proximity for a bit of stage hopping. Illuminated and colourful, the highlight is less the rain induced power outages and more rip-roaring rock. ‘Fake Friends’ and ‘Backwards’ sound huge, while the latter brings two thirds of Gender Chores onstage for a singalong.
Following on later is Sugarwolf. The band’s precursor, Making Monsters, delivered some of the most memorable sets at Stendhal over the years, and Sugarwolf are keen not to disappoint. But there’s certainly no fear of that. Crowds gather in front of the damp stage as the performance pulsates. Frontwoman Emma Gallagher regularly finds herself in amongst them as the band deliver fast paced hard rock to the fans a few feet away and almost certainly across the festival’s campgrounds much further away. A nu-metal mash-up of Katy Perry’s ‘ET’ is innovative but their own songs stand firm in their own right.
While I only catch the closing strains of ‘Don’t Want To Know’ from Joshua Burnside‘s Stevie Martin stage set, I do catch up with him in the ghostly dark Air Stage later on. A bit of dance music spills from the other stages during the quieter parts, but the cool late evening setting mixes with Burnside’s backing of cello, guitar and trumpet to sound as beautiful as ever. ‘Northern Winds’, ‘Grapes’, it all gets a bit emotional.
Friday night’s real headliners are Ryan Vail and Elma Orkestra who bring their Borders project to one of its biggest stages yet, close to home. Alongside a chorus of strings, there are emotional and ambient moments while there are times when the music lets loose. Bass and beats bind together for a gloriously Irish, or British, rave up in the cold mud of a festival field. The performance seems to leave many wanting the harder parts to continue but the visuals and music make it a genuinely stirring spectacle. Borders will reach much further than Limavady, but here close to their Derry home, is the project’s proving ground and it delivers. As Borders contemplates, a crowd is packed into Wooly Woodland for the Elixir and Antidote MC Showcase. A lively crowd barely lets the curfew cut off deter them. Chants, claps and hollers carry through the night air long after I’ve walked on.
Saturday is where the crowds roll into Stendhal for its biggest day. Weather concerns close the car park and necessitate a huge logistical nightmare for the organisers but one they stand up to. For all the mud, rain and shuttle buses, people still make their way to Stendhal in droves.
I catch a little bit of Stone Jets‘ easy going vibes on the Karma Valley stage and then it’s on to Rachael Boyd‘s magnificent textured music. Largely instrumental, the layered violin, keys and bass cut wash over the assembled audience as they seek shelter. Torrential rain and a few hiccups don’t distract from a stunning set.
I then get my first glimpse of what Conchur White is doing post-Silences. With songs that span from a quiet burn to an impassioned swagger, his new trajectory has plenty of promise. A brief soujourn there and then it’s time for Kitt Philippa. A 1,2,3 of ‘You’, ‘Fahrenheit’ and ‘Human’ is as good and as emotionally wrought any this weekend, they deservedly bring a big crowd after word has spread from their performance there last year.
I catch further glimpse’s of All The Few marking their first performance with some authentic indie while Blue Whale make the noisiest of noise. There’s time to check out Sick Love as they bring their Dublin punk swagger to Limavady for the first time. However my weekend’s highlight in David Keenan. The Irish folk singer is making himself known in front of a Nick Cave sounding band complete with clashes and keys and searching violin. A incredible rolling performance rolls from hardened folk to softer moments, all dripping with Keenan’s personality. Keenan demands plenty of both band and audience but he proves himself to be both an impassioned vocalist and an entertaining to the point of eccentric performer.
The Oh Yeah brings a few artists to Stendhal for another year, and it’s Gender Chores who catch my eyes and ears. The punk three-piece play a short but fierce set about feminism and the patriarchy that goes over well. Another jokey reference to close friends Problem Patterns drops into closer ‘Territory’ which sounds better than ever.
As Saturday night draws to a close there’s time to check out Hunkpapa playing the size of stage their anthems deserve and Mob Wife play a dark, angsty set full of alt rock punches before Arvo Party brings my Stendhal experience to a close for another year. Top marks all round as the festival continues to evolve and improve, Stendhal has become a fixture for me as August rolls around. With truly big name headliners harder to come by, it’s the local artists that provide the backbone to another unforgettable Stendhal, with unmissable acts all over the bill.
It’s a year of firsts for myself, most importantly my inaugural arrival to one of the largest festivals on the island of Ireland. Stendhal, now in its ninth year, rolled around again and I was eager to become acquainted. The largest collection of local acts in the North (with a few friends from elsewhere), Stendhal has been a near decade long testament to the supreme levels of talent available on our doorstep. To say I was excited was an understatement.
I arrive late Thursday night, haggard and all together unprepared for the conditions ahead of me. Nevertheless, your fearless live editor pressed on, eager to make the most of the night. The Stevie Martin Stage beckons for me (not for the last time), as does Annan’s Arch (for the last time). I catch the soul tinged indie pop of SOAK as she enthrals the crowd with her signature vocals – ‘Everybody Loves You’ rings out clear into the frigid air – before having a small head shimmy to the synthwave weirdness of Transpacifica until my tent calls.
The following days proceed at both a blur and a slog, with over 15,000 revellers arriving to Limavady and briefly turning it into one the best trodden locations in Ireland. Opening up Friday was a trio of acts whose stylistic audio differences established the mood for the varied lineup I was to experience. Derry sing-songwriter Caitlin Nash, equipped with a powerful voice that belied her place on the Air Stage’s line up, walked me through a lo-fi acoustic set that gently broke the morning for me. Next up was Derry hopefuls Charity Shop Vinyl. An admitted non-fan of their debut EP, I’d heard tell of their engaging live set (see our writers coverage here) and thought it childish not to give myself the chance to be proven wrong. Indeed, they surprised me with their tremendous energy and it would be remiss to ignore the fact that my first experience won me over somewhat. After this revelation, it was back to the Stevie Martin Stage for Cooks But We’re Chefs. The hip hop/jazz collective are an gripping watch, fuelled by a spicy flamenco flair and no small amount of funk. Their blend of big band presence and fun loving attitude is a hard one to replicate.
Next, it is into the wilderness for Son Of The Hound, whose frontman was having a fantastic time not releasing this week’s episode of Mad Notions. Singer Mick McCullagh is an underrated lyricist, and his fondness for “kind of happy, kind of sad guitar pop” (his words, not mine) was a welcome addition to the stage. His act of bringing human character, the good and bad of it, to the forefront with his tunes is no small feat. Remarkably dancey and upbeat, both ‘Pride’ and ‘Sing’ have an irresistible joy to them. Side note: whoever made ‘The Also Rans’ into a football chant, pat yourself on the back. Great choice.
Making my way back to The Air Stage, I am able to catch the free-flowing jazzy bohemia of Queen Bonobo and the arresting alt-folk of Joel Harkin before a torrential rain fall forces me to take shelter within the Jameson’s Bar. From here however, I catch perhaps the most wholesome sight of the weekend – Viva Magnolia, in defiance of nature, begins his line check amidst a monsoon’s backdrop. A cheer goes up in support, before a small contingent join him on the band stand, joined in silent insubordination of the elements as Magnolia plugs his wears. Soon after, as darkness fell fully, stage headliner and secret guest Joshua Burnside makes his way through the crowd with his band. ‘Northern Winds’ takes on a special significance tonight, chilled to the bone as we were by our own.
As the sun rose on the final day of Stendhal, a new slew of acts took to their respective stages for the biggest crowds of the weekend. The Nordic indie folk and vocal harmonies of the Dimpker Brothers, the full bodied aching soul-pop of Reevah and the Nick-Cavean Americana of Shane Joyce were all early morning highlights as I enjoyed what little sun I could capture before returning to the main stage.
Upon arrival came the personal highlight of the festival. Jordan Adetunji, a fast rising hip hop star, sought to steal the show out from under the headliners. A revelation of a performer, with an addictive confidence, magnetic presence and truly fresh sound, Adetunji is already a must see performer. With a live band that combines elements of hip hop, afrobeat, trap, rock and jazz, his fluid style and grace was amongst the best, if not THE best, I witnessed all weekend.
The day moved on, with performances from mobile indie rockers Bouts and alt-rock newbies Sick Love filling the void until it was time for main stage headliners Hunkpapa to assume their positions. Fresh off the release of their latest single ‘Cappuccino’, the alternative darlings have made a case for being one of the most eye-catching live performers to emerge from the north in recent years. Their undeniable artistic flair is coupled with a truly fresh sound that had the tent swelling at its sides. Despite a full weekend of relentless gigging, the call-to-arms sound of ‘Burlesque Warriors’ had seemingly the entire festival fit to explode into dance. As the set came to an end, we staggered out a collective, sweatier and better-off than when we entered.
Despite the trials of the weather, Stendhal once again reigned triumphant as a beacon for local musicians and talent. It was my first time, and I highly doubt it will be my last.
Boasting it’s strongest lineup so far, Stendhal Festival, now in it’s ninth year, yet again proved why it is regarded by many as one of the nation’s finest small festivals. Despite the unfortunate weather conditions, the festival’s terrific spirit and organisation shone through to create what was another truly memorable year.
Saturday was kicked off for me on the Henry McCullough stage with Kitt Philippa, one of the country’s finest up and coming singer songwriters. Philippa’s set was immersive and haunting from start to finish. Showcasing some of the finest songwriting on the local, Philippa’s ability to craft honest and intimate ballads is beyond comparison, with the multi-instrumentalist and their band showcasing an incredibly intimate and unique liveshow. Tracks such as ‘Human’ and ‘You’ served as highlights of their signature style, while a cover of Billie Eilish’s ‘when the party’s over’ highlighted Philippa’s sheer talent and an ability to make a song their own. Occupying an early slot, Philippa and their band truly set the bar high for what was to come, proving to be an inspired booking by the festival.
Heading over to the Stevie Martin stage, Jordan Adetunji showcased his unique brand of hip hop. Easily the most promising act in his genre to come out of Northern Ireland in the recent times, Adetunji will invevitably be one of the bookings from Stendhal this year that ages the best. Having followed his career from his covers on Facebook years ago, the prospect of seeing Adetunji’s live show following a series of impressive original releases, such as ‘Party in the Streets’, proved to be one of the highlights of the weekend. With every passing release, Adetunji’s potential becomes more and more clear, and with such an engaging and energetic liveshow, there is likely no ceiling to the heights that he can reach.
After watching two top Irish comedians Kevin McAleer and Hannah Mamallis warm up for the incredible Phill Jupitus, one of the most hotly tipped acts on the local music scene, ROE, took to the stage. Having attended Stendhal last year, ROE’s set at the Henry McCullough stage in 2018 proved to be one of the more memorable live sets I’ve attended in recent times. This year, with ROE moving up the bill and releasing well-received new music, this year’s set promised to be even bigger and better. The tent was packed out, with ROE’s new singles ‘Down Days’ and ‘Girls’ receiving massive reactions from the crowd. For a second year in a row, my highlight of ROE’s set was a song dedicated to the death of her grandfather, an event that for her will always be connected to Stendhal Festival. With the crowd behind ROE from the very first song, and a clear expression of gratitude and humility from ROE, the set served as a reminder of the power of local music.
Unfortunately, due to the worsening weather conditions combined with illness that proved the end of my night, however with a stellar lineup for the rest of the night, those that braved the weather were treated to a range of local legends and hugely promising local acts. Stendhal Festival continues to be one of the most unique local festivals, and with the festival growing year after year, it truly is a must attend.