Two years and a bit on from the start of lockdown and the complete shutdown of live music events and times are still hard for everyone involved in the sector. The cancellation of Sunflowerfest this summer shows just what organisers are up against. Stendhal Festival has gone from strength to strength over the years at its home on Ballymully Cottage Farm.
Bar 2020, the Limavady festival has been a fixture of the summer for music fans in Northern Ireland, reliably holding its own as the best in the North. Last year the festival returned across two separate weekends on reduced numbers but last weekend saw the gates opened wide, back to full capacity.
Despite the move to early July, it was the weather that looked to threaten this year’s Stendhal with forecasts looking suitably grim and the antithesis of summer. Thankfully, despite a few showers and at least one proper downpour, the festival went as smooth as you like.
While the festival kicked off on Thursday evening, I arrived on Friday afternoon as things kicked off for the day. With the likes of Lauren Ann and Heart Shaped taking to the festival stages as tents were pitched, it was Susan O’Neill who drew the growing festival goers to the Karma Valley stage. Backed by drums and keys and O’Neill juggling guitars and harmonicas, she drew from her body of work as patches of sunshine found its way through the clouds. An unexpected highlight was a cover of Ray LaMontagne’s ‘Jolene’ with keyboard player Cillian taking the lead, with gorgeous vocals backed by O’Neill.
From one Irish folk songwriter to another, Mark McCambridge aka Arborist made his way onto the Stevie Martin stage, flanked by his seven piece band. Sunglasses on, ‘Man Of My Age’ rang out first. From there his set was filled by songs from his first two albums, leaving plenty of room for new songs including ‘Matisse’, a song with a bit of snap about an artist who ‘didn’t do impressions’. Every song rings out with expert arrangements of strings, keys and guitars, it’s a performance full of warmth and craft. Soaking up the festival atmosphere, McCambridge even chucks a few CDs the fair distance from stage to crowd.
A long time supporter of the festival, the BBC hosted a stage this year which further echoed Stendhal’s commitment to supporting Irish music. My first experience here was Winnie Ama and her expert band. A little rain can’t stop Winnie dancing through releases including ‘What Are We’ and the brilliant ‘Here I Go’. Following her on the BBC ATL Introducing stage was Travi the Native. The rain accelerated as Travi hit out one of the weekend’s best sets, more impressive for the fact that Winnie Ama is a tough act to follow. An artist growing into his current live set up, and backed by drummer Matt Weir, his performance was to win over any passer by. Blasting through his closer ‘Cool’, with a young fan singing every word.
By this point the indecisive weather was taking a turn for the dramatic with downpours testing the resolve of a few. (A special shout out to the poncho distributing hero at the BBC stage.) It was high time for the first of the festival’s bigger names with Villagers on the Karma Valley stage. Conor O’Brien and band begin gently with 2013’s ‘My Lighthouse’ before the delightful sway of ‘Everything I Am Is Yours’ as the heavens truly open. It’s a truly magical set spanning the transition from evening to night, delivered by an artist on song, ending with the one-two of the trumpet flecked euphoric ‘The First Day’ and the dreamy majesty of ‘So Simpatico’.
Over on the Henry McCullough stage at the same time (thankfully a quick walk back and forth away) is Strange New Places. Playing with drummer Rain for the last time, and playing their first live show in a long time, Strange New Places, and particularly vocalist Ash leave nothing out there as they rip through each track. A well placed content warning for the kids is reiterated for the final two songs, although that doesn’t deter the heart-warming sight of kids lining up for selfies with the band immediately after.
The BBC stage ends Friday night with aplomb, first hip-hop duo Tebi Rex have the crowd bouncing along to every song of their performance before Cherym jump on stage at midnight. A set filled with fast pop punk and punctuated by the band calling attention to the current abortion crisis in the US, and closer to home, and making clear they’ve no time for discrimination.
Any fragile heads from the previous night don’t have much respite as the morning quiet ends with Parker crashing proceedings amongst the trees of the Wooly Woodland stage. Fresh from the release of a debut single and a string of live shows recently, the three-piece are in fine form and give the day a kick into life with their relentless Derry punk.
Their set away in the woods is in stark contrast to The Unholy Gospel Band who have been given the Saturday afternoon opening of the Stevie Martin stage for the day trippers and the late risers. Donned in ghostly white undead face-paint and led by vocalist Cormac Neeson, their performance including the maraca fuelled joy of Primal Scream’s ‘Movin’ On Up’ is a delight for the gathered crowd in the afternoon sun. Making his Stendhal debut, Belfast songwriter Rory Nellis and band sound sublime on the Henry McCullough stage, with a warm atmosphere amongst the mixed crowd gathered under the tarp and around the hill.
Where previous years the schedule has been packed out, ensuring clashes left, right and centre, both Friday and Saturday this year seem a little easier on the legs. There’s more time to catch one’s breath between the must-see performers. The stage with the most draw for the local music fan is undoubtedly the BBC stage. Saturday afternoon is filled with great performances from Dark Tropics, performing as a two-piece, and Lemonade Shoelace, one of my highlights of the festival. Armed with a band in sync, and despite just the one single released to date Ruairí Richman has been amassing fans and confidence. Bucket hats and warm sunshine emerge from the clouds as the band create the best vibe of the day. Soft psychedelia and alluring tunes are delivered through a haze of bubbles that must have put a smile on the face of any weary festival goer. It’s a similar story with The Florentinas who impress their young crowd of dedicated fans.
Another highlight takes place round the corner at the Wooly Woodland again as Irish songwriter Pastiche repeats her marvel at playing a stage nestled in the woods. Big pop songs, heavy on the bass and dance energy are paired with Pastiche’s constant encouragement. She succeeds in the cheerleading as the growing crowd moves forward, at one point enveloping the singer who jumps in for a quick dance. Her set is quickly followed by the polished pop of FYA FOX on the BBC stage.
The undeniable highlight of the whole weekend comes from one of the few acts brought in from further afield. Remaining a small festival at heart, it’s important that when Stendhal do swing for the fences with a bigger booking that they get it right. Sister Sledge on Saturday night was everything you’d want. An incredible experience with the crowd stretching from the top of the hill and down into the Karma Valley stage with its new, bigger design. The inevitable muddy hillside thankfully doesn’t prove too precarious despite the need of thousands of festival goers to get moving.
Every song from the legendary Sister Sledge is big, bold and designed for a dance. Jumping right into Chic’s ‘Everybody Dance’ is a sweet introduction and its followed by hit after hit. ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’ sees two lads from the crowd brought on stage to dance off with the band sliding through one of their biggest hits. There’s time for a newly released song, ‘Freedom’, that matches the pulse of the classics, in a set that passes by far too quickly.
Before they spark universal bliss with the classic ‘We Are Family’, they weave through the fantastic ‘Lost in Music’. The song goes on for a joyful eternity, with the band introducing family members to the stage, welcoming sax solos and weaving in covers and returning to the song’s refrain. It’s a real party atmosphere that must have left Hayseed Dixie sweating, before they took to the same stage. In fact, it’s mystifying why Sister Sledge aren’t the final headliner on Saturday night as there’s little that could have topped them.
Following on quickly from the legends slot, The Wood Burning Savages have the unenviable task of enticing those dispersing from Karma Valley to stop at the Stevie Martin stage. With shades of their memorable 2018 performance here, the band sound huge from the stage with no signs of nerves. From here things get a bit hazy as Stendhal moves into its late night phase. Hayseed Dixie gather a respectable crowd once again to the Karma Valley stage, but the party is to be found in and around the woods as DJs populate the stages until 1am. It’s all over a little early for many before the party moves to the campsites, but the highlight of all this is a lethal set from Gilmore that goes hard, while Louise Da Costa battles the elements with vigour at the unsheltered BBC stage.
Once again Stendhal have delivered one of Northern Ireland’s best festival experiences, drawing a near ten thousand crowd to a few fields in Limavady. At the top of the bill, Friday was topped by Villagers’ dreamy set while Sister Sledge brought the party on Saturday evening. Still very much in Covid recovery mode, the line-up didn’t quite have the consistent sparkle of previous years with the balancing act that tries to appeal to the local crowds and the younger Irish music fans up from Belfast and Derry for the weekend. The bulk of the best viewing this weekend was found on the BBC stage, which reinforced the festival’s local music backbone. To the organisers credit, this year the festival made great strides beyond the music, with family activities ramped up and the addition of a small funfair giving the top field a new feel.
All in all, Stendhal battled against the often bleak live music climate and difficult weather forecasts to deliver another top class weekend of music.