Northern Ireland is blessed with only a handful of small festivals for music lovers. Without the big chart toppers to head the bill, festivals like Stendhal Festival of Art in rural Limavady rely upon a more creative approach. The festival returned for 2017 with Downpatrick lads Ash to headline Friday night, with Saturday boasting the Magic Numbers.
Before venturing to any festival, the biggest concern always relates to the weather. Thankfully Limavady on Friday afternoon, the sun kissed fields called for sunglasses over wellies. As people make their way into the grounds, setting up tents and getting the first drinks in, it can be hard for the early artists to draw in a crowd. After only catching Beauty Sleep from the campsite (sounded great, guys), Susie Blue was next on the main stage. The band produced a sound worthy of the Stevie Martin stage, this year named after the late Rainy Boy Sleep. The older emotional sound of tracks like ‘May 9th’ were mixed with newer material including last single ‘Be A Lady’. In their current line-up, Susan Donaghy has taken full advantage of the full band set up with a real alt rock edge about them these days. The band jammed their way into their closer, the brilliant, anthemic ‘People Like Us’.
Over on the festival’s second stage, Karma Valley, Glass Wings was taking full advantage of the good weather to bring out some soulful sounds. Having only witnessed the Stephen Jones outfit play solo acoustic sets, it’s clear the backing of a band, or a bigger stage, brings out the best in his voice.. Taking tracks mainly from his debut EP released earlier this summer, Glass Wings give a good rendition of lead single ‘Made For Me’, before ending on the unreleased ‘Beating Heart’.
As a repeat winner of Ireland’s Best Small Festival, it is no surprise that Stendhal packs its grounds with stages full of amazing talent. Hopping from one stage to another, the compromise is that there’s only enough to time to catch the odd track or two. The smallest of the stages, Woodtown, sees Katie Richardson’s Goldie Fawn and band play a fittingly intimate set. True to form, Richardson’s vocals are as dazzling as her outfit with songs like personal favourite ‘Savages’ and a new one they haven’t played… ‘Until Now’. On the Henry McCullough stage, two-piece Wake America utilise bass, guitar, synths and beats to produce a heavily layered sound that is well received by the masses.
The Henry McCullough stage is the venue for another two-piece in the form of REWS. The London based duo of Shauna Tohill and Collette Williams have only released one single to date in ‘Miss You In The Dark’, which proves to be the highlight of their set. Stripped of the polished studio production, the band produce a real raw and rocking performance of meaty riffs and dual vocals. ‘Violins’ off their forthcoming album, shows what the band are best at, big choruses and strong hooks. Delivered to a busy corner of revellers, their enthusiastic set is as enjoyable as they come.
The first of the inevitable clashes to really get to me has two exciting Derry artists competing at opposite sides of the site. Ryan Vail and his dark electronic sound lit up the main stage for the first time with the aid of his new audio-visual show. Vail continues to grow in confidence and just as his electronica rises and falls with his hushed vocals, next single ‘Shadows’ should create some waves. Our only wish is that he was on a little later to truly showcase those visuals.
Across the site, another artist creating waves was ROE who drew a big crowd to the woods. Her latest EP has been subject to plenty of critical acclaim and big things surely await. Proving there’s no smoke without fire, ROE delivered a great performance of songs such as the electronic swirls of ‘Etc, Etc’ and the straight-up guitar pop of ‘Thomas’. ROE concluded with ‘Playground Fights’, a regular feature of her live sets that proves a great vehicle for her Derry-accented vocals, moving from a melancholy sight to an impassioned cry.
Friday’s main stage headliners were always going to be a big draw, and shortly before 10pm, the Northern Irish legends themselves, Ash walked on stage with aplomb. They had one of the biggest crowds of the weekend, though Queen tribute Flash Harry may have given them a run for their money. Playing material from throughout their career, Tim Wheeler and co seemed to be a band on form as they kicked off a new tour in the Limavady night. The big hitters all elicit a huge response; ‘Kung Fu’ is packed with energy, ‘Oh Yeah’ ensures a singalong and a cover of The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ is understandably joyous as Wheeler takes advantage of their proximity to the song’s birthplace.
Tim Wheeler, smile permanently etched on his face, plays up to the crowd as the transcendent ‘Shining Light’ takes off and the rhythmic muted intro of ‘Orpheus’ gives way to its big riffs via that classic shout of Wheeler.. It is of course the band’s biggest hits that go down best but there’s still plenty of fun to be had throughout. ‘Numbskull’ has the band, and crowd, scream one by one. How bassist Rick McMurray can compete, unmiced, with a big crowd is anyone’s guess. ‘Girl From Mars’ and ‘Twilight of the Innocents’ sit either side of a dubiously lengthy break as the band’s fun headline set draws to a close.
Then it’s a quick jog across the field to the Nerve Centre stage, where unhinged Derry five-piece Scenery are already working the crowd into a frenzy. The tightly packed tent suited the well lubricated and rowdy band. Frontman Stephen Whiteman lived up his 11pm sunglasses with great vocals and a natural ability to woo a crowd. It had the feeling of a home crowd rather than a Limavady field with the crowd hanging on every riff and vocal shout. The addition of sax always helps them stand out and punctuates their take on soul and rock, which should really be prime Baby Driver 2 soundtrack material. A final trio of tracks showcases what they’re all about; the craziness, movements and King Crimson-esque riffing of ‘Mad Thing’ pushed to extremes, the softer and gorgeous ‘Fool For You’ and finally, finally ‘Mad Thing’. The band aren’t the only ones who could do with a lie down afterwards.
After the theatrics have come to an end, the main stage is the setting for a poignant moment as festival and audience come together to commemorate the late, great Stevie Martin who’s name now adorns the stage. The Derry songwriter, best known as Rainy Boy Sleep was synonymous with a festival that held high hopes for him until his death last year, with festival co-founder John Cartwright (coming out to the sounds of Rainy Boy Sleep’s ‘Ambulance’ and images of Stevie) saying they were waiting for him to top their bill for a sell out some year. The festival, and family, should be commended for offering such a fitting tribute to Stevie as a number of artists perform tributes.
At Karma Valley, technical issues delayed Jealous of the Bird‘s late headline performance on the Karma Valley stage but once they got going there were few complaints as sound and light combined for one of the highlights of the weekend. ‘Trouble In Bohemia’ followed by ‘Parma Violets’ and ‘Tonight I Feel Like Kafka’, highlight that the Naomi Hamilton fronted band were in their element. Tracks from the debut album released a year ago sat alongside newer ones such as ‘Morning Comes Soon’ which was a real standout, its sleepy and soft sound seemed fitting in the late and intimate mood. The whistle-along ‘Goji Berry Sunset’ was another; one of Hamilton’s earliest tracks, it is still one of her best and most well known. The band were deserving of a bigger crowd and a more appealing timeslot but those who stayed were rewarded. A gorgeous ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ cover and funky new one ‘Classic Skeletons’ close out a dream set.
Second to grace the mainstage stage on Saturday was Brash Isaac, who kicked off by dedicating their first song to Rainy Boy Sleep. Songwriter Andrew Cameron is perhaps used to performing these songs solo with an acoustic guitar, but today there is a full band leading to a much fuller sound. The 12pm slot may struggle for a big crowd but the four-piece deliver a sound as big as the stage as they play through a set of mostly new tracks. There’s still time for Cameron’s melancholy amongst the more uptempo tunes before they give first ever release ‘In The Dark’ a run-through, giving it a slightly different spin.
At Woodtown, the experimental Hiva Oa‘s first set of the day may have started while I was in the midst of a coffee queue but there were plenty more in attendance. The heavy clash of drums, synths, guitar and reverberating vocals are a crowd pleaser. Set closer ‘A Great Height’ hits hard, descending into frenetic guitar wailing and pedal manipulation for maximum feedback.
With the August sun splitting the knitting adorned trees of the Wooly Woodland stage, a crowd representative of Stendhal forms to see Rebekah Fitch. A mix of families, young people and the odd musician gather to be blown away by Fitch’s seriously impressive pop vocals atop a bed of keys and extra backing sounds. Fitch’s hook filled pop sound is fitting for a sunny afternoon in the woods, though without doubt she could have graced and impressed on a bigger stage. ‘Here We Go’ is prime evidence, the catchy pop song centres on a staccato piano melody with harmonisation and Fitch’s layered, harmonised vocals. Her penultimate track is a new one with a new mood, the considered, atmospheric intro includes synth sounds, piano and Fitch’s flute playing before building to rising vocals and biblical references.
Armagh’s BRØR, who won a place at the festival thanks to winning our Kickstart competition back in March, were keen to impress. The rugged two-piece attract a good crowd to the Henry McCullough stage and have the songs to match their earnestness. ‘Everybody Else’ delivers a chorus of “wahoo” from Ben Whittington and impressive drumming from brother Johnno, with a persistent rim beat in the verse and letting loose in the bridge. Johno is the picture of enthusiasm, a mass of hair and drumsticks between regular backing vocals. Quieter tracks like ‘Like A Tidal Wave’ are mixed with their typically rocky efforts including the urgent ‘Coney Island’. The brothers have their own distinct sound from their rhythms to their chorus hooks and vocals, earned by years of playing together. First single ‘Something New’ is peak BRØR. The quieter intro sharply explodes with a shout and beat, taking an inquisitive toddler upfront by surprise. The band finish with a last gasp of ‘I’m not falling apart’.
Undoubtedly one of the more niche acts on the bill, the post-rock Overhead, The Albatross nonetheless found themselves setting up on the main stage at 6pm on Saturday. A set of cinematic post-rock instrumentals filled the ears of a big crowd gathered under the sun. The Dublin six-piece, including local stalwart Rachael Boyd, could scarcely have fitted on the smaller stages and in the truth the scale of their sound was at home on the biggest setting. The instrumentals ebbed and flowed, instruments including the dual guitar attack, disguised in reverb, falling in and out of various movements. A welcome surprise package for many in attendance.
With 8pm comes peak time. The sensitive and quiet piano centric pieces of LARKS floated from the recently renamed Oh Yeah Centre stage. Fiona O’Kane’s gorgeous songwriting backed by guitar and drums was stuck competing with Portaferry boy done good Ryan McMullan. The songwriter has found incredible success this year after joining Ed Sheeran on tour but still found time to play a festival that has stayed close to his heart. McMullan, splitting his time between acoustic guitar, piano and his smokey voice, is now well at home on the big stage playing tracks such as ‘A Winter’s Coat’ (premiered right here. We’ll not hold too much hope on premiering the next one..) and ‘Ghosts’. Another challenger for the 8pm crowd is Joshua Burnside at Woodtown. Tracks from his first album ‘Ephrata’ are backed here by drums, bass and trumpet with memorable performances including ‘Holllogram’ and old favourite ‘Black Dog’. The ever-popular, just for Northern Ireland ‘Red and White Blues’ is followed by ‘Tunnels, Pt 2’. It may not have the bluster of the studio but Burnside and band deliver it with vigour before he returns solo for the appropriately titled ‘One More’.
Woodtown also plays host to Stendhal favourite Rosborough, playing his second set of the weekend following a Friday evening solo set. Here he’s joined by a drummer and a decent smattering of backing tracks. The now signed Derry artist is a regular feature of Stendhal and always a highlight. I last saw Rosborough at the festival two years ago with a bigger, down to rock & roll, band, this year it’s an altogether different sound. Playing material from his album in the works, Rosborough is at complete ease during his well received set. His unmistakable voice and indie guitar playing work their way through mature songs including ‘We Are All Made Of Gold’, one of the best here. The soft and slow ‘One By One’ draws the ear to Rosborough’s voice, falsetto and all, and plaintive lyrics before playing his most rocking track about ‘mad clampits’ named ‘Tommy’.
Speaking of Stendhal highlights, Making Monsters returned yet again to rip through a pulsating set. Leaving their heaviest tracks to last including ‘For What It’s Worth’, the band leave nothing in reserve. Frontwoman Emma Gallagher, not one to adhere to the boundaries of a stage, knows how to get a crowd onside and again the Derry rockers deliver.
A different kind of energy altogether headlined the Oh Yeah stage. Brand New Friend have built themselves quite a following and seem intent on growing it. The sheer enthusiasm was relentless as the band played out a half hour repeated cycle of; great track, rapturous reception, and breathless stage chat from Taylor Johnson. The high tempo keeps up through favourites like ‘Settle Down’ and ‘Your Friends Hate Me’ as Johnson repeats Tim Wheeler’s promise of bringing them on tour and thanks the jumping crowd for giving the Magic Numbers a miss. I did catch a few lines of the Magic Numbers‘ set closing ‘Harvest Moon’ cover mind.
Saturday’s graveyard slots had a selection on offer. Skipping the Celtronic DJs and dancing at the Wooly Woodland, I opted for a one-two on the Karma Valley and Woodtown stages. No Oil Paintings are part of the furniture at the Limavady festival now, but they’re a different beast entirely from their earlier performances. With a new EP under the belts, the band look and sound like they are building something great. Few bands can open their set with three different band members taking lead vocals on the first three tracks. Their vocal talents are on full display on ‘Rise’, which represents their mature, folk sound well before Chris Kelly takes the lead on vocals and western tinged tremolo guitar as they impress the Woodtown audience for yet another year.
At Karma Valley, Ciaran Lavery is a song or two into his headline set alongside his new look band. Much like Jealous of the Birds before him, Lavery is somewhat hamstrung by the late timeslot but that doesn’t stop a man at the peak of his powers. Well worn favourites are given another spirited performance such as the always gorgeous ‘Left for America’. Others are revamped or just filled out to utilise the band’s full talents such as the rolling rhythm of ‘Orphan’. ‘Shame’ is stripped away to a singular repeating guitar motif and Lavery’s emotive vocals. Despite the musical tour de force behind him, with guitar, drums, keys and six string bass, Lavery has lost none of his acoustic talents, playing ‘Return to Form’ largely unaccompanied. It’s great to see Northern Irish acts closing out stages at festivals and Lavery is proof that they can deliver. New single ‘Everything is Made To Last’ brings his set to a wondrous finish.
The organisers of Stendhal have gone to great lengths to ensure that 2017 was their biggest and best year to date. While Friday was a night of great music, the all encompassing atmosphere of Saturday is hard to beat. Top artists scattered across a variety of stages, in a gorgeous and well maintained setting, combined with excellent weather and of course plenty of friendly revellers in attendance leaves us with one thought; Stendhal 2017 may be hard to beat.