Swell Festival 2014
Arranmore Island, Co. Donegal
Arranmore Holiday Village
Surrounded by worn old fishing boats at a rustic ferry port, your weekend begins at a westerly tip of Co. Donegal – waiting for a sea-sailing vessel to whisk you away from mainland Ireland. It’s during this voyage, winding through clusters of tiny isles with the breeze blowing in your hair, that you get the immediate sense that you’re about to embark on a very unique festival experience.
As the boat emerges from the mist and land once again comes into view, you get a first glimpse of the idyllic landscapes of Arranmore Island, your home for the weekend. Not quite Craigy Island, Arranmore is a rather more habitable place than you might think with quaint shops and homely bars burrowed amongst the serene beauty.
A brief cruise down a twisty road and you’ll find Arranmore Holiday Village, the snug festival site with acres of verdant glory stretching out on every side. The campsite soon fills up on the Friday night and although music doesn’t begin until the following morning that doesn’t stop festival-goers from making the most of their first night on the island.
◀ Saturday, 12th July ▶
It didn’t take long to get a taste of the quality of talent on offer as the Dave Muldowney Main Stage provided the platform for the first showstopping performance of the weekend. Poised, shoeless and arched over a keyboard, the dainty Luara McGarrigle aka. Gaze is Ghost sports an unmistakable veneer of resolute self-assurance.
She winds a rich tapestry of ambient melancholy, with high notes of light jazz twinkling every so often to leave chills running down your spine. Her voice has a majestic haunting quality about it, with ‘Invisible Cities’ rocking you back and forth into a bewitched trance. A more expansive rhythm section would add even more intensity and drama to the elegant serenades southing your soul. All astute eyes and ears should be locked on this Co. Tyrone songstress. A simply breathtaking talent.
“Hello. We are the Inishowen Gospel Choir.”, announces Freak’s frontman Ronan Doherty at the start of their Main Stage bow. A latin hymn soon follows, which is an impressive show of commitment to a gag (their harmonies weren’t too shabby either), but it all led nicely into punchy indie jaunt ‘Disconnected’. From the wonky Pot Noodle referencing ‘Number One’ to the summery heart string puller ‘A Minute More’, their set was a surprising procession of one bouncy pop gem after another.
A Freak’s branded flag is proudly raised high within the bustling crowd as their radiant forthcoming ode to 5p crisps, ‘Red or Green’, shone bright. A junket of carefree guitars and sharp beats, it looks set to be their biggest earworm yet – and based their current form that’s really saying something. As afternoon entertainment goes, these Strabanimals know how to get the party started.
Completing the diverse trifecta of the Strabane Saturday afternoon take over on the main stage Gerard i2 mixes a slick flow with hard hitting kit work to create a concoction of high engery hip hop with a raw, gritty glaze. Meanwhile the tie-dyed clad Gabriel Paschal Blake showed off exactly why he’s receiving SOAK level hype at the moment. The seventeen year old Letterkenny native is a dark, lyrical songwriter who’s tales of death and despair are doused in a cape of brooding acoustic folk. Son of an undertaker, Blake’s rendition of a song detailing a childhood spent at funerals was a piercing jolt of morbid anguish. Robyn G. Shiels has somebody to thrive in the darkness with.
Raising the ragtime levels up ten fold, The Heads of State and Farriers provided late evening showcases in harnessing the feel good power of the trusty acoustic guitar. It was a of banquet of heart warming jams and hearty ballads which swooned a captivated tent.
For those who had followed the numerous videos leading up to the Swell, they’d had been well versed in the rural charms of festival figure head John Muldowney. One of those videos included an abduction of Friday evening headliner Duke Special, and that narrative continued as John is greeted by roaring cheers as he shuffles the Belfast balladeer onto the stage in the same bag. The dreadlocked rapscallion is eventually set free by his captor and hastily jumps onto a piano to clobber out some buoyant jolly shanteys.
A mellow ‘Last Night I Nearly Died’ gets the singing voices warmed up nicely as Duke conducts the willing choir in front of him. The stage doesn’t stay bare for long, as fellow piano basher Peter McCauley takes his place at an adjacent drum kit. Memorable jaunts such as ‘Whisky Bar’ get a run out but it’s the assent to a the encore where there theatrics begin.
‘Digging An Early Grave’ begins simple enough, well that is until Gerard i2 makes his way onto stage to up the ante. Duke thrashes away with jarring chords, as the Strabane MC spits out a the pacey ‘Mash ‘Em’ over the top of the show tune instrumental. Gerard’s drummer even gets involved, joining McCauley to hammer home an assemblage of dynamite beats.
It all quietens down for a rendition of ‘Freewheel’, with the Inishowen Gospel choir in toe. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be on the 12th of July!” remarks the impassioned Duke Special which gets a spirited cheer from a fervent tent. A rightful acknowledgement of communal coming together during a date synonymous with division. Never short of drama, the Duke signs off with a clattering finale slamming his palms into his keyboard until it crashes to the floor – playing it until he can no more.
◀ Sunday, 13th July ▶
Day three of the island adventure encourages many punters to become explorers. Some sought the novelty of a parochial house, others took advantage of the glistening beaches. While there were many charms to be found it was the soulful sounds of Inishowen Gospel Choir who provided a Sunday service of eclectic tunes in the John Muldoweny Tent.
Exuding spiky emo rhythms with a fresh punk vibrancy, baby-faced Dubliners Myth made a lasting mark with their early afternoon berth. Despite being quite green, their set featured numerous sparks to set them apart as a genuinely tantalising rock prospect. Their leading lady Alex Webb is a vocalist with stage presence beyond her years. Eyes forced shut, she loses herself in the songs. As their overly excitable guitarist does laps of the stage, Webb is resolute and stationary – effortlessly hitting a soaring wide of range notes. With a female anchor and progressive instrumentals, comparisons to Paramore are inevitable. However Myth’s sound is closer to ‘All We Know is Falling’ era Williams and Co., rather than their recently forays into bubblegum pop. Far more engrossing than they have any right to be, this is a band with a refreshing zeal and time on their side.
Looking for some displays of full flavoured acoustic wonder? Left-field electronica? Late night DJs perhaps? The Ardán an Fia Stage had it all. Mixing traditional musical performances with poetry and comedy. There was treasures to be found if you fancied the dander. Another hive of activity was the Blue Stacks Jam Club Stage. A white, windowed marquee, it could have become alive at any moment. At times festival goers took to the stage to stir up a crowd, with bands such as Freak’s having their own acoustic hoe-down hours after their own plugged in session. In the blink of an eye the tent overflow with people, a thriving boisterous den. A real success over the weekend
Stepping out of the shadow of former bands Intermission and Kharma 45, Glenn Rosobourgh put a strong marker down for his forthcoming venture as a solo artist. Gracing the stage with a thick rugged beard and dapper threads, Rosobourgh has the allusive demeanour of the rock star his obviously aims to be. And his experience shows as he and his band simply oozes class. Musically pitched close to U2 branded rock anthems, it’s Rosobourgh’s leathery voice which provides the ear catching hook and Jilly St. John whose vocal harmonies add depth to a stedfast base of groove laden instrumentals. It’s an arrangement from a group of individuals who know what they’re doing and it’s hard to fault what as a glossy and highly enjoyable performance.
Despite Americanizing their name, Colour // Sound are a band who it is hard to hold a grudge against. Another crew of fresh faced and wide-eyed bandits the Dublin four-piece were accomplished in every facet of their delivery. The rolling toms of ‘To The Countryside’ echo throughout the festival site, as they slip into a lush fist-pumping guitar solo and a lofty chorus – a song which would bring the house down on any festival Main Stage. The band then pay tribute to that beloved figure John Muldowney for whom they credit as the reason they’re playing music. A pristine showing from a band you’ll be hearing a lot about in the months to come.
What a fantastic few months it has been for The Wood Burning Savages. The North-West’s hardest working band are finally starting to make the inroads for which their craft deserves, and testament to their rising star is the huge reception they receive as they stood finger tips away from topping the bill.
Adorning a time honoured punk denim jacket, frontman Paul Connolly transforms from mild mannered poet to frenetic wild man the instant the opening drum fills are pounded out. Finding a sweet spot of controlled delivery and rapid guitar playing, Connolly leaves you hypnotised by the raw passion pulsating through his bones. Never quite sure if he’s going to play a rapturous solo or start kicking amps off the stage. One thing that can be said, no ‘Savages show is ever the same.
Troubles inspired rock juggernaut ‘Boom’ accelerates like a mighty steam train galloping down the track. With pummelling snare beats blasting out as a whopping guitar line sweeps you off your feet. Breezy Record Store Day release ‘Been Anywhere Lately?’ is an equally zesty jolt of adrenaline and is probably their most direct piece of work to date.
The tent gains more and more punters as the set goes on and by the time the tempestuous ‘Thoughts Of You’ signals an end to their island occupation, festival goers have not seen enough, bellowing out for more. A substantial period of time passes, but the chants fail to subside. With no other option but to play again, the ‘Savages reverse the break down of gear and hurriedly start plugging in guitars. Merry cult favourite ‘Venus’ duly satisfies the crowd’s yearning appetite.
We are running out of superlatives to describe how incredible an experience it is to see The Wood Burning Savages live. Are they the best unsigned band in Ireland right now? Yes, by a country mile.
As night eventually falls on the final evening of Swell Festival the atmosphere on the site becomes electrified. After months of build up for their home county festival headline show In Their Thousands are greeted with a rousing hero’s welcome as they emerge from behind the curtain.
Their opening move ‘To The Swell’ keeps the energy levels high without peaking to early. It garners a rambunctious ovation as Declan McClafferty pelts out the pensive lyrical nod to the sea lough which the revellers had traversed on the Ferry. The Letterkenny four-piece continue in the vein of the nautical theme with the story of fallen fisherman ‘The Old Man and The Sea’, a mighty eruption of rowdy rock.
The band take their time to dip into their trademark repertoire of ethereal beauties. ‘Effort For The Waste’ an equally gratifying shift in tone, ‘Tear It All Apart’ another agile crowd pleaser. Wistful ‘Cheer Up, It’s Only A Dream’ has the tent swaying as they side step their usual sound with phantasmagorical synths.
They bust out their guitars once again for a cavalcade high tempo flings. ‘0400’ gently caresses until a gale of coarse vocals gusts in. ‘The Storm’ is distinctively blustery with a clattering of dizzying riffs. But the rock granddaddy of their set is ‘Vive La Revolution’. Lyrically expansive with twinkling verses, it’s the crescendo of a huge moody guitar solo which makes it the glorious beacon of thrills.
A collective in menacing form, In Their Thousands have everything a band needs in their armoury to make good on the towering expectations they’ve garnered over the years. “If you book them, they will come!” proclaims Declan McClafferty as he raises his fist in the air. How right he was.
Swell Festival was an incredible weekend, and there is no doubt that its mix of music and scenery will make it a pilgrimage for bands and festivalgoers alike. Comparisons to Glasgowbury are inevitable, but Swell has already marked itself out as a unique event in its own right. It’s got the ethos and the structure, all it needs is more weekends just like this to add to its lore . You leave the island invigorated, the sense of escapism one of the many delights you just can’t get anywhere else. With the second week of July 2015 already pencilled in after the success of this year, you owe it to yourself to get lost at The Swell.