Following the publication of Northern Ireland’s roadmap to recovery, it was a breath of fresh summer air for Stendhal Festival director Ross Parkhill and company as they were given the green light to bring their award-winning festival into 2021 but with a reduced capacity and spread over two weekends for social distancing.
Comfortably homed at Ballymulley Cottage Farm, Limavady, Stendhal Festival started in 2011 and has expanded exponentially since inception. I previously volunteered to help bring the festival together so I saw firsthand how much the sense of community exists within the Stendhal team as well as the intense work they put into delivering a great weekend.
After pitching our tent in our bubble of friends, we make our way to the fields and quickly notice the precautions that have been taken to prevent any spread of Covid.
There are X’s to mark standing locations, sanitising stations and signs to remind people to socially distance.
The first act I catch are Enola Gay and their sound is ferocious. I can clearly hear the influences of Irish noise rock royalty Girl Band ooze from their guitarist Joe McVeigh as they mash the pedals and twist the knobs of their guitar effects-board to unleash a violent cacophony which serve as a perfect accompaniment to the drum and bass grooves. For a band in their infancy, they are especially impressive as they move confidently in their sound as if they have been playing together for years. As the band give their bows, a bible somehow ends up on stage. The singer picks it up.
“Let’s all pray.”
They say. Then nervous silence.
‘Uhm… fuck the Catholic church.’
Says their singer timidly. The band laugh together along with the audience and it’s all good. It may have been one of the first times the singer has tried to make a controversial statement onstage without the band carrying their words and that may have caused a nerve or two to surface – or perhaps they remembered this was a family festival. Either way, despite having a solid and interesting sound, if they are to take on hefty topics, they may need to make a few tweaks to their rage when taking on the machine.
Dublin based instrumental rock duo Bicurious take to the Henry McCullough stage with their brand of radio-friendly math rock which they openly admit is aimed at mass consumption.
Their performance is exciting to behold as their lead singer/guitarist throws themselves about the stage as the drummer thumps along, stopping and starting where the music commands. The chemistry is undeniable as they smile to each other throughout the performance, clearly savouring this time playing to an audience in who knows how long. The crowd dance and watch on from their socially distanced sections, with some moving to the front to experience the action a little more head on. They play their newly released and optimistically titled track “We’re all totally fucked.” Like the rest of their set, it’s full of energy and consists of nice dynamic shifts from quiet build ups to rapturous explosions of sound.
I miss a grander portion of Derry hip hop duo Dirty Faces’ performance than I would have liked but still make it in time to see them blow the small and cosy Annan’s Arch stage apart. They spit thickly accented rage filled bars over prerecorded drum tracks while their bassist shimmies back and forth, dictating the groove. The set is full of banter with the crowd between intoxicating beats.
A crowd in high spirits has amassed at the Karma Valley stage to hear Irish folk legends Kila deliver their beautiful tunes across the valley. A surreal moment for sure, this is the biggest crowd I have seen in the flesh together enjoying live music since before the pandemic began.
The many seasoned musicians of the band play superbly, all smiles and laughter like a happy family. Some poor sound resolution from certain instruments was not enough to stop the spirit of the performance filling the valley and ensuring the first day closes right.
I return to the campsite for a few cans with my fellow bubble people before popping into my tent. I drift off to friends playing guitar and singing songs by the late John Prine, while our neighbours joined in. Another part of the festival experience I have dearly missed: seeing, and hearing art and music bring people together. Pure bliss. I awake at 5am to the sound of a different bunch of campers ‘singing’ The Offspring’s hit ‘Pretty Fly for a White Guy.’ Not so bliss. But isn’t this the festival experience I have been craving? That we have all been craving? Of course it is. I embrace every tuneless cry of ‘give it to me baby!’ I bathe in the follow up ‘uh huh uh huh!’ I wonder if I have been reborn in this moment. I will replay this memory in my head when I am 80. Live music is back.
Having barely slept and unsatisfied with my pre-made breakfast, I journeyed out for caffeine and food, wondering how accommodating the festival stalls would be for vegan and vegetarian losers like myself and accompanying photographer, Meadhbh. You can follow her photography on Instagram @mabimages.
We were pleased to find dairy alternatives at the coffee stalls and the many locally owned businesses who came out to feed the festival goers had indeed provided for all kinds of palettes. Along with the expected burger, hot dog, and pizza vans, there was a taco stall and my personal favourite: La Tia Juana’s Latin American Street Food’s stall. They have a restaurant in Derry and shall be paying a visit the first chance I get.
This year the festival strives for zero waste, with many waste stations deposited across the fields and reusable cups for alcohol. I barely notice any rubbish on the ground.
There’s plenty more to do than watch live music, eat and drink though. There are comedy acts and interactive family friendly events like ‘Street Countdown.’
Exploring the many areas of the festival is a delight. Annan’s Arch is inspired by Irish mythology and is neatly placed by a Giant’s throne. The Woody Woodland features wooden shelters with handcrafted games to be played, while the Wooly Woodland’s technicolored wool wrapped trees and various other surreal visuals are a remarkable sight. Exploration is rewarded as we find a mysterious, joyous man tucked away in the woods with their own stall, from which they give out free homemade kombucha. This man is Conor O’Kane, who works for Social Farms and Gardens NI. He calmly explains the fermentation process and the drink’s many benefits to those interested as 10 wasps buzz around him. Lovely fella.
Jazz band, Joseph Leighton Trio begin today’s musical feast at Annan’s arch. They’re Stendhal favourites, having played the festival a handful of times and it’s easy to see why as many turn out to sit and soak up the vibes with them in the sun.
After an intimate solo performance, Chris Kelly of alt-folk rock quartet No Oil Paintings goes back to lending their powerful voice to the rest of the band at the Stevie Martin stage, wowing an ecstatic crowd. Warm harmonies, banjo twangs and lots of great craic between songs. A fun time was had by all.
Indie pop outfit General Fiasco grace the Karma Valley stage and prove that I should have given them more of a chance when I was in school as they were starting out. I thought I was too cool. Well, I was wrong General Fiasco. I’m sorry. Their catchy hooks and tight instrumentation are undeniable. The crowd are absolutely buzzing and the sing along of their breakthrough hit ‘Ever So Shy’ is tremendous.
It is at the Karma Valley where I wait for one of the best live acts to ever come from Ulster. Experimental math-rock band: And So I Watch You From Afar.
“Oh my god” exclaims Rory Shields after they play their opening number.
He doesn’t need to explain this reaction in the slightest – we can’t believe this is happening again either. ASIWYFA do their usual shtick of blowing absolutely everybody away with songs spanning their whole career. They debut a new track called ‘Years Ago’ written during and inspired by the pandemic.
They play classics ‘Set Guitars To Kill’ and ‘Big Things Do Remarkable’ last and the crowd singing the hopeful chant ‘the sun is in our eyes’ is the perfectly poignant way to close the weekend.
The second weekend will be held on the 12th,13th, and 14th of August 2021.