9-10 July 2021
Fresh off the greenlight the week before, the sun’s shining on the Limavady haven that is Ballymully Cottage Farm. Home to the beloved Stendhal Festival, now enchanted with mystical décor, smiles, and for the first time since 2019, an eclectic line-up of what’s that? Oh aye, REAL, LIVE MUSIC.
The setting was possibly as far removed as you could get from what seemed like a lifetime of monotonous isolation and Zoom calls, so we tried our best to bathe in every moment. Considering it does mean this 6 stage, 2 day event is also the first actual event that we’ve covered as a magazine, it’s for sure the best deep end we could have hoped for. Granted, it wasn’t too hard to get around, with a reduced capacity it was easy enough to see a good amount of the mainly local acts, who were all as hungry for the stage as we were.
So, strapped with our programmes (provided by Help Musicians) and our reusable Stendhal pint glasses, we made our way through the flowery gates to join a sea of smiling faces to experience the return of music’s biggest memory maker. The gigs.
After a painless entry and tent set up, we were welcomed with an acoustic set from Limavady local, Molly Hogg on the Air Stage. She widens the smiles with a lovely cover of Britney Spears ‘Toxic’, a guaranteed crowd pleaser that see’s an influx of applause in the picnic tables below. Next up, we decide to explore and follow the trail to the aptly named Wooly Woodland stage. A crochet covered tree grotto that was currently occupied by the String Ninjas. Now, I’ve never seen a single guitar and violin conjure up the sounds that these two did but fuck me I want to see it again. Investigate further to see what I mean if you enjoy instruments sounding like other instruments. I certainly do.
Photo by Hannah McCallum.
Following that wee trail through the sticks, to the natural next destination, the icon-dedicated Henry McCollough stage. It’s in the process of being warmed up by Brigid O’Neill and her band. With tunes like 2016’s ‘Don’t Make Me Go to Town’ taking on a new meaning during the pandemic, her ‘Turn Your Face to the Sun’ proved even further prophetic as the sunlight beats down between the audience’s tent and hits the faces a band basking in the brilliance of a moment they’ve been dreaming of for so long.
Cue the cheering bubbles for Joshua Burnside and Laura Quirke as they emerge on the Annan’s Arch stage, tuning guitars and banjos, testing the mics are working with a bit of craic with the crowd. They are. The intimacy of the stage was perfect for the duo, as they started to whisk away the afternoon to the sounds of their new collaborative EP, ‘In the Half-Light’ (out on the 16th of July). Having had wee listen to the stellar collection of tunes already, I was delighted to see the two harmonise together in the flesh, intertwining their voices and interchanging instrumental responsibilities to a dedicated audience. So dedicated in fact, that Laura is gifted a pair of lovely, winged sunglasses from an audience member that she gladfully takes to Josh’s compliments between songs.
A personal highlight performance of the Friday was certainly ROE’s set on the Steve Martin stage. She busts through her certified classics like ‘Room to Breathe’ and ‘Down Days’. A highlight of the highlight was hearing her fuzzy new tune ‘Cruel’ that went down an absolute treat to a ROE stan like myself. Honest, catchy, and seeing her on stage certifies her as a superstar in the making.
While I was enjoying myself a bit too much to take notes of all the new song names, I’m sure there will be more chances in the future to get the scoop, with her upcoming album featuring a recording of the moment with some good old fashioned audience interaction. So yeah, cue the featuring credits of a few hundred incredibly happy people.
One of the most impressive sets from an artist I hadn’t been clued in on, was that of the powerhouse vocalist Lyra, who was quite rightfully one of the headline acts. Her eclectic bouquet of sound was garnished by cheerful chorus after chorus. Her recent single ‘New Day’ was especially poignant and no better way to soundtrack the setting sun of live music’s return in almost biblical fashion. A truly spectacular performance that had the people sitting down up on their seats dancing away and myself swearing I’ll never miss a Lyra gig ever again. Maybe a tattoo too.
Next up was a short walk down back to the Air Stage where Enola Gay put on their first ever live gig with this line-up. Not that you could tell. A relentless energetic unleash of tracks that begins with the BBC Radio 6 favourite ‘Sofa Surfing’. Young Steve Lamac would be raging he’s missing this. He knows himself that this 4-piece are the embodiment of a new generation of noise-punk rockers that cannot be stopped. They’re making mosh-pits grow even more frenzied with every song and again, I couldn’t tell you the names but fucking hell they’re good. Speaking with some of the Enola Gay posse, the band had made the trip up from Belfast in a limo, sounds like they’re perfectly forecasting the rockstar future ahead of them.
Finishing off the night was the seasoned band Kila, by far spawned the most dancing of the day with their rich trad sounds unlocking the mysteries and rituals of live music for the first time in a long time. Absolutely bravo to the organisers of this wonder day. I should really try to write down some names of the songs tomorrow.
Nursing a slight hangover, the day was set off with a wonderful performance from the pop-noir outfit Dark Tropics. They perform their three releases to date, ‘Badlands’, ‘Moroccan Sun’ and ‘Keep Searching’ one after another, with frontwoman Rio explaining that each song represents each stage in a break-up and recounts some fans confessing they would get together and play all three when they were down. I count myself as one of them.
While only the second time that the band hasd played live, they did incredibly well. Expanding into new numbers like the ballad ‘Later Than You Think’ and a few brilliant, slightly funkier numbers make Dark Tropics an exciting one to watch that will surely be higher up the bill next year, if they keep going the way they are going.
Now for some lovely trad-infused folk from Laytha, who gave off some much-needed wholesome vibes with their harmonies to further bring the day in peace. They laugh as they introduced songs, with ‘Strawberry Moon’ and the beautiful ‘What Will I Gain’ getting the audience ready to remember this day and this duo for years to come.
Streaks of electric yellow hair and sparks of an eager Cherym sound-checking make the festival the Derry pop/power-punk’s own. They had an undeniable presence and command of the crowds just making their way in for the day, surely instantly won over. In between their already rich catalogue of anthems pumpers like ‘Listening to My Head’ and ‘Kisses On My Cards’, that had yet to see the stage were given the full reception they deserved. With a good portion of the crowd finding a singing along irresistible, Cherym gave us a few minutes of rest while they displayed their intent to continue bringing out some of the most uplifting music in the North with some unreleased tasters, before rounding it off with the kicker of all kickers, ‘Abigail’.
Having taken a small break to feast on some of the lovely food available, a short groove was in order after catching some of Joseph Leighton Trio rip through a wonderful jazzy cover of George Benson’s ‘Breezin’. The groups instrumental jazz set was as tight as they come, reeling in some relaxed onlookers as much as dedicated dancers, of which I was both.
Onto catch the next set from Dani Larkin, hot from the release of her debut album ‘Notes From a Maiden Warrior’. With her head freshly buzzed for the occasion, she floats through her set with ease. She has that kind of blatant talent to pen such sonically rich and poetic songs, it’s somewhat of a marvel to behold watching her sing a few metres away. Sitting with a pint to the sounds of ‘Samsung and Goliath’ was 100% another highlight of the weekend.
Continuing with the frighteningly high calibre of folk on the Steven Martin stage, enters Joshua Burnside. The man has already played an intimate set the day before with Laura Quirke, plus been forced to play banjo to a gathering of hostile campers the night before. He responded with an incredibly tension-easing rendition of ‘Cod Liver and the Orange Juice’ to make them put down their malicious tent pegs and sing along though so everyones ok.
However, his solo performance on Saturday gave the people more than they could ever have asked for, turning out tunes from his latest album ‘Into the Depths of Hell’ to a sea of watery eyeballs and swaying arms.
While Burnside conjured up the depths of the underworld, the next act that surely needed some anarchic energy to pull off the following set. It is of course the beloved New Pagans. The critical reception of their 2021 debut album ‘The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots and All’ was exceptional and that live performance somehow exceeded the highest of expectations.They tear through the night-time with hits like ‘Harbour’, ‘It’s Darker’ and ‘Charlie Has the Face of a Saint’, paired with smokey lights silhouetting the iconoclastic figure of Lyndsey McDougall. Singing with total conviction and trust in her 4 band members being right there with her, on the edge of something truly speacial.
I seen someone start to record it on their phone, only for it to be smashed into thin air from the raw power. There wasn’t much spare energy left in the festival after New Pagans decided to rip it out by the sockets and start swinging it around. Utterly amazing.
Frankly, I was busted after seeing some of the best live music I’ve ever seen in my life. So, what better way to finsih it off than to have a good ol’ senseless rave? Maybe with two chancers with the easiest jobs in music, a Daft Punk Tribute act. Genius. Undeniable tunes that illuminate the universal appreciation of communal musical experience.