Harvest Music Festival

Harvest Music Festival's inaugural year kicks off with some stunning local acts, veers through rockabilly chaos and wraps up with the sublime Villagers.

Walking from the car park into the venue for this first Harvest Festival in Greyabbey I was immediately struck by what a pretty setting we had for a day of great live music.

The stage faced out into a natural amphitheatre with a ring of trees encompassing all and when I walked in to the strains of The Emerald Armada’s foot-stomping mandolin led folk I was in my happy place. The Armada always bring a party and today was no exception and their well-crafted music earned them plenty of new fans out on the Ards Peninsula.

Next up on the main stage to bask in the afternoon sun were Farriers. Opening with ‘Another One Riding’ from last year’s album ‘Years Ago in Our Backyard’, Farriers’ were soon calling for dancers to stamp some feet and provided a fantastic soundtrack to do so. One of the stand-out features of a Farriers set is the fantastic vocals from Stephen and Rachel. At times yearning and melancholic but in a snap becoming joyous and exuberant, these guys always deliver and are a personal favourite of mine.

Farriers closed their set with a special guest appearance on drums from one of the festival organisers, Jonny Tate. The appropriately titled ‘Final Harvest’ was a lovely viola-led way to end a great set.

Harvest Music Festival
Gerry McNally Photography

At this stage of the day it was impossible not to notice the queues at the bar. It was even harder to ignore them when you were stuck in one for 25 minutes ordering some much-needed hydration (I only drink for medical reasons, you see) but this teething problem of a new festival did have a plus as it gave the folks on the bar’s acoustic stage a captive audience. The acoustic stage was running like clockwork in between sets on the main stage and we were treated to some fine performances from Neil Hughes, Andi Oakes, the Dylan-esque folk tales of Dobro Dan, and The Salt Flats. Special tip o’ the hat to The Salt Flats for their cover of Five’s ‘Keep on Moving’.

Back from the bar and over on the main stage was Gareth Dunlop who wasn’t afraid to turn the volume down a little and sing a capella. A brave choice to start an open air gig but he pulled it off no problem. Gareth charmed the crowd some more with his blue-eyed soul, touches of gospel and the pounding intensity of ‘The Devil Mocked Me’. He has a big bag of tricks at his disposal and finished the show demonstrating his lighter touch with the mantra-like guitar riff of ‘Hide and Seek’. Gareth’s onstage persona, fantastic warming voice and hatful of cracking songs gets him a fantastic reception after a great set.

A question: What has three beards, high-level functioning alcoholism, a shirtless dungaree-clad mandolin player and invented the ‘rockgrass’ genre? Of course the answer is Hayseed Dixie and the finest addition to any music festival in the land. There may have been a few uninitiated amongst the picnicking public of Greyabbey and they may have got a fright when Hayseed Dixie launched into ‘Hell’s Bells’ but pretty soon they got the joke and realised that they had the best party band in the land playing in front of them. The dancing feet started to get up from the camping chairs and shuffle to right below the stage where they could smell the beer and Jack Daniels and enjoy the breakneck banjo-picking and sing along to ‘Fat-Bottomed Girls’. There was a poignant moment in the set though with the remembrance of past relationships and the solace that can be found from some ‘Poop in a Jar’!

A bit of duelling banjos and with that they were gone into the crowd… to the bar to be exact.

That’s our editor schmoozing on-stage with Hayseed Dixie and shooting from the sides!

As the sunshine started to fade I wondered how the last few acts would fit in with rest of the day. There was a definite family–friendly feel to the day and that was reflected with the on stage line up. Jumping from the cheerful madness of Hayseed Dixie to the more reflective Duke Special would be a challenge. But as the sun set the mood changed and the evening time was definitely more for the musos. In a way it was almost like two different festivals in one day and it worked well.

Duke Special is an accomplished performer with a massive back catalogue and tonight he chose to give us a set of his own songs sprinkled with a few carefully chosen covers: tracks from The Magnetic Fields and My Bloody Valentine were excellent additions.

The Duke’s own material was fantastic, dramatic and moody in equal measures. The instrumentation was relatively stripped down to piano, guitars and drums and that gave a great rocky edge to the set. ‘The Hand of Man’ was as visceral as I’ve heard. A more tender moment came when the band left the stage and we got a cover of Ivor Cutler’s ‘I Worn My Elbows’.

He gave a jagged psychedelic edge to a cover of The Doors’ ‘Alabama Song’ and closed the set with a storming thumping version of ‘Salvation Tambourine’.

The picnic chairs were all packed away and the kids were brought home by the time Villagers took to the stage: this was for the music fans to get their fill.

Gerry McNally Photography

Opening with the gorgeous ‘Twenty Seven Strangers’ from the massive ‘Becoming a Jackal’ album I was totally hooked by the fragile voice of frontman Conor O’Brien. He had the audience totally in his hold playing a wonderful set encompassing his breakthrough album and this year’s {Awayland}. I loved the minor key chaotic reggae of ‘Passing a Message’ in particular.

O’Brien is a fantastic songwriter and an engaging performer. ‘Home’ demonstrated his skills perfectly combining a strong melody, a great grasp of dynamics and rhyming couplets as devastatingly good as “So she goes back under, swallows the water/ Fixes her face like a good little daughter” show why Villagers have been on the tip of every rock critic’s pen for the last few years.

A Villagers set is an incredible way to end any festival. The songs from {Awayland} especially deserve to be heard in this arena sculpted by nature as they are as wonderfully epic as anything Mother Nature could craft. I was fairly familiar with their music and wasn’t too sure how they’d fair as a headline festival act. I was wary that they weren’t bombastic or gregarious enough but they couldn’t have been any more perfect. It was a big gig that felt small and intimate and a wonderful way to end the inaugural Harvest festival.

Here’s hoping there’ll be another bountiful Harvest next year.