Last weekend marked the occasion of the ninth annual Stendhal Festival in Limavady’s Ballymully Cottage Farm. For the second consecutive year, the farm opened its gates to festival-goers on Thursday night with appearances from the likes of Soak and Malojian. This intrepid festival goer though, was in attendance just Friday and Saturday. Read on to share in the trials and tribulations of outdoor festivals – NI style – and to read the thoughts of some of the best-known attendees that I met at this much-loved family event.
Friday started off looking fairly promising; we parked up the Caddy in the newly mown field and queued for our wristbands with wide-eyed anticipation, optimistically dismissing the gathering clouds and ever-increasing drops of rain as “passing showers”. Cut to ten hours later and cars were sliding aimlessly around a perilous mud-pit, children were crying, vertical rain was still pouring down and we had to be towed out by some plucky volunteer and his best Massey Ferguson.
Thankfully the intervening hours made the hardship worthwhile. Though the necessity of ducking in under tarps periodically meant that we didn’t see as many acts as we normally would on Day 1, two, in particular, made up for the thorough soaking. Mary Coughlan’s set in the Stevie Martin Stage was inspired. I have long been a fan but this was my first opportunity to see her live, and at such close quarters the power of that voice is phenomenal. Mary has blues running through her veins and donning pink wellies and displaying her characteristic wit, she put on an unforgettable show.
Also one not to miss was Hothouse Flowers on the Karma Valley Stage. This veteran band is as tight musically as you’d expect and Liam Ó Maonlaí is a towering, charismatic, beloved national treasure. And he’s one hell of a frontman. The Flowers covered material which spanned their career but the songs which evoked the essence of the ‘90s were what made the crowd smile. As the night closed in, the rain fell on us and nobody cared.
Throughout the day I met and chatted with a number of the featured artists, as well as a few who were there just to soak up the atmosphere themselves.
First up I had a yarn with Woodburning Savages’ charming frontman, Paul Connolly.
FT: So Paul, Woodburning Savages are not playing here this year?
Paul Connolly: No, I was actually working with the Nerve Centre youth group and Prince’s Trust so we had some young people playing here. And I am doing a bit of presenting as well for the BBC for radio broadcast.
FT: So, what do you think about the festival so far this year?
PC: This is one of my favourite festivals, whether it’s home or away, I always love coming back to Stendhal because there’s a bit of something for everybody. Everybody’s here, bumping into each other, making new friends and catching up with old friends. And it’s just such a lovely site as well.
FT: Any bands you’re really keen to see this year, or have seen so far?
PC: I am really looking forward to KILA who are on next actually. I am looking forward to catching a bit of Ryan Vail’s Borders because that’s one I have not had a chance to see yet.
FT: We’re sorry you’re not playing this year. You played in such a downpour last year, I don’t know if you remember?
PC: We did yeah, and before we went on they actually closed the second stage because it was absolutely torrential and it put the fear into us because we thought fair enough, it’s raining, if we were standing out there we’d be going inside or under a tent or something. But everybody stayed out with us and it really made us very proud.
A newcomer to the Stendhal stage was everybody’s favourite Diff Hitting, Rear Steering, Clutch Slipping singer, Marty Mone. Following his set on the Karma Valley Stage, an excitable Marty told me about his experience since arriving in Limavady.
FT: So Marty, what are your impressions of Stendhal festival so far?
MM: I think the festival is unbelievable. We landed here early today to do interviews and my first thought was, what’s going on here? But then because I had time between interviews and the gig I started to go through the forest and the amount of stages I have found and the hidden areas, it’s unbelievable.
FT: So this is your first time at Stendhal?
MM: First time, so it took me the whole day to really get a grasp of what’s actually happening and it’s a lovely festival with the artistic feel about it and all the trees, I love it, absolutely.
FT: And what about your set just now, how did it go?
MM: Very well, now they fairly came packing in and they sang every word, so I loved it, I absolutely loved it.
Wandering around the crowd I was delighted to bump into Cormac Neeson who stopped for a chat with his little boy Dabhóg, whom many will know was the inspiration for Cormac’s latest album, White Feather.
FT: Cormac, you’re playing two sets this weekend. How are you enjoying the Friday?
CN: I’m just down because my mother-in-law lives in Dungiven so we’re there tonight so I just thought I’d bring my little boy down for a couple of hours just to get a taste of the festival atmosphere.
FT: And how old is he now?
CN: He’s 4
FT: So both of your sets are tomorrow?
CN: Both tomorrow, I am doing the main stage at a quarter to five and then an acoustic set on the Air Stage at half six.
FT: Have you had a chance to see any acts while you’re here or is there anything you’re really looking forward to seeing?
CN: I went to see String Ninjas there in the woods, and we’re just going to take a mosey round to see what we can see. Looking forward to seeing Reevah actually.
FT: You played in the Woolly Woodlands stage last year. How does it feel to be on the Karma Valley stage this year?
CN: Feels good. Feels like we’re making progress, you know?
FT: Well, I mean White Feather is massive isn’t it?
CN: Yeah it’s doing well, especially here in Ireland and around the UK. We’ve been doing quite a bit of touring, did a great Irish tour a couple of months back and we’re going to release more dates over the next week or two. And I have just signed with a new record label, an Americana/Country label called Social Family so it all seems to be moving in the right direction. When you release a record there is always inevitably a bit of a buzz around the release so it’s the next stage that’s important.
FT: Things seem to be really taking off for you?
CN: Yeah, well, I’ll just keep working away at it, and I am enjoying playing them and that’s the main thing.
FT: Anything tomorrow you are looking forward to seeing?
CN: Aw Damien Dempsey all the way, one of my favourites and I have never seen him at a festival before.
FT: And what is it do you think that makes Stendhal so special?
CN: A whole lot of things. You know the location is fantastic and the way they lay the whole thing out, and obviously it’s very family orientated which brings its own unique atmosphere as well. It’s just a very well run festival and you are made to feel very welcome.
For anyone who’s never been to Stendhal, it’s hard to imagine quite how picturesque some parts of this site actually are. Nestled in the woods, one of the prettiest stages is Woodtown, and where better to meet and chat with legendary TV and radio presenter, Gerry Kelly?
FT: So Gerry, have you ever been to Stehdhal before?
GK: Not only have I not been to Stendhal, I have never been to a festival before.
FT: Get out!
GK: Honestly, this is the very first music festival I have ever been at.
FT: And you’re such a music lover!
GK: I know, I love it, and I don’t know why I have never been to festivals before.
FT: So is this a working visit?
GK: This is a working thing; we’re doing the show live tomorrow for BBC Radio Ulster, but we’re up tonight to have a good look round, and I tell you what, if this is what festivals are about, I’ll be at many more. Although I do think this is an exception, is it not?
FT: I think it is pretty special alright.
GK: I think so; what struck me already is the number of kids that are about here.
FT: Yes, I have my own here
GK: Ah you have your own here, that’s great. With all these little areas I think it is just absolutely fabulous.
FT: So you’re working all day tomorrow, any bands or acts you’re particularly looking forward to?
GK: Well, we’ve got quite a few coming on the show with us; we’ve got The Lost Brothers coming on, Cormac Neeson will be along to have a little chat, and also we’ll be talking to Phil Jupitus of course who is doing the comedy bill. And because there is such a variety of people here, the Swingtime Starlets we’re going to put on tomorrow as well so we want to show the complete range of all sorts of music genres here. So I am really looking forward to the whole thing.
FT: Well, of course, there are so many different stages here. There’s so much to see for everybody.
GK: I haven’t even made it as far as the top field yet, so I am going to have a good look around.
Playing on that Woodtown stage just then was Belfast emo outfit, Fox Colony. I spoke to lead singer, Darren Hill.
FT: So, I just kind of wandered into your set and the first thing I heard you say was that this was your last gig. What’s the story?
DH: Basically it’s because all of the guys are moving away; I’m Darren, I’m moving to Leeds, in September, our bassist Dan is going to Madrid and our drummer is going to Bristol.
FT: And what has been Fox Colony’s story up to now? Have you been gigging a lot or have you played here before?
DH: Yes we played here once before, two years ago, we did an acoustic set over on the Nerve Centre Stage. And for the last couple of weeks we have just been trying to do as many gigs as we can before we go.
FT: Are you gutted?
DH: Yeah, a wee bit, we’re quite disappointed, but I’m also excited to see what I am gonna be doing next because I’m going to study music production.
FT: What have been the main influences of the band?
DH: It’s mainly 90s emo bands like Jimmy Eat World and Hot Water Music and things like that.
FT: And how did you enjoy your set this evening?
DH: Yeah, I thought it was really good, I was really happy with the turn out, I was a bit apprehensive in case nobody came so I was a little bit nervous but it was good.
FT: Well it sounded great. I am so sorry since this is the first time I’ve heard you, to hear that there is going to be no more. Maybe you’ll get back together eventually, what do you think?
DH: Maybe we will, because we’re all going off for just a year.
FT: Ah so you’ll all be back in a year so we’ll see you back at Stendhal maybe in a couple of years?
DH: Yes, you may do.
Following the traumatic experience of being towed out the night before, you might think I’d have to be mad to go back for more the next day – but go back I did…
Folk and Tumble’s roundup of Saturday at Stendhal Festival coming soon…