REVIEW: Sunflower Fest 2016 – Day 2

Returning to Tubby’s Farm near Hillsborough for the seventh year running, the ever popular Sunflower Fest once again played host to a fantastic array of local Irish talent this weekend. Encompassing music, art, food and spoken word, the rolling fields of County Down were filled with brightly dressed campers, students and families alike, to enjoy the diverse and eclectic range of entertainment on offer. The organisers of Sunflower Fest are certainly no strangers to the cliché ‘something for everyone’, with stages covering (and often mixing) nearly every genre of music from rock, folk, electronica, ska, blues, indie pop – oh, and not forgetting heavy metal, of course.

Sunflowerfest 2016
Sunflowerfest 2016

Getting day two of the festival underway on the Main Stage is quintet The Late Twos, whose fiery indie rock attracts Saturday’s first spectators, enticing many picnic blanket and deck chair-wielding festival goers from their tents. The Belfast lads’ short set is superseded by rockabilly songstress Donna Dunne, emerging with her blonde hair tied back with a red bandana. Dublin barmaid by day, she shows off her sultry June Carter-esque tones on a powerful vocal performance of ‘Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ in the sunshine, as the smell of barbecue fills the air. Her brand of folksy Americana is especially apparent on her new single ‘Butterfly Baby’, as well as her charming requests for the people to sing along with her. Dunne peppers her original material with a cover of Etta James’ ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’, marrying saxophone with her seductive crooning to stunning effect, even if it goes underappreciated. The essence of the American railroad crossed with Celtic stomp underpins her tender rendition of Elvis Presley classic ‘If I Can Dream’ to close her afternoon set.

Sunflowerfest 2016
Sunflowerfest 2016
Donna Dunne - Sunflowerfest 2016
Donna Dunne – Sunflowerfest 2016

Blues fans have plenty of acts to choose from on this year’s lineup. Playing a quiet set pretty early at the Dawson Campfire Stage, Joel Harris creates what he calls a “new wave of rock and roll”. As a unique songwriter and guitarist who can’t yet have reached his peak, his irresistible sound incorporates folk, country and a deep history of blues. The Hard Chargers, regulars on the local gigging circuit, are the only blues act to grace the Main Stage.

 Sunflowerfest 2016
Sunflowerfest 2016

They churn out turbo-charged, Led Zeppelin-inspired blues rock to a gathering crowd fronted by enthusiastic stoners and jugglers; their infectious, whiskey-fuelled groove is characterised by extended jams and not holding back on the reverb. Similarly, the muddy blues-infused hard rock of Lo Mejor exhibits an element of 70s showmanship in the form of lead singer Stevie Blues, who wears sunglasses throughout the band’s 7:30pm slot in The Barn. With a name meaning ‘the best’ in Spanish, the blues rockers have stiff competition defending their title at Tubby’s Farm, especially against The Barn headliners The Bonnevilles.

The Bonnevilles - Sunflowerfest 2016
The Bonnevilles – Sunflowerfest 2016

The Lurgan duo’s filthy, bluesy punk-fused garage rock absolutely brings The Barn to its knees, inducing stage invasions and erratic dancing under the venue’s ambient lights. The modish drummer-guitarist pair flaunts effortless musicianship and sophistication unlike many of the young, budding bands who preceded them. The inter-band chemistry is absolutely electric as chants of “it’s too late to die young” ricochet into the night on ‘The Electric Company’. With a crowd so quickly enamoured, The Bonnevilles undoubtedly make for one of Sunflower Fest’s highlights and Ulster’s must-see live acts.

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Previous groups to stir up The Barn include the hard-hitting rock of Alpha Twin which vibrates the venue and is a sure fire way to wake up any hangover victims. Before anyone’s ears can fully readjust, the heaviest band on the entire festival lineup, Lisburn trio The Crawling, unleash their angry, uncompromising, thrashing brand of metal à la Anthrax. Whilst their head-banging grind is no doubt skilful, the visual of the black-clad bearded men against the backdrop of colourfully painted flowers raises a few smiles. Cavan whippersnappers Travis Oaks, all long hair and soaring riffs, whisk up some sweaty dancers (even one on crutches, if that’s a testament to their potent appeal) with their variety of hardcore. For such a young band, they’re an impressively tight outfit.

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Across the site at the Dawson Campfire Stage, where the offering is of a more traditional persuasion, Susie Blue play folk-influenced indie pop punctuated with gorgeous melancholy, not unlike fellow Derry musician SOAK. One of the few non-local acts at this year’s festival, Oxford’s Vienna Ditto create soaring pop noir and Lana Del Rey-style lyricism coupled with crunching guitar, synth keyboards and spidery dance moves, boasting a remarkable sonic soundscape for a duo. By contrast, the deep house courtesy of award-winning Donegal DJ Jason Young in the neighbouring Electromoot area occasionally draws some of the Campfire Stage’s audience into a group of ravers of all ages, lost in the throbbing bass drops. Throwing shapes of a very different kind, traditional Irish collective The Bonny Men easily win over their listeners as festival goers are more than willing to brace the mud to move to the warm, atmospheric sounds of the fiddle, tin whistle and bodhrán.

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The fast-paced ska sounds of Deany Darko from the Main Stage can be heard all the way at the Viking Village across the farm, whilst the thudding electro rock of SKYMAS – somewhere between Royal Blood and The Prodigy – receives a more mixed reaction. Veterans of the NI scene, Trucker Diablo – whose bragging rights include having supported Foo Fighters at Tennent’s Vital in 2012 – are a crowd favourite with their in-your-face, macho hard rock bluster and Nickelback-size choruses. The Armagh quartet’s aesthetic of baseball caps, beer and tattoo sleeves could make them an endearing parody of American southern rock, but their layered guitar sound and pounding drums hint at a much more intricate band model. Trucker Diablo put on an undoubtedly enjoyable live show, and you get the impression that they’d still crank out anthems like ‘Drive’ whether anyone was listening or not (luckily for them, a devoted local fanbase definitely are).

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Belfast ska collective Pocket Billiards’ live reputation precedes them, as they create a unique brand of skiffle (think Madness, Bad Manners or The Specials), but with a harder, punkier edge. Their vintage sound of Kingston via Belfast doesn’t take itself too seriously, and everyone is soon skanking along to the rousing ‘Belfast Town’.

Whilst some King Kong Company shirts can be seen about the site in anticipation of their second-on-the-bill headline set, the serenity over at the Pond Stage is broken by the slam poetry reading of Belfast man Séamus Fox, whose hilarious yet biting verses draw quite a crowd of eager listeners. Nobody and nothing is safe from his uniquely sharp wit or observations, and a sprinkling of local humour makes his recital an absolute treat in such a jam-packed weekend.

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Back at the main stage, Waterford’s seasoned techno group King Kong Company enigmatically emerge with members’ faces obscured by gorilla masks, building suspense before letting loose their impenetrable wall of sound. Thumping bass and pulsating electronic beats meld with live drums, rhythm guitar and saxophone enveloped in crushing synths. King Kong Company’s commanding robotic beats send Sunflower Fest wild, with the most visually arresting set so far, featuring dancing crash test dummies and even a giant eyeball. “We’re gonna kick this shit off, we’d like you to join us!” the crowd are told more so than asked, as DJ Cian Finn joins them onstage to provide vocals on ‘Free the Marijuana’. The group’s unapologetically surreal brand of big beat recalls 90s club culture, jumping between Underworld and Fatboy Slim whilst still managing to pull off a remix of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’.

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By the time Sunflower Fest headliners The Strypes finally take to the Main Stage around 11pm, the crowd is impatiently hungry for them. A Cavan four-piece formed in 2010, the young lads’ rise to fame has been dizzying; their lively gigs and mod revival-meets-00s indie rock sound earned them a number one album, a slot touring with Arctic Monkeys and a reputation for playing pub rock-tinged rhythm and blues with massive choruses. Opening with ‘Mystery Man’, the band’s vast array of influences – from Chuck Berry to The Undertones – is clear in the bravado of their loud, short and tuneful arsenal of songs.

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Lead singer Ross Farrelly, dressed in a checked suit and gazing at the audience from behind his aviators, displays all the swagger of a bona fide rock star despite barely being 19; he even brandishes a harmonica on ‘Get Into It’, in an almost Gallagher-like stance. The Strypes are masculine but not macho, tailored but not without rough edges and danceable without being gimmicky. The band’s infectious, unrelenting stomp stirs up a lot of crowdsurfing (including one gig-goer in a wheelbarrow) and beer being thrown through the air.

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‘Eighty-Four’ and ‘You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover’ are setlist highlights (along with old fan favourites such as ‘Blue Collar Jane’ and ‘What a Shame’), flaunting not only the band’s extraordinary command of their instruments, but the cross-generational appeal they hold as an exciting new band with an strange whiff of nostalgia. Huge bubbles float overhead during ‘Now She’s Gone’ and ‘I Need to Be Your Only’ which command mass singalongs, and it’s hard not to be impressed by a band who are better than most who’ve been in the game much longer. As ‘Scumbag City’ brings the climatic “friggin’ awesome” set to a close, the crowd crouches and jumps up simultaneously sending Tubby’s Farm into frenzy in a tribute 2016’s ridiculously cool and very deserving headliners.

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