What with the marina and the beaches and the coastal walks, with Pickie Pool and the promenade. Over the past few years however there have been other reasons to visit Bangor of a fine summer evening. Open House Festival has been running an ever expanding music and arts festival in the town, and this year’s offering is the biggest yet. “It’s spread over the whole month of August” Alison Gordon the Festival Manager told me, “from the 1st right through to the 31st.”
“We’ve introduced at lot of different art forms like the site-specific cinema, theatre, comedy and some food events this year. There is still a lot of folk, and roots, and singer songwriters, but we’ve added a whole lot more.”
Events at the festival take place in many and varied venues in the town, and beyond. There is Folk on a Boat for example – quite literally – with Emerald Armada and other folksters entertaining audiences on a mini-cruise. Or there’s Nick Mulvey at Bangor Abbey. There are Book Clubs and a pop up restaurant at the Old Auction Rooms. And Farriers even play a gig on the Copeland Islands. The list goes on, through 36 different venues to be precise. “A lot of that came about because we don’t have a lot of arts venues here in Bangor” Alison said rather matter of factly. “So we looked at the different buildings in the town that we could get into, and worked out what would be appropriate to do in them.”
“We wangled our way into the Bangor Courthouse and thought yeah let’s show Twelve Angry Men and To Kill A Mocking Bird.” Both of these are sold out already I noted. “Yeah it’s such a small capacity, only about 50 people per screening. People are curious, and keen to see inside such a landmark building in the town.”
Sun Kil Moon is playing the Marine Court Hotel. Is there any special reason for that? “That’s just because we needed a venue of that size. We don’t have a big theatre. Marine Court approached us about getting involved. We’re having the Festival Ball there, and they’re hosting our Festival Choir events too.”
This is all literally miles away from Belfast’s Americana based Open House Festival and Chilli Fest that they ran in the past. “I was going to say it’s less intense than the one-week festival (in Belfast), but running a one-month long festival is a different kind of intense. The Americana and folk and roots music is still a really key part of what we do – we still have lots of beards and banjos” she laughed.
For a couple of years there, Open House had run a festival in both Belfast and in Bangor during the summer. “It was too much concentrating on two festivals in the last couple of years. There was one in June and one in August. It was too much to sustain, and also there is such a huge appetite for a festival in Bangor that the decision was an obvious one. When we analysed our ticket sales we saw that a large amount of people were from the area. There was an appetite for arts events but very little provision. The Cathedral Quarter was the same when we were there. It was so exciting to be part of the regeneration of that. But Bangor really needs more arts and culture activity here. So it seemed like a no-brainer. The festival we ran in Belfast had run its course.”
“We want to bring footfall and business and positive publicity to the town. To showcase the town. Bangor has suffered from people going to spend their money in Belfast particularly since end of troubles and people felt safe to go back to Belfast again. So we want to be part of the regeneration of Bangor, like in Cathedral Quarter. That was art and culture led, and where you get people, businesses will follow. So we know we are having an impact in town. People are staying here, and spending their money in restaurants. 45% of our audience comes from outside Bangor. We have the marina and the beaches and beautiful terraced houses. It should be the Brighton of Northern Ireland.”
Through the original festival they held in Belfast, Open House has a good bit of history with artists who would return here. Old Crow Medicine Show played at the festival in Belfast, and band member Willie Watson will be playing Bangor solo in August. I wondered whether it helped having this sort of connection with artists, to get them to play in Bangor. “It’s not easy. Even when you have history with an artist it all depends if the scheduling works out, or if there’s the right venue for them, if you can pay them the right fee, it’s never easy. And you would think that it gets easier but it doesn’t. But because the festival is a month long instead of the week as it was in our Belfast festival there is a bigger window for the artists and that does help.”
The festival is providing some theatre as well this year. Among other things, The Shot Glass Theatre Company will be performing The Affectionate Punch in the back bar in Fealty’s. “We were speaking with theatre companies all over to see if we could get some to come here” Alison told me when I asked how this came about. “It wasn’t easy because we don’t have a theatre – and we don’t have a history of doing theatre either. The likes of Shot Glass are perfect because they are able to perform where there is zero production required. But we do want to do more, and we want to do bigger.”
At time of writing virtually all of the food events had sold out. “They are all really small capacity and they have more than just the food to them. There is entertainment like the Flamenco music and dance for example. When people go out for something to eat they aren’t just going out for food, they want an event. At these events it’s easy for people to chat with each other, there’s excitement and a buzz as well as good food.”
The festival is underpinned by an array of free events. “It’s important to have entry level events for people who don’t know the festival or can’t afford to buy tickets so they can dip their toe, get a taster. Our biggest free event is Bluegrass Picnic with Rackhouse Pilfer in Ward Park on bank holiday Sunday. It’s the third year we’ve had it. It’s great, people come along with their picnic and their dog and their granny, and the trains from Belfast are packed.” There are many more than that though, from books readings at Carnegie Library to a sound exhibition in the Boom! Studios. From the Hard Chargers to No Oil Paintings – and more.
Last but not least, in the middle of all this will be Bangor’s Culture Day. “It’s not in the programme but it’s on Saturday 22nd August and there’ll be loads of free stuff happening in that. There isn’t a Culture Night in Bangor and it would be quite difficult to have one here because a lot of people from Bangor go to the Belfast one, and contribute to it. So Bangor is having its own seaside version. Daytime suits the seaside better, rather than the evening. It’ll be based round Project 24, at the artist’s pods at the seafront. There’ll be lots of unspecified creative fabulousness at that.” Cara Gibney, GiggingNI.com