Now in it’s eighth year, what is widely renowned as one of the country’s best music and arts festivals returned to Ballymully Cottage Farm. Having heard great things about Stendhal Festival, a visit had always been massively tempting, but the stellar line-up this year made it a must.
I arrived on the Saturday, greeted by a load of tokens for free Jamesons (a very welcome bonus) as well as all the sights and atmosphere that I was expecting. However, arriving just in time for the Ocelots, exploring the festival would have to be put on hold. The Ocelots, a duo from Wexford consisting of twins Ashley and Brandon Watson, performed their upbeat brand of folk on the Stevie Martin Stage to a sizeable crowd, who all seemed to be entirely invested in their set. In only their second Northern Irish festival, the duo owned the stage and their stripped-back folk set was the perfect way for me to start the day.
After dandering about the site, gaining a full grasp of the scope of the site, as well as the unique quirks that came with each stage, I stumbled across the fantastic Amy Montgomery performing on the Wooly Woodland stage. Being a late addition to the lineup, it was a very welcome surprise. In what was one of the more intimate settings in the festival, Amy’s voice was as powerful as usual and could be heard all over the site. It was clear the crowd were really up for the Lisburn songwriter’s last-minute set as the stage was absolutely packed, adding to the already hugely atmospheric set. With one of the most powerful voices and unique sounds on the local scene, combined with the one-of-a-kind aesthetic of the Wooly Woodland stage created a picturesque and cinematic experience. Frequently gigging around the country, it’s clear Amy knows how to captivate a crowd, and I suspect there may not be many more opportunities to catch her in such an intimate setting.
Next up on the Stevie Martin stage was highly-rated Belfast alternative pop artist Rebekah Fitch. Perhaps one of the acts I was most looking forward to, with a captivating live show, faultless vocals and an immense song-writing talent which remains distinctive despite exploring a range of different styles. The set lived up to my expectations, and a matter of minutes in Fitch’s potential was made clear. While at this stage in the day the temperature began to drop significantly, the set was still thoroughly enjoyed by the crowd which had gathered on the Stevie stage. While she wears her influences on her sleeve, with the style of Florence and the Machine and the lyrics of Stevie Nicks, she very much brings something new to the table and is one of the most interesting and promising acts on the local scene.
As stated, at this stage of the day the weather had started to turn on the festival goers, with the wind particularly affecting those high up on the Stevie Martin stage, and it was important that the next act would be able to keep the crowd moving. Luckily, those familiar with Waldorf and Cannon know this was never in doubt. The duo’s massively distinctive sound, which instantly gave me early Kings of Leon vibes, was tailor made for the crowd to get involved, and that they did, with many ditching their folding chairs and making their way close to the stage, complete with kids going mad on their parent’s shoulders. The Donegal lads really proved their talent for energetic and exciting live shows, which was exactly what the crowd needed.
As well as offering some of the brightest local musical talent, the Karma Valley stage also boasted some of the country’s top comedic talents. Dave Elliot and Shane Todd both delivered enjoyable sets, however it must be said that perhaps the comedy might have been suited to a more intimate setting, as gauging the crowds reaction to the material was difficult enough for those in it, let alone for the comedians themselves. Despite this, both are clearly massive comedic talents and Shane Todd in particular attracted a huge crowd.
At this stage of the night the perils of such a strong line-up became clear. Some of the clashes left me absolutely spoilt for choice. However, I eventually decided upon ROE in the Henry McCullough stage. With ROE being one of my favourite local talents, I was pleased to see how packed out the tent was. Every time seeing her is fantastic, and the atmosphere she creates, whether to a nearly empty venue or a packed out tent at a festival, is always special. However, one of the most special moments of the day came with ROE dedicating a song to her late grandfather. With her understandably struggling to get through the strong, the crowd fully got behind her. Seeing her then continue with the set was truly unforgettable. She also poignantly gave recognition to the brilliant work done by the charity Help Musicians, which has worked closely with her throughout her career. One of the most talented artists on the scene, her set was easily one of the standouts of the festival.
It was then time for the headliners. At this stage, the weather had completely turned on the festival and it was absolutely lashing down. However this didn’t stop English alternative rock legends Embrace performing a hit after hit to the crowd, who didn’t let the weather dampen their spirits. The set itself looked incredible, and if anything it could be argued the rain only added to the atmosphere. The response to nearly every tune played was immense, with a most of the front sections of the crowd singing along to every word of each song. The atmosphere throughout the set was superb and it was incredibly easy to get lost within the music. Despite some tuning issues, the set was absolutely faultless and easily comparable to many of the bands that came through at the same time, notably Coldplay, the Verve and Snow Patrol. The crowd, even those unfamiliar with the band, were absolutely captivated. However, anthems such as ‘Nature’s Law’, ‘Ashes’ and ‘Gravity’ make it unlikely anyone is completely unfamiliar with them. It felt like the setlist was anthem after anthem. Embrace put on a live show you would really expect from a band of their calibre, with frontman Danny McNamara having complete control over the crowd, and it was fantastic to witness an act of that calibre alongside some of the top local talent.
Choosing how to end the night also proved to be incredibly difficult. Options such as local legends And So I Watch You From Afar on the Karma Valley stage, as well as the incredible Wood Burning Savages on the Stevie Martin stage were both difficult to resist. However, I opted for the act which many believe to be the most promising act on the local scene at the minute in Brand New Friend. The Henry McCullough stage was absolutely packed for the Castlerock indie-rock outfits set, with the more avid Brand New Friend fans hogging the barrier. The set really felt like something special, with many choosing to abandon the tent and soak up the rain just to get a matter of feet closer to the band. Following the release of their debut album ‘Seatbelts for Aeroplanes’, it is clear that a large portion of the crowd knew each song inside out. It was also special to see members’ Lauren and Taylor Johnson’s younger siblings in amongst the moshing at the barrier, showing it truly is a family band in every sense. There is doubt that there are massive things on the horizon for Brand New Friend, with a tour with Ash and sets at Reading and Leeds festival in just the next couple of weeks.
And with that, for me, the festival was over. It truly felt like a special day and offered absolutely everything you would want in a festival and more. The sights, the food, the people and the music as all first class, and with moves to fully expand to a three-day festival, a camping trip may be on the cards for next year.