Unfortunately, whatever offertory was made to the weather gods on Friday, was not enough to appease them for the whole weekend. Saturday started out well enough, but by the evening took a turn for the worse and there were several torrential downpours. In spite of the liberal soakings that we got though, the calibre of the line-up for the day was enough to keep the majority of the crowd hanging around Ballymully Farm until the wee small hours.
We were genuinely spoiled for choice with so many acts to see, and it is a testimony to the festival organisers that each year, the biggest and best acts around are vying for spots on one of Stendhal’s several stages. It’s not just about music either, there were several comedians on the bill, and in fact my first stop of the day was to hear political activist and journalist Eamonn McCann interview Stuart Bailie about his latest book, Trouble Songs. Then, with my itinerary made out I headed off around the beautiful grounds to try to catch some of the best artists and bands on offer.
NASH & CASEY – On the Henry McCullough Stage, Derry double act Nash and Casey were giving it welly while the sun still shone. Two well-known musicians in their own right, Paddy Nash and Paul Casey got together recently to do some writing, and this was the result. They have been threatening for a while to bring out a record together and judging by the set today, it will be one worth waiting for. I asked Paddy about his involvement with the Stendhal festival over the last number of years.
Gigging NI: Paddy, you’re a great supporter of Stendhal. Are you involved in the organisation behind the scenes at all?
Paddy Nash: Not really. I suppose I was a bit of a sounding board for advice when Ross and John and Donny started it. They asked for advice from local musicians in the area, but other than that no, definitely not. Any advice that I thought would be helpful, I have given to them, but make no mistake, this whole festival is all down to those three young people.
GNI: And what’s their background?
PN: They are just music lovers who want to see the area thrive I suppose. It’s just about having that vision. I remember the first Stendhal we played the Karma Valley stage and it was the second biggest stage, and now the Karma Valley is the Nerve Centre Stage, so it has just grown and grown. Every year they put a bit more into it and I think you can see the potential yourself.
GNI: You’re well known for writing songs with a social conscience. Do you think that festivals like this have a responsibility to address those kinds of issues?
PN: I definitely do, I think it’s something that can be introduced; when I went to Glastonbury and played Leftfield, it opened my eyes to a lot of issues. I suppose it’s good to ask questions about things. I find that if someone is preaching to me I will switch off but if someone is asking a question, the chances are I’ll want to hear the answers or have my own questions.
And I like that, I like to have debate. For example, the big local issue here at the minute in Limavady is the pig factory that they are threatening to build. If that gets built it’s disaster for the area. So it’s good that local and non-local people are coming into the festival and hearing the talk yesterday about what it will mean for Limavady and the surrounding area that maybe they didn’t know about before.
GNI: Besides that, is there anything else you’re really looking forward to during the festival
PN: Well I saw The Wailers last night and I have no voice left, it was amazing. I really wanted to see Lankum yesterday, but I missed them because I got roped into working. But I suppose my favourite band are headlining tonight on the Stevie Martin Stage – The Woodburning Savages. They’re the best band in Ireland so I definitely want to see them. I love their music, I love their attitude, I love everything about them.
AMY MONTGOMERY– Down in the Wooly Woodland Stage I then caught Amy Montgomery who had been added to the bill in some last-minute changes just the day before. Amy is causing quite a bit of hype at the moment with her exciting stage performance and powerful voice, reminiscent of Janis Joplin.
GNI: It all seems to be happening for you at the moment. Is it all very exciting and what’s on the horizon?
Amy Montgomery: It is exciting, and actually it’s going really fast – but I am so ready for it. This is all I want to do; I want to play music for people and connect with people.
GNI: And how did the gig go today?
AM: Class, really good. This was a last-minute slot and I was over the moon because I love Stendhal. I played the Karma Valley stage last year but then I wasn’t on the bill this year, so it was a last minute thing. I think Stendhal is so special because there is lots of creativity around and lots of lovely people and good vibes.
VILLIERS AND THE VILLAINS – Also playing in the gorgeously quirky Wooly Woodland Stage was Villiers and the Villains. Fresh after the release of their brilliant new album, Music Confounds the Machines, Tony and the band were on top form and commanded the biggest crowd I’d seen at this stage thus far. Their blend of folk and rock and blues is enchanting, and the people couldn’t keep from dancing in this little covered nook among the trees.
GNI: You must have been happy with that response you’ve just received.
Tony Villiers: Oh I loved it yeah, that was a great buzz. You always know you’re doing something right when you get people up boogying. We have noticed in the last few years, toes tapping and people jumping up.
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GNI: Will you get a chance to see any other acts while you’re here?
TV: I hope so. I am not sure who’s on now but we’re gonna grab some food and then have a wander round and see who’s playing.
GNI: You’ve come back to Stendhal after playing here last year. What is it about Stendhal that makes you want to come back?
TV: Well, you just have too look around you, heart and soul is poured into it, it’s unique. It’s not some sort of corporate thing, it’s from the heart, it’s done organically. I mean look around Wooly Woodland here – the effort that has gone into this, it’s just incredible. And there are also the loveliest people, and people make everything.
THE TRAGEDY OF DR. HANNIGAN – Giving The Villains a run for their money in terms of the number of bums on seats drawn to this stage, was Tony Wright and his fantastically eccentric group, The Tragedy of Dr. Hannigan. This is a manic stage show, weird and wonderful; a real spectacle that had a bunch of little kids lining the front barrier, open mouthed and mesmerised. I spoke to Tony just as they were preparing to go on stage.
GNI: You’ve been to Stendhal before, what is your feeling about this festival?
Tony Wright: Well this is my first time getting to play a full set here so it’s pretty amazing in that sense. I played a couple of songs with David Lyttle before and I was working with the Nerve Centre here before, so this is the first time actually playing a full set. I am really excited because down here in the Woodland stages you almost expect ewoks to be walking around or something, I think it’s amazing.
GNI: So, The Tragedy of Dr. Hannigan is your latest vehicle. What’s coming up for you guys?
TW: This gig – and then we’ll figure it out after that. I have just put out a new VerseChorusVerse album, and I have a book coming out so that’s kind of my main thing at the moment whereas Hannigan is custom made for festivals pretty much.
GNI: The book sounds exciting. Is it a memoir?
TW: Kind of; it’s like a memoir / travel thing / dickhead musician rambling on and on.
GNI: So, the full band on stage with you tonight?
TW: Oh yeah, the whole band, all seven of us, so looking forward to that.
URSULA BURNS – As the sun went down and these woodland areas turned in to magical fairy lit wonderlands, I slipped into the little grotto that is the Woodtown Stage to hear “Dangerous Harpist”, Ursula Burns. In spite of the “Over 18” certification, the floor on front of her stage was filled with parents and kids – a sign of her popularity and her appeal to all age groups. Inspired by comedic musicians like Tim Minchin, there’s no-one that I know, doing what Ursula does. From the hilarious “Dry Your Eyes Jesus”, to her unique rendition of “Chasing Cars” in which she plays the harp while lying flat on her back, Ursula had the crowd rolling in the aisles.
GNI: So, how exciting was it to have your first “Over 18s” certification?
Ursula Burns: Oh my god, that blew my mind I was so happy because as a harpist that just doesn’t happen. But as you can see, the kids came anyway, and they loved it. I do think it’s a good idea to say parental guidance, because I do curse, and I do cover certain topics. But actually, the kids really enjoy the show. It’s probably good to warn people that there could be some references but actually I think kids will see a lot worse in their video games than they will see here. Everything I display is in good humour.
GNI: Have you played Stendhal before?
UB: Yes, I did do it one year before, but I am usually at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival so I’ve missed it quite a few years. But I don’t know how often I am going to go back to Edinburgh now, and Stendhal is so beautiful and so special and there such a good feel about the place. I mean down here where we are in the woods, it’ s all lit up and the attention to detail is amazing.
GNI: So, any news? Anything coming up for you?
UB: Well I have got a new studio, in the Vault artist studios, and my old art teacher from school has given me a grand piano which we managed to get up three flights of stairs into the studio. I do write all the time, not always comedy. I am working at the minute with the harp and piano at the same time, so that definitely won’t be comedy. It’s music and it’s beautiful and I’ll be focusing on song-writing.
Sadly after Ursula’s show the weather turned, and it was ponchos all round. And though we huddled together under trees or tarps for shelter, it didn’t stop the music and I caught several other fabulous acts worthy of note. Brand New Friend, the indie-pop band from Belfast are like a modern-day version of The Undertones; with their perfectly catchy punk-pop three-minute songs, their set was a real blast. Waldorf and Cannon too were a revelation. I’d not had the chance to see them live before and their high-octane, drum and guitar set on the Stevie Martin stage was staggering. And I must mention the mighty The Wood Burning Savages, who did indeed burn up the Stevie Stage, on which they were the headline act. By that time the heavens had well and truly opened, but the crowd did not diminish. Testimony to the true grit of the Northern Irish who stuck it out to the end and Paul Connolly’s incredible performance was worth it! It’s easy to see why they are NI’s fastest rising rock band.
I’ll admit we sloped off home without seeing And So I Watch Your From Afar on the Karma Valley Stage – which was disappointing. But it was midnight and we were well and truly sodden, so we gave in and called it a night. I am already looking forward to next year’s festival – but if they could do something about the weather, that’d be great!