Tucked away in a modest little field in South Belfast, hidden behind the grand steeple of Crescent Church lives Focal Festival, a three day event dedicated to focusing on local. Now into its third year, the open air festival aims to showcase the very best of local music, entertainment and food to the thousands of attendees that eagerly gathered on the delightfully decorated field, complete with blankets, picnic benches and all the fairy lights your Instagram could ask for. Just local folk in a local field, surrounded by local businesses, holding local pints, waiting to hear an all-local lineup featuring Lucy Bell, Sam Wickens, Rebekah Fitch, Brash Isaac, Jealous of the Birds, General Fiasco and Tommy McCoy. You get the (local) point.
If you’re not rating Focal Fest’s decorating skills you can certainly rate their faith in Northern Irish weather, with all three days from Thursday-Saturday offering an eclectic mix of events suitable to every taste, all in the unpredictable Belfast open air. Take note folks as good faith pays off, with attendees enjoying events such as a screening of Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room’, a GTA Vice City DJ set and performances from well loved local acts like Emerald Armada, Beauty Sleep and even the sun.
Saturday was the third and final day of the festival, complete with a line up full to the brim of local music, podcasts and even yoga by Flo Yoga to kick off the day. It was a line up that attracted all ages and most importantly all species, with more than a few dogs zooming around the field to the delight of literally anyone who spied them. Walking through the gates of the festival unveiled the perfect little spot to spend your day and night, complete with local food business stalls and a beer tent selling purely local beers, gin and cocktails, all ready to be enjoyed be it on a bale of hay by the stage or a blanket laid on the grass.
Lucy Bell, singer/songwriter from Downpatrick, kicked off the day of music armed only with her acoustic guitar, a drummer with a wooden box, and her amazing voice.
Reminiscent of other folk rock and acoustic artists like KT Tunstall and Amy Macdonald, Bell’s music earned her Panarts Young Songwriter of the year 2017 and had her featured on local Irish TV, as well as local radio stations Cool FM and BBC Radio Ulster.
Starting out by writing music in her bedroom, it was a modest beginning for someone with such songwriting talent that was evident through her performances of songs such as ‘Bittersweet Angel‘, ‘Next to Me’ and her most recent song ‘Lost on the Line.‘ Bell was the perfect start to the day and definitely one to watch, her sweet vocals hooking the filtering in crowd from the outset.
After each act there was a brief delay dedicated to soundchecks, meaning the schedule ran a bit behind, and this only added to the wholesome and incredibly chill vibe that dominated the entire event. A man in a white sailor hat remained on stage for the whole soundcheck which turned out to be next act Sam Wickens – a powerful and incredibly soulful folk indie artist and part time sailor, it would seem.
Making music since 2013 and taken under the wing of American record producer Tony Visconti in 2017, Northern Irish Wickens has worked closely with icons like Stuart Copeland and Imelda May and has the ability to combine both his sound and vocals to create something incredibly impactful.
Surrounded by musicians he continuously acknowledged for their help, along with himself on keyboard, Wickens played songs such as ‘Red’ and upcoming single ‘Falling’ that showcased his haunting sound with amazing depth, his expansive vocals, and tingling harmonies powerfully rose above a crescendo of drums and reverberated around the field and beyond. Even without the powerful instrumental backing for acoustic song ‘I Was’ Wickens commanded the whole field, his hypnotic voice left lingering in the chilly air.
Next to the stage was Rebekah Fitch, an artist who goes beyond mere alt-pop. Her background in musical studies evident, Fitch offers a multi-instrumental live show complete with powerhouse vocals and a dynamic edge that has already taken her to the stages of Stendhal, Evo Emerging and Moira Calling.
Utilising a flute and two keyboards within 2 minutes of her first song, completely alone on stage surrounded by instruments, Fitch emanates vibes reminiscent of Stevie Nicks and Florence + the Machine, her arms flowing high with the music. True to that, the crowd were treated to a cover of Florence + the Machine’s ‘You’ve Got the Love’.
Playing songs such as ‘Fake Smiles’ and ‘Need to Feel’, her songs are incredibly technical, and her powerful vocals are the glue that tightly binds everything together to create musical pieces as opposed to mere songs. Hip, mystical, and incredibly talented, Fitch will no doubt be taking her talent across Belfast and beyond very soon.
The first band of two for the night were next, the trusty fans and friends of Brash Isaac making the necessary first move from seated to standing at the front of the stage, with the rest of the crowd following soon after. The band led by Killyleagh born Andrew Cameron specialise in intertwining their rock/pop sound with folk songwriting, creating an infectious beat that still hits home a heartfelt message.
The Belfast based quartet dove straight into their first song, followed by a cover of Pine Groves that they dedicated to their friends in the front row, pints and arms swinging – the kind of support we all need. It was a much welcomed energy boost, the band playing songs such as ‘It’s Your Life’ and ‘Rust’ that immediately liven up the crowd who they constantly engage, getting them up on their feet as the sun settles down for the night.
Playing venues such as The Empire and The Limelight, frontman Cameron tells the crowd how they are also fresh from hosting a tribute night dedicated to Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchinson, raising just under £1000 for Suicide Prevention charity PIPS. Also dedicated to Scott Hutchinson, the band united the crowd to play an incredibly touching and powerful cover of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘Keep Yourself Warm’. The band’s smiles and the evident passion for their music was as infectious as their sound, seamlessly incorporating emotion with an rock-pop edge. And just like that, Brash Isaac sign off with an invitation to their next stop at Voodoo for Son of The Hound’s single launch, which, if it is to be anything like what they just delivered, is going to be a very, very busy event.
As the evening grew darker and the pints went down faster, the crowd drew closer to the stage and the vibe changed to become more united, all eager to hear the next act. Indie rock singer songwriter Naomi Hamilton took to the stage as Jealous of the Birds, encouraging the rest of the crowd to come forward – ‘I don’t bite’, she promised.
Recording while studying English and Creative Writing at Queen’s, Hamilton walked away from her Uni years with more than a degree. With an incredibly well received debut album under her belt since 2016 as well a new EP this year, Jealous of the Birds poetically knits together both literature and home truths to create songs that have taken her to Radio One’s Big Weekend, and also to stages shared with Elbow and The Divine Comedy.
Playing songs such as ‘Tonight I Feel like Kafka’ and ‘Plastic Skulls’, Jealous of the Birds mellow yet expansive vocals spill into and float around the field as the whole crowd sways. It was an incredibly strong performance, at one point the band playing on as Hamilton passionately reads an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Sunflower’, ‘for the burden of life is love’ echoing across the field. Her passion is incredibly compelling, making it very evident Hamilton has mastered combining her two true loves in life to create something we can all enjoy through her music.
By this point the crowd were pumped, all comfortably gathered at the front of the stage under the light of the moon to hear the encouraging shouts of one of the festival organisers – the classic ‘Belfast are you ready for your headliner?!’ making the audience explode in applause.
It is safe to say the next act were the most anticipated of the night, which is hardly a surprise considering their stamp on the Belfast music scene for over a decade. General Fiasco walked onto the stage and received the loudest of cheers that didn’t diminish even for a second, as they delivered songs from both of their albums, kicking it off with ‘We are the Foolish’. The response of the crowd was crazy and an absolute testament to the mark the band have made on Belfast.
After their last release back in 2012 with album Unfaithfully Yours the indie rock band put General Fiasco to the side to pursue other musical ventures such as Franklyn. Fast forward to 2018 and General Fiasco surprise everyone with the announcement of a reunion show in Voodoo at the start of the year – an announcement made to the absolute delight of fans across the country.
Hundreds queued for tickets resulting in a one-off reunion show expanding to multiple dates, catering to fans who, despite having grown up during the band’s 6 year hiatus, never abandoned their love for General Fiasco. Since then, the band have been playing sporadically across the country, such as supporting local band Hunkpapa at their headline show.
Whether this is the return of General Fiasco, the dream we all had when we were 16 coming true, or a brief provisional reawakening for the band before they disappear again, no one knows. Either way, what was clear from the reception of this crowd is that they were absolutely buzzing for the boys to be back. The delightful picnic benches so frequented earlier were kicked to the ground as the whole venue danced to the front, bales of hay torn apart and thrown in the air as everyone twirled each other around to songs like ‘Dancing with Girls’ and of course ‘Rebel Get By’, as well as a surprise cover of Cher’s ‘Believe’ before ‘Sinking Ships’.
The response was beyond anything anyone could have anticipated and was an amazing end to the night of music before DJ Tommy McCoy closed the festival. It was an incredible day for Belfast from start to finish and an amazingly positive advertisement for how far we have come as a city. It isn’t a secret that it can be incredibly easy to define Belfast by its history and forget everything beyond that.
Cue Focal Festival, an event that dismisses all the negative stereotypes associated with Belfast and showcases everything positive that our city has to offer, all gathered in one wee field. It is truly an amazing idea and something that has and should continue to grow as our city just gets better and better. Big up Focal Festival and big up Belfast – we really are great.