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The cover is a painting of prog-rock era Peter Gabriel, imagined by Britpop misanthropist Luke Haines. The record is made in Derry by an established, Anglo blow-in. The songs are furious in parts but mostly peeved and petulant. They seem to be sited in some wind-lashed, provincial sinkhole, frequented by ruffians, poseurs and bald adolescents. Welcome back, Invaderband with your new streak of slanted, declamatory stuff.

Luke Haines, the supreme hater of indie-showbiz cant, resurfaces on a song called ‘Vanity Search’. It seems to be a Google trail of random requests, possibly called up by Haines himself. Fragments of a life are glimpsed, misappropriated and trashed. This is all we may amount to, mere tinder on the bonfire.

Adam Leonard sounds like a Peel Show student, a miscellany of the rough wit that featured on those transmissions. There’s a moment during ‘At Right Angles’ when the Mancunian rattle transmutes into Memphis rockabilly and then immediately reverts. Mark E. Smith might have approved.

The scorn attains a comedic peak on ‘Cheese Slices’. The chord shapes recall the Stone Roses and ‘This Is The One’. But instead of grandeur and self-regard there’s a truth attack on a musician that’s unworthy. Listen to the end and hear the plastic wrapper peeling away from the processed dairy product. Actual Kraft work.

For all of the outsider energy, the class war and the random mithering, Invaderband reserve the right to be monumentally upset. Adam picks his moment on ‘Handcuffed Man Shoots Himself’. It’s a discourse on crooked news and rotten institutions. It returns you to Black Lives Matter with a different, riffing method. Thus, Invaderband hammer at the gates and challenge the citadel. They do this sort of thing well and hopefully will do it more often.

Stuart Bailie

 

This review features in Issue 6 of Dig With It magazine, out September 30. More info here.

We meet in a park on the south side of Dublin Bay. The clouds are up and we talk loosely about band rehearsals, bicycle maintenance and the joy that a teenage Conor J. O’Brien once found in a new Radiohead release, saving up his first listen of Kid A for the morning before school.

He chats about life drawing classes in Berlin, which he follows online, organised by Dave Hedderman, his old bandmate from the days of The Immediate. Conor’s drawings, at least the ones he shares with us, are vivid and peculiar, something we might discuss later. But like his music, they suggest turbulence versus order, some reassuring details in the face of the unknown.

We had previously spoken on the phone, but the changing patterns of pandemic life suggested that we might meet at a respectful distance, take a few photographs and learn more about the ever-stimulating world of Villagers. These are bonus moments in another messy year and we find the worth in them.

Conor photography by Stuart Bailie

Conor is generous with his ideas and his time. He has an expressive face and an intellect that does not settle for the humdrum. He talks about the politics of Bernadette Devlin and he’s been watching old, incisive footage of the American debater, William F. Buckley Jr. Even in a fairly relaxed setting it seems that Conor is determined not to fall into the hostile trenches of online opinion.

He talks about the problems of the “hot take” and a culture that favours noise and grandstanding. That’s not the Villagers way, and you sense that he’s encountered pain from such a source. Rather, he favours inner reflection and the “cold take” that a searching mind can try for. So, much of our two conversations is taken up with this.

“As I get older,” he says, “music for me becomes more and more a place to go where you an explore nuance and you see things in more interesting ways than they’ve been explored on everyone’s screens and on the internet.

“I think when I was younger, I used to have this kind of idea that I needed to show people my pain and that my pain was really unique and show them how deep I got with these critical thoughts in my mind about how the world is run and all this kind of stuff. And then you actually go through crazy shit in your life, really dark stuff, and you realise how music is where you should go to for the warmth and the escape and the realisation that we are all in this shitshow together. I think this is a culmination of that. On the last record I was starting to move there and this one is probably the must celebratory tone I’ve so far mustered.”

This was an aim of the first Villagers release of the year, ‘The First Day’. It was written after a festival, Another Love Story at Killyon Manor in Meath. Conor wrote the song in 2019 to keep the party rolling in his soul. Back then it was an electronic tune called ‘Love Story’, but by the time he’d brought it to the band in 2020, it was making other assertions. Their final session ended on the announcement of lockdown and fortunately, work on various songs was on multi-track. And so Conor had the material in his home studio to finish the album. Those words must have been an incentive to move on, surely?

“It emboldened me to emphasise the more idealistic and positive vibes as much as possible. To bring it somewhere more escapist, I guess.”

Human connection, right?

“Yeah. In all of its forms. A sense of that transcendental joy in human connection. Still holding onto that and remembering how we are all kind of the same, really, when it comes down to it. And trying not to listen too much to all these the way the internet is, trying to label us and make us different.

“Starting to decide to get right into working on the record and everything we had done together as a band and filling my days with that – it kind of kept me sane. And it really helped me maintain a focus on something. When you’re making an album, it’s a good way of feeling like there is some sort of linear motion in your life.”

He took long walks in the night of Dublin. Like many people, he was aware of the empty streets and the pervasive quiet. Normally the streets around Camden Row would have been relentless but now he could easily record his piano playing on a song called ‘Full Faith In Providence’. As with some of the songs on his previous record, he was nakedly spiritual. But not religious…

“I don’t think religion is the problem,” he asserts. “I think it’s dogma. I think it’s when people use texts in order to try and maintain some sort of status quo, which is probably not helpful to one particular group in society. That’s the problem. Spirituality and all that stuff is quite often targeted by modern atheists or agnostics or whatever. But it’s not really that, for me. It’s the power that becomes engulfed in it and which stems from it. They’re the problems.

“In The Art of Pretending to Swim, the lyrics (of ‘Again’) were, “I found a place in my heart for God in the form of art”. It’s just claiming words for yourself and realising that it’s just another way of trying to discuss this unsayable thing. This idea that we are all extremely similar – without being too new agey, or hippy. That’s the function of art, you know? It’s just all these silly arguments and discussions which are constantly happening. It’s stepping outside of that sometimes, and perhaps trying to express something which words won’t fully express.”

Would regard yourself as a quester? Is that a fair assumption?

“Yeah. I dunno. I try and write good music. Things come into my mind and they so seem to have… I seem to return to certain themes and I don’t really know why.”

Do the new songs bully you into existence or do they charm you? How do they announce themselves?

“Lots of different ways. They are usually reworked quite often. A couple of them were brought really unfinished. One of them is just a jam, called ‘Restless Endeavour’. They were chords I had played on piano for the last ten years really and I had tried to write lyrics, but it just stayed in my notebook or in my voice memos.

“One day we were with the band and we just jammed that and the next time I came back with a slightly more finished thing. We basically spent a couple of hours jamming it out and I was talking to the guys with their headphones saying ‘slow down’, ‘speed up’, or the mood we should have. And that 15 minute recording was edited at home. You’re basically just hearing the very end of the jam. With Ross (drummer Ross Turner), his energy is just peaking he’s been jamming the last ten mins, speeding up. So we decided to bring it in when the energy was peaking. You’re only hearing the last three minutes.”

I really like ‘So Simpatico’. It’s so sensual and I love the talking part and a sax playing. It’s like an old Marvin Gaye tune.

“I keep getting told it’s a bit Dexys, as well. People reference them too.”

Well, I’m getting Marvin.

“I’d go with that a bit more, to be honest. Thanks, that was about to go in the bin. All the verses had so many words in them and I was just really over-complicating it. I couldn’t figure out. Ross made me play it for him one day and he just said, we have to record that regardless, So we recorded it, with too many words and with too many ideas. And then came back the next time realising that, oh God, if you just sing, it actually doesn’t need all these words. It doesn’t need to complicate itself, it needs to open up. I think half the trick of writing is editing.”

In the song ‘Circles in the Firing Line’ there’s a lyric about “the United States, demagogic logic”. When I heard that, I was thinking of dark forces in high office.

“Definitely. There are some other lines. There’s a song called ‘Momentarily’ on the record. The lyrics now are, “it’s a forest fire on the front page and how we’re all gonna pay”. originally the lyrics were, “the fascist fuck in the White House”. But Danny, bass player, said, you know you might be talking about Bernie Sanders this time next year? I thought, ok, maybe change that line. But also, it’s too on the nose. I think sometimes the power in words and music can be better if you leave a lot more to the imagination.

“But ‘Circles in the Firing Line’ was definitely just like you said, constantly reading the news everyday or looking at the news on TV. Like, what is happening? The thing about someone like – don’t even want to say his name – being at the highest level, one of the most powerful men on Earth, it has a knock-on effect. For the ability of people to think critically and even people who might be on the opposite side of opinions about topics.

“I think a lot of people lowered their expectations or critical capacities over the last four or five years and it has the butterfly effect. We are slightly recovering from that collective, post-traumatic stress thing. Also with that song, I was reading about this idea of the ‘negative capability’ which Keats used to talk about. He enjoyed the idea of being able to keep two completely opposing thoughts in his mind whilst not abandoning reason.

“That’s where arts and creativity and I guess science and development in lots of different areas comes from. I feel like everybody’s living on their screens right now and corporations are controlling the way people think. In an Orwellian sense, it’s starting to really eat into culture and that song was just tapping on that a little bit. But also a reason to get an electric guitar and you know… shred.”

In August 2019, Villagers played a festival date on the island of Vlieland in the Netherlands. Afterwards, they went night swimming in the North Sea, enjoying the breeze. Conor had been talking to Brendan Jenkinson, the band’s keyboard player about his interest in these scientific and perhaps even the mystical significances in the numeral. And then Brendan pointed up to the firmament. There it was. An awesome constellation, the Great Bear.

“We saw Ursa Major in the sky. We saw the seven stars, as the main asterism from Ursa Major. And that spawned the beginning of ‘Song In Seven’ because I was like ‘this number seven is not going to go away’ so we did it in 7/8. That’s one of my favourites.”

Happily, Villagers play The Empire in Belfast on November 7. We’ll say that it augurs well. Does Conor have a picture in his head of what these autumn shows will look like and how it might work emotionally?

“I just got some recordings back yesterday from the rehearsals and it was already sounding kinda trippy and cool. Some of the songs were already going to a new place a little bit. If they’re already beginning to do that now, I’m wondering what they’ll be like when they get to the stage.

“I’m just having these visions of a celebration, being back out there in a room full of people and everything. Really feeling it and actually having a renewed love for it. A renewed sense of, ‘Oh God, I got a taste of when we can’t actually do this’. I think that will all be happening on the night.”

So much significance. A heap of expectation. And also the chance for musicians and their people to earn their worth. Conor J. O’Brien is smiling and getting his hustle on. As you might.

“So, bring seven friends to the show. Buy seven tickets each.”

Stuart Bailie

(This is extracted from a longer interview, the cover story of Dig With It, Issue 5. You can buy the magazine and take out a subscription here.)

The Villagers album, Fever Dreams, is out now.

 

Three festival events in three months ­– Stendhal have kept the nerves steady and made a momentous case for music, camping and people getting delighted, outdoors. From a trial gig in June and then a couple of roaring days in July, the ultimate was always a showdown in August with multiple live stages, 5,000 visitors and a tenth birthday party of jubilant proportions.

Dig With It reviewed the first event plus the rising elation of July 9 and July 10. So now there’s a happy duty to gather some semi-random impressions of the third circuit. Here goes:

Mark Hamilton, Ash.

Ash: the stars of the summer
They get their Tayto crisps on the backstage rider and a heap of family on the guest list. A certifiably great festival act plays their first show in 520 days and we’re present when they update the scorecard. Magic delivered with ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ and the cussing, contrary ‘Buzzkill’. Rick delivers a fine, emotional speech and plays a drum solo. Near the end, they make an acute switch from ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ to ‘Girl from Mars’ and our hearts feel the afterburn.

Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton

Tim Wheeler has written some of the greatest songs on the island and certainly he’s been a consistent force. ‘Darkest Hour of the Night’ is recently minted and resonates well. ‘Confessions in the Pool’ has a groove that’s expressly buoyant and resides with the good ones.

That still leaves space for a score of the pop champions. ‘Shining Light’ is there by popular decree, always affirming. ‘Walking Barefoot’ reminds us that summer will expire and the ache will be real. Just as we hoped, ‘Kung Fu’ gets the extended, festival breakdown. ‘Teenage Kicks’ is messy but the farewell combination of ‘Jack Names the Planets’ and ‘Burn Baby Burn’ is indelibly sweet.

Tim Wheeler, Rick McMurray

Yay! Team Stendhal!
A brilliantly managed summer. The best of professionals around the farm site. Courtesy and keen demeanour as standard. Musicians given respect and validation – the cause of many tearful moments. None of this can have been achieved easily, but a well-defined culture has shaped Stendhal for 10 years. A huge win.

Sasha Samara

Sasha Samara
In July we saw her at the Wooly Woodtown stage, playing to a handful of pals and chance visitors. Now Sasha is on the Stevie Martin Stage, apparently happy with the bonus space it affords her. Her band rolls with the remit – electro-pop, introspection, power anthems, ukulele and quirk. She talks about herself in the third person and induces fun. ‘Problems’ is a four-to-the-floor banger. ‘Sobering Up is a hyperballad and ‘Broken Vessel’ remembers a fractured past before steering us to the better dawn.

The Florentinas
It’s been sad to see long musical careers halted by the pandemic but a young band like The Florentinas were only starting to visualise great things before all was put back in the box. So their joy has a different tenor and their return is light and gracious. The tunes are secure and the guitar pedals summon up chimes and sustain and layered chorus. Everyone smiles, the weather is holding it together and Paddy is perceptibly taller by the end.

Joel Harkin
At Stendhal 2019 Joel was wry and garrulous. Two albums later and there’s another method. Yes, he still talks plenty and there’s an accepted intro to ‘Charlie and Deirdre’ that helps us to understand the exile stories of the singer’s dad and partner. But the new Joel lets us see more of the vulnerability. There’s a fresh home movie called ‘Deirdre’s Lugging Boxes at Bargain City’ that quotes from the Grease script but also investigates a Belfast of rising equity and rotten landlords. The financial duress is real and the casual labour is hard. Joel is serving drunks, trying hard to muster a mortgage deposit and thinking that we might guillotine the CEOs.

Joel Harkin

Another evolving song (co-written with Ciaran Lavery) concerns Ho Chi Minh and his battles with the Chinese Communist army. Next moment, an uncle is in the ’RA and we’re Shanghai’d on Sandy Row. This is excellent writing and the bittersweet Joel is something to value.

Jealous of the Birds
Naomi has the triple campaign medal for the Stendhal summer events and we shan’t complain. She returns in a cobalt blue suit, white sneakers and a number two crop. All super-assured. The band does snazzy and off-kilter on demand. We learn that ‘Tonight I Feel Like Kafka’ has cult status on TikTok, favoured by men with exotic moustaches and outsiders who would prefer to be enormous insects.

NewDad

NewDad
Given that the north is less restrictive for music events this summer, it’s not a surprise to see so many bands and fans making the cross-border transit. So we have Paddy Casey, Ocelots and Soda Blonde all getting their due welcome. Also NewDad, who create a proper sense of occasion at the Henry McCullough Stage, just as the gloom falls and the tone changes. An ideal setting for their songs that come out of the murk with style and luminosity. There’s a brand new tune that recalls ‘Caterpillar’ by The Cure. Another newbie, ‘Banshee’ might be Irish mythical or Siouxsie Sioux. Either way, it sounds gripping. The sounds are astonishing, the band presence is sure and ‘I Don’t Recognise You’ is a momentous, slanted sulk.

Andrew McGibbon, The Bonnevilles

The Bonnevilles
We race off from New Dad to see the closing moments of The Bonnevilles. Blimey, it’s a delirious show. They call out to the Lurgan massive and they accent the fever with amped-up, bottleneck blues. Like they always do. Andrew is ecstatic, lost in the noise and the feral stuff. ‘C’mon’ is a threat and an invitation. He brings up Wally from Waldorf & Cannon for wailing blues harp in the Chicago tradition. They summon the sacred boogie of Bo Diddley and the Wooly Woodtown glade is utterly redeemed.

Turn
Turn have basically retired from active service – playing once a year in Dublin as a fond ritual. So it’s maybe 15 years since they last came north and it’s a still a great proposal. There are technical problems and some of the songs are sadly diminished, but ‘In Position’ is still a fierce judgment on music fashions and how an artist can be demeaned by the beauty pageant of the biz.

Dani Larkin
A return visit and this time, a more attentive audience. Dani plays her suite of songs, firstly the mesmeric, archetypal set and then she pivots at the lyrics of ‘Magpie’ which come out of a trad-style instrumental like a visitation. This is your portal to the love songs. Dani is gathering her gifts and her presence across the season. Deep and important.

Jordan Adetunji

Jordan Adetunji
The bringer of energy, actually on his toes for the duration of the set. Jordan pays allegiance to hip hop and declares that we might start a riot. Perhaps not a real riot. Rather, a riot of jumping and rave and indie-pop shrapnel.

Losta Plot
Again, the schedules dictate that we must scurry from Jordan Adetunji to hear Losta Plot at the extreme end of the site. It is DJ Provai from Kneecap, moonlighting as a rapper and revealer. The content is severe – a chronicle of mental health problems and perilous lifestyle: Slim Shady, Creggan style. The narrow festival plot enhances the stories of claustrophobia and disgust. ‘I Know Ye But What Am I’ is schoolboy trauma and an adult encounter with the old bully. The meeting goes well with a deal of forgiveness but elsewhere, Losta Plot struggles with collapsing self-esteem and the awful call of suicide.

Malojian
Stevie Scullion, Chris McCorry and Andy Murray are here to gift the late afternoon with a surplus of soul, acute details and remarkable art. They play ‘Chinooks’ and remember the Irish conflict, just as the helicopters are lifting personnel off the roof of the American Embassy in Kabul. ‘Ambulance Song’ sounds even more delicate with age, hints of Scally psychedelia by way of Shack, the Bunnymen and George Harrison. A new song, ‘She Built Our World (Horses)’ is woozy and dizzy and seems to reach for a beautiful surrender, not unlike our much-admired Mercury Rev records. They exit with ‘Walking Away’ hailing the value of a recycled heart in an unreliable landscape. The best thing to do, Steve figures, is to exit with a love song. And he does.

Duke Special

Duke Special
Peter Wilson and Chip Bailey, achieving mischief and playing many wonderful songs. Chip with the squeaky toys, the cheese grater and the rhythm stick. The happy bedlam of ‘I Let You Down’. Peter taking a sublime left into ‘Nothing Comes Easy’, extemporising and making us feel the wonder of the second. He’s listing the great things that can raise us and if you’re still immune, he returns to the theme in a glorious ‘Freewheel’ as the spirit ascends and the author pictures the weekend in its greatness, a rock and roll catechism.

Chip Bailey

‘Our Love Goes Deeper Than This’ is bringing us home, music hall and banter and belonging. Chip is banging stuff, driving away demons. Peter hauls the keyboard off the stand and manhandles it like a petulant Jerry Lee Lewis. Tremendous.

David Keenan
Something significant is going on with David Keenan. The bravado is wearing away and the uncertainty is more marked. That doesn’t stop him spilling out the words like a sailor on shore leave, but it’s coming from a less blatant place. The face paint is curious and on ‘Sentimental Dole’ he remembers George Floyd and the tiki torch parades, before turning his mind to de Valera’s Ireland. David Keenan is intensely moved at the chance of playing live again. We can only imagine the inner conversation but he’s in his proper habitat, unspooling ‘Evidence of Living’ and ‘Love in a Snug’, that perpetual place where old ghosts meet.

ROE

ROE
Another artist with three laps of the festival. ROE is even more forthcoming about the new music and the inner life. She’s writing on the piano now (“it feels very down-to-earth”) and when she sits down to perform, the narrative voice can be self-critical and unkind. ‘One in a Million’ searches for a passage beyond disillusion. ‘Cold Feet’ is an excursion without a reliable compass. “I don’t trust my own instincts any more,” she repeats. We’re on my familiar terms with ‘Hey Thomas’, a vindication of the weirdo, who transcends the petty slights and small minds. But hey, the artist also has a prerogative, and she seems compelled by the dark side and the difficult voices.

Mary Coughlan
As with her 2019 appearance, Mary sings the Jimmy Webb tune, ‘Do What You Gotta Do’. Cherished by Nina Simone and The Four Tops, the Mary version is also the saddest creation. She loves the other person to the point where she’s being obliterated by the intensity of it all. But somehow, she reasons, she must end it and let the other party search for the “dappled dream”. It helps to be a diva when you sing this, and Mary has all the credentials. She can make a singular try at ‘Love With Tell Us Apart’ and not seem foolish. ‘Elbow Deep’ is heavy with incrimination and she signs off with ‘Ride On’, an artifact of the troubles, political and personal.

Kyoto Love Hotel
A passing moment in the festival churn but a notable one. Joe and Laura, in the woods, with poetry and momentous synths. Lesser-heard frequencies and significant spaces between the chords.

Rockers Galore
Flash Harry pulled the biggest crowd of the weekend with the Queen covers. The Oasis tribute Roll With It was a bankable moment on the Friday. Dea Matrona went to the Fleetwood Mac songbook and were summoned later by Jimi’s ghost. Pat McManus put his life together in music, remembering Mama’s Boys, tough times, folk strains and the succor of people, together.

And So I Watch You From Afar

Solidarity, The Comeback
And So I Watch You From Afar, on the Stevie Martin Stage, blinding strobes and brute volume levels. Mostly we see them as outlines on a scorched retina, doing their balletic shapes. ‘Solidarity’ is there again with that resolute charge. Also ‘Year Zero’ which starts with tentative, pealing notes. As it builds, our satisfaction is laced with fatigue and we wonder when we might encounter a camping festival again. Next year, maybe. Nothing is absolute and the winter may be a harsh one. More reason to cherish the music, the artists, the tech crew, festival people and the blessed village of souls that has set us here.

 

Stuart Bailie
Stendhal Festival, August 13-14

Images by Stuart Bailie

 

 

Parkside Grooming is an animal-primping business near Wanstead Flats in East London. If you pet can fit in the big bath, then it it’s good to groom. Alternately, ‘Parkside Grooming’ is an EP by Lou Price. He’s still a feature with the band Swimming Tapes and he had previous form with a fine act from Bangor called Kowalski. He’s just made this lovely collection of tunes that tends towards melancholia. It features sweet, chiming guitar to please Johnny Marr fans plus surprise chord moves.

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Ryan McMahon has the best lockdown hair in Inhaler. Lank yet a bit elegant. Ryan doesn’t speak that often but when he does, it’s cool and declarative. No confidence issues with the guy. He’s not like the drummers you often meet. And now he’s about to lean forward on the sofa, centre-left of the band formation and he’s going to say stuff about the new record that will cause his colleagues to laugh, at the loose audacity of it all.

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We see New Pagans on Day Two of Stendhal. They play ‘It’s Darker’ as the temperature drops. And then the festival thing happens, when a big stage and a keen audience connect with music that’s ready to assume gigantic proportions.

You might well know the song already. ‘It’s Darker’ is righteously upset about a put-down at a party. It rages about the discourse of the nasty. And it wins, because New Pagans are opposed to the snide remark, the reductive thought and the way of the bigot. They respond with noise and intelligence. It’s the greatest roar, a denial of darkness.

We have little time to absorb all this because now they are playing ‘Lily Yeats’ and Lyndsey is fixing on another troublesome issue – the relegation of female artists, the write-offs and the repression. Again, the volume rises and although the players may look nonchalant, they are acutely in synch. Those guitar crunches plus the stop-time and the moments when everything flies at once – none of this is accidental.

Therefore Lyndsey is secure with the band and it allows her the liberty to inhabit every microsecond. She sings in the present and relives the outrage. Importantly, because she grew up in a home where popular music wasn’t condoned, she came late to the tunes and isn’t bound by the grammar book of rock moves. It’s all fresh and astonishing.

‘Christian Boys’ is the greatest song of the night. It pivots halfway through as if any proper consideration is wasted on these loathsome figures. And so New Pagans summon up the bulldozers and they do the demolition. Lyndsey folds herself on the floor by the bass drum. There’s no why. It’s just pure feeling, foetal attraction. Such an event.

The Saturday plans for Stendhal have also gifted us the lightness of Laytha, two sure voices on ‘What Will I Gain’. The song considers family, hopes and a place to belong. Dolores O’Riordan is smiling, somewhere. Another tune, ‘Strawberry Moon’ was completed after a drink-fuelled Zoom quiz but you might believe that it came from a lakeside walk by Windermere. Laytha also support the Free Britney movement by playing ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’, with feeling.

Cherym put down vital songs at the get-go like the best poker sharks. No reason to deny ‘Listening to my Head’, ‘Take it Back’, ‘Pretty Boys’ and ‘Telepathic Kelly’. They provide the jokes, the hair and the commentary. As with many bands, there is a slight wobble at the start, like an ex-cyclist returning to the saddle. Eighteen months off, y’know. And then it rolls on, headed for glory.

Sasha Samara does the Wooly Woodland Stage in a taffeta ball gown and hiking boots. All contingencies are covered. The uke sounds deadly and there’s a transformational air about Sasha’s style. She’s no longer regretful and apologetic. The daisy-shaped guitar goes out of tune but it does not detract. She jokes plenty and ‘Sobering Up’ is a throwback to more troubled times.

The new agenda is represented by ‘Always Back To You’ there is love and vindication and smiles. The sapphire costume catches the light and the wooden pilings around the stage make it look like a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Quite the achievement. Sasha says so long, farewell with her old fave, ‘Broken Vessels’, which already sounds like juvenilia. It’s moving along.

As with the Friday programme, there are occasional clashes between stage events. So we watch the start of Dani Larkin on the Stevie Martin Stage. It’s an important debut of the album and there are strings and percussion to accent the song-fables. ‘Aoife’ is all murmur and banjo and myth. Dani is reaching into the deeps of history to measure our own capacity for crowd-think and violence. Intense.

But we must also tramp down to Karma Valley for Jealous of the Birds, to hear ‘Blue Eyes’ exploding like a testy mattress. There’s a call-out to Kafka and Kurt and then a request for some whistling support for ‘Goji Berry Sunset’. How would you refuse the privilege? Naomi takes an aetheric steer with ‘The Grass Begins to Eat Itself’. She calls down poetry and delirium, murmurations and washing lines.

Cormac Neeson plays out from his White Feather record and a few tunes from The Answer. “Let’s just never leave here,” he figures. Nearby, Reevah is at the Henry McCullough stage with a coral blue Fender guitar, setting ‘Daydreamer’ free, a measure of sorrow and poise and spirit of Stevie Nicks.

General Fiasco is a throwback to Glasgowbury Festival and four consecutive years up the Sperrins, 2007-10. For many here, the band was part of their summer rites and so there’s an orderly queue of baby buggies by the stage as the adults get their nostalgia. The songs have weathered decently and the time-coded message of ‘The Age You Start Losing Friends’ is sadly prescient.

Joshua Burnside was a low-key wow on the Friday bill but he gets his proper billing on the Saturday. At the risk of repeating ourselves let’s say that Josh is premium talent with bonus laughs, philosophy, ramshackle parts and endearing self-sabotage. He’s learnt to play the violin over lockdown and it’s a fun element in ‘Nothing for Ye’ – that mocking admission of the poor creative.

But hey, those songs. Allegorical and potent. Strange like old woodcuts. ‘War on Everything’ is fear and disturbance. ‘The Good Word’ is endlessly absorbing. The dream sequence when the robots are in the jungle is the greatest. For the second time in the weekend we hear ‘Whiskey Whiskey’ and the stomach flips, again.

And So I Watch you From Afar are the chosen ones to finish at the Karma Valley Stage. They have the credentials of punk, community, DIY and illuminating tunes. We watch them though the hazer clouds and magenta lighting. Rory looks back at us. A question: “we all made it ok?”

That’s a lot of stories and a lifetime of conversation. But we appreciate the sentiment. Rory has his own response, though. It hinges on two pieces. ‘A Little Bit of Solidarity Goes a Long Way’ is a reminder of how things were in 2008. The music scene was pulling together but the economic crash was imminent. The banking system was busting us yet music was holding firm, sustaining our hearts. And that tune will always be a guide to collective action and the affirming value of the arts.

The stage lights go emerald and they play a new piece called ‘Years Ago’. Like ‘Solidarity’, it takes an emotional arc and tonight at least, it sounds like a bookmark to that earlier work. Two periods of difficulty, both affixed to significant music. ASIWYFA are thanking the Stendhal festival organisers, the stage crew and the people at Help Musicians NI who have done so much to uphold the local scene. They thank the audience also, because they have stayed true. Finally, they play ‘Big Thinks Do Remarkable’ and the lines sound reassuring. Darkness may yield. We’re beginning to see the light.

Stuart Bailie

All images by Stuart Bailie

 

Read the review of Stendhal Festival, Friday July 9 here.

 

Colour us pink and consider us delighted. The sun is brilliantly over the Roe Valley, a few thousand people are steering into Stendhal Festival and here’s Joshua Burnside with Laura Quirke, singing so well. Is this a certifiable, pinch-me moment? We approach the Annan’s Arch stage as the music lifts and we think: yes, absolutely.

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Morgan MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty, aka Saint Sister, are intentional in creating a palpably larger presence. Featuring more centrally across the board on their second release, both as protagonists in the album’s visuals and in self-producing the record, the duo meld their wistful ‘atmospop’ into groovier shapes on Where I Should End. Continue Reading…

Dani Larkin’s debut record, Notes for a Maiden Warrior is an album in two halves. The first, based around the theme of the Warrior, represents the dark side of the moon. It explores the archetype of Ulster as the warrior province, home to Cú Chulainn and his superhuman abilities. Larkin reinterprets this image in her songs, presenting the warrior’s strength through reflection and resilience. The second half, Maiden, is sleepy and sincere. It plays with ideas of light and feminine energy, showing strength through vulnerability and a celebration of love and kindness. Notes for a Maiden Warrior draws on ancient, otherworldly tales as a study of tenderness, pain and learning. Continue Reading…

There’s a moment when you walk down the slope of Ballymully Cottage Farm and you hear music in the bottom field and the heart swoops. Hey, a music festival. In a favourite location. With good bands, in the company of people you care for, in the brief Irish summertime.

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