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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stendhal Festival, August 13-14
Images by Stuart Bailie