Stevie Wonder once sang about it being “hotter than July”. We’re guessing that Stevie was never in Limavady on a wet Friday in midsummer, when the de rigueur fashion statement at a music festival was the dryrobe®. Oh well. There are 8,000 people ready for an excellent time at Ballymully Cottage Farm and if the rainwater fills the river past capacity, then perhaps there are a few takers here for bonus, wild swimming action.
Even better, here’s Conor from Villagers onstage as the darkness settles, fronting out a deluge, singing ‘Hot Scary Summer’. Homophobia is never an easy subject for a song, but we know the words now and we also appreciate that marriage equality became a thing after the song’s arrival. So there’s a further reason to celebrate and soon after, the clouds lift and the music brightens.
Villagers are now playing ‘Song in Seven’, a song about a post-festival splash in the warm North Sea off the Dutch coast. In the lyric, the bathers look upwards and see the star formation of Ursa Major and everything is beyond cool. Tonight, they recreate the magic in Limavegas, an outstanding band, ready for every sweet nuance, responsive to Conor’s exceptional art. They roll with the punk outro of ‘Circles in the Firing Line’ and then swoon like Mercury Rev to the closing sentiments of ‘So Simpatico’. Not for the first time, we gush.
This is why we return to the festival, 12 years on. That mix of fine, personal moments and collective joy. The chance to see Winnie Ama gathering her greatness in the bottom field and then we clamber back up the slope to see Ciaran Lavery in his boiler suit and the unerring wonder of ‘Okkervil River’. We also gain from a surprise incident in the Wooly Woodland stage when Red Eye Pariah plays ‘You & I’ and the initiates lose it to the Verve-like meanderings.
Saturday provides early afternoon solace with The Unholy Gospel Band, singing Candi Staton and Hank Williams and offering quiet grace to the backsliders. The Stevie Martin Stage becomes a staging post for these players, as Michael Mormecha returns with TRÚ just after, giving out about soaring witches and wild mountain thyme. The Unholy presence is sustained when Donal Scullion musters the NI Soul Troop and the pace quickens.
The Inishowen Gospel Choir also lift us with Blur’s ‘Tender’, willing us into the day and prepping us for the sucrose load of Lemonade Shoelace. This is proper talent in ascension, wise to the groove and the pop sensibilities. Ruairí hacks into the senses and he wires them up differently. It’s the citrus-sucking sunshine that the Stone Roses called for in a previous haze. Naturally there’s a rush for ‘Autopilot Paradise’ as the Ruairí output has been carefully measured and we’re not over-familiar with the tunes. But there are extra smiles for ‘Violet’s Song’, a tune about the girlfriend’s cat that projects like a psychoactive furball.
Rory Nellis does a rewind to ‘Video Shop’ and the great tide of lockdown yearning. He sings about hugging everyone “who is comfortable with it” and we admire his gallant manner. Much of the other programming on the Henry McCullough Stage serves the ever-expanding comedy industry and depressingly, not much of it has graduated beyond the mention of bums, bombs, willies and yer ma.
Sister Sledge is the essential party promise of the Saturday evening. The offer is aspirational, uptown soul. You maybe be wearing welly boots in a marshy slope, but ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’ will always fit you out in Gucci and Fiorucci in the VIP room of Studio 54.
There are possibly two original family members in the touring party, but few will quibble. The band is assembled from London players with Jamiroquai connections and they play well. Those prime Sister Sledge grooves were once guided by the Chic mainstays of Nile Rogers and the late Bernard Edwards and that’s the highest challenge. These replacements have the reach for much of it, happily.
The handful of Sister Sledge hits are padded out with Chic tunes plus a detour into the Sugarhill Gang, even some Isley Brothers. Again, it’s not a major problem for the festival crowd, who need little in the way of permission to feel glad. A win for the Sisters and Stendhal.
Wood Burning Savages have many new songs and the levels of urgency are unrelenting. A preview show at the Ulster Sports Club gave an indication of the future remit, but the scale and the resonance of their festival slot reveals it.
It’s alert and affirming. ‘Climb the Ladder’ addresses the Home Office and Priti Patel while the huge riffs channel Led Zeppelin and ‘Immigrant Song’. There’s a riposte to media filth on ‘1,000 Mumbling Virgins’. Paul Connolly wants us to respect our mental health and to make a noise about reproductive rights and union membership. They achieve peak altitude with live favourite ‘Lather Rinse Repeat’, words about the degradation of civic life that require all of the fury and disgust that the band can supply. They supply plenty.