Originally reviewed for BBC Across The Line.
It’s Monday morning and my face hurts. Partly I suppose it’s the sunburn but also it may be the huge grin that’s been plastered across my face all weekend. Organisers, bands, volunteers, and everyone else involved in Sunflower Fest, stand up and take a bow. You’ve just put on one absolute belter of a festival.
Of course, to say any gig was completely perfect would be nonsense and there were times during Saturday evening when the lineup grew a little stale with big chords over 4/4 beats as generic rock band followed generic rock band. The trek up to the campfire stage was a killer in flimsy soled converse and there were a few head melters around oblivious to their surroundings and having a bit of misplaced craic during the quieter sets – but sure it’s a festival, and the good by far outweighed the bad.
For a lot of people I imagine there were quite a few new bands on the bill over the three days. I managed to catch a little bit of The Everyday Superheroes, one of the many local acts who have prompted me to question if Northern Ireland is developing a “Lisburn Sound”. They pound out some truly bombastic indie pop with that kind of gusto which has propelled the likes of Silhouette and Rams’ Pocket Radio onto bigger and better things. Emerald Armada’s guitarist Tony McHugh wows the Campfire Stage on Saturday afternoon with tunes from his recently released EP and sports some dodgy mirrored shades while belting out a stirling cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Call Me Al’. Sitting back bopping along to that with a pint in hand is really what this type of festival is all about.
For me though, these couple of days are about checking out the tried and tested old favourites and there are nods to the scene of ten years ago as Pay*Ola rock out and Dave McCullough (Debonaires) joins Duke Special on stage. As good as it is to hear the artists who made up my old BelFEST compilations, it’s pleasing to note the old guard stepping aside for the younger talent to shine. Phoenix Fire (now runawayGO), Southern and Louisiana Joyride all treat us to some new material whetting the appetite for further releases and blasting out some singalong favourites as well. And when an old folk-loving music fan like me thinks things can’t get any better, you find out there are surprise additions to the bill in the shape of Allie Bradley and Sons of Caliber.
It’s not all about the music at Sunflower Fest though. There are little stages and venues dotted around the site specialising in comedy and poetry with some highly entertaining poi dancing, a kids play area and what’s that? A five a side football pitch? We’ll get back to reviewing the show just after this little kick around with Allie Bradley and Phoenix Fire.
Perhaps I could handle the football a little better if I wasn’t so easily distracted by the bar and little cluster of on-site eateries. The pizza and chips meal deal is a salty, tomatoey delight but it wouldn’t be fair to comment on that alone without sampling the other food on offer. By the end of the weekend I’ve been through pizza, sausage suppers, Teppanyaki noodles and a good old bowl of Irish Stew. That, combined with back pockets full of demo CDs leaves me with a fairly low centre of gravity so I’m glad when Sunday sees a return of the sunshine and a chance to lie back and enjoy the sights and sounds.
The Inishowen Gospel Choir are up twice on the main stage which is entirely deserved. They’re the epitome of the festival experience with one set backing up vocalists like Rachel Austin, Katie Richardson and Duke Special before they re-take the stage a little later in the day for a set of gospel, soul and pop classics during which Jackie Wilson’s ‘Higher and Higher’ prompts a little boogie. Other notable moments that may not work at other shows, but stand the festival environment well, are a raucous tongue-in-cheek set from Mental Deficiency and a blissful late night reggae groove with Magwere. When we’re not partying hard there are beautiful quieter moments to be enjoyed, none moreso than when a powercut forces Duncan Campbell from the Campfire Stage to sit amongst a captivated audience and play completely acoustically.
One thing that makes a festival for me is when bands step a little outside of their comfort zone and treat us to a cover or two. I’ve already mentioned Tony McHugh’s Paul Simon moment but credit where credit is due to Cork band Craiceann, who’ve thrown in a little bit of Nelly and Sugarhill Gang into what’s already been an oddly eclectic set. A certain BBC journalists young kids are loving the rockabilly swagger and dancing round in the sun as The Sabrejets treat the afternoon crowd to ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and ‘I Fought The Law’. The standard for cover versions was set early on on Saturday when I arrived on site to hear Shake perform Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love’. Hearing one of your all time favourite rock songs belted out with verve is a great way to start any weekend. What could be better? Well, how about if Katie and the Carnival and the Inishowen Gospel choir belt it out from the main stage in the blistering sun on Sunday afternoon… Beautiful! The headliners of this festival had a lot to live up to.
Thankfully when things are left in the capable hands of the likes of Mojo Fury, Cashier No. 9, Not Squares and Duke Special you can be confident they’ll step up to the mark and not disappoint. Not Squares on Saturday night are a welcome relief from the onslaught of rock and bring the party to Sunflower Fest with some big beats, catchy hooks and some twin bass action. Sunday night sees a return to form for Duke Special. There’s no messing around with songs from musicals or Ruby Murray renditions, it’s just hit after hit with big singalongs to ‘Last Night I Nearly Died’ and ‘Digging An Early Grave’. It all ends a little oddly with a man in a high vis jacket shushing us all as Duke leaves us singing Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, something of a whimpering conclusion to a weekend of fantastic all round entertainment. We’re all humming Duke Special songs as we climb the big hill and head for home, looking forward to a sit down and the next festival date on the calendar.