Joshua Burnside had bought himself a fiddle during lockdown and so he took it to Stendhal festival in Limavady. It sounded a bit screechy, but everyone still applauded and Josh looked happy enough.
Sasha Samara was also on the site with a blue taffeta ball gown and hiking boots. Her new guitar was shaped like a daisy and it wouldn’t stay in tune, but nobody minded.
She told us that she’d fallen in love during the pandemic and so her new songs were especially upbeat. This was a bonus feature of the Wooly Woodtown Stage.
Everywhere we went on the festival weekend there were stories of change, stress and self-improvement. Bands were wearing boiler suits, or bucket hats, or even designer kimonos. ROE had let her hair grow long, while Dani Larkin had shaved it down to the wood.
Sometimes you just couldn’t recognise the faces you had last met in these fields in 2019. Still, it was lovely to be back with the music community and to be part of the first proper festival in Ireland in two years.
The planning had been diligent, the weather was fine and the sound of actual live music was the greatest tonic.
Down at the Karma Valley Stage, we watched Naomi Hamilton with her band Jealous of the Birds. We had purchased her book of poetry and photos last year, but this was no substitute for the sound of a band and a great lyricist in flight.
That was also the case with New Pagans, who put out searing, intelligent tunes, and Belfast act Enola Gay, who were predicting a riot and even trying to provoke one.
So many musicians made grateful speeches about the festival organisers and the charity Help Musicians NI. Their livelihoods had been damaged and clearly there have been mental health issues and therefore the support networks have been critical.
So the new songs were pouring out. And So I Watch You From Afar were the headliners on Saturday, July 10 and their riffs were loud and euphoric. They gave us a fresh tune called Years Later that seemed to articulate the extreme moods of the past 18 months.
Rory Friers looked down at the crowd in the lower field of Ballymully Cottage Farm and he smiled. “We all made it okay?”
One of the bands that really embraced the bounce was Brand New Friend. Their music has always been about youthful kicks. Taylor Johnson and his siblings Lauren and Logan have manufactured energy from the North West coast for several years now, but for much of the lockdown they were separated from their bandmates Aaron Milligan and Luke Harris.
When the restrictions lessened, they fitted out an old builder’s barn in Randalstown and rehearsed intensely, twice a week. They pulled together enough songs for a second album and even two days before the Stendhal show, they were adding new material, such as Lauren’s first composition, Talk it Out.
Their show was full of elation and release. There were only a score of people up front when they began, but by the end, Taylor was on top of the stage monitors, throwing shapes with his guitar and high-fiving the crowd.
It was heartening to watch, a vindication. I rang the singer a few days later to ask him how it was. “It was the moment when the sun came out again,” he said. “After being away for so long. We were holed up in our practice space, not knowing when we were gonna get to play any of these new songs live, not knowing what the future held. There were so many question marks around everything.
"Then, on the Friday night, we were able to go out and live it. To an extent, it was dreamlike, just seeing so many people in raptures. The collective joy was just an incredible, indescribable moment really for all five of us. We won’t forget that one.”
So, it wasn’t an anti-climax then?
“Not for us, definitely not. It was important for us to show people that we have developed and we’ve changed. It was important for to show that we still want to whip a festival crowd up. We don’t ever want to be boring.
"But we’re not the kids who ran on stage and didn’t know how to tune up our instruments and just jumped about for half-an-hour. We’re not those kids any more.”
Taylor was also visible across the festival as a fan. He was up at the crush barriers for New Pagans and also screaming out the lyrics of General Fiasco songs for the latter’s reunion show.
Like many others, it was not a weekend for cool behavior. We all had a lot of enthusing to do. Taylor agrees.
“Absolutely, that’s really important for me. It filled my heart with so much joy. I let myself go. I didn’t care who saw me, I wasn’t embarrassed at all. I thought bands like New Pagans were incredible.”
And was there ever a moment during the past 18 months that Taylor had considered a new career, a life beyond music?
“It’s never crossed my mind. Not since I learnt my first chords. I’ll never stop playing, ever. If nobody had shown up to see us, we would still have given it our everything. We’re a family, literally and figuratively.
"The five of us are so tight and have been through so much. That was never an option.”