Ahead of the most exciting months in the music calendar, Edwin McFee meets the Wood Burning Savages, Beauty Sleep and Reevah to hear their thoughts on the long-awaited return of festival season
Over the next few weeks, music lovers across the country will be dusting down their wellies, power-hosing their mud-encrusted tents and, if they’re smart, laminating those all-important stage times in preparation for the return of festival season.
It has been three long years since we’ve last enjoyed these events sans restrictions, and now, after enduring a worrying period of uncertainty and inactivity, performers and promoters alike are getting ready to turn those amps back up to 11 in a bid to blow the wee straw fedoras off of the collective craniums of punters across the province and beyond.
Three acts that are sure to steal the show of every bill they appear on are indie punks the Wood Burning Savages, bleeding edge cerebral pop stars Beauty Sleep and folk-flecked, ferociously talented tunesmith Reevah.
“Glastonbury is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite festival,” begins the Wood Burning Savages singer/guitarist Paul Connolly.
“It’s a feast of music, like a pop-up city. I reckon you could do a Groundhog Day-style of living the same weekend there for a century and still not be close to catching everything they offer.
“As a kid, I used to sit on the floor in front of my folks’ stereo with a set of old-school headphones and listen to Led Zeppelin III on repeat, so to see Robert Plant and his band playing some of my favourite songs at Glastonbury was an emotional experience.
“In life, I’ve realised the importance of being aware of the victories as they happen, so the first time we played Glastonbury to even be on the same festival bill as him was a mind-blowing thing.”
“My favourite festival experience was Castlepalooza 2017,” offers Beauty Sleep singer and synth wizard Cheylene Murphy.
“We drove down with the intention to play the gig and leave, but the festival spirit gripped us. We borrowed a tent from newfound friends and stayed.
“I love that spontaneous energy of a festival, like anything can happen.
“You can really just enjoy yourself and hug your friends at 2am dancing to a song you didn’t realise would be the soundtrack to the rest of your summer.”
Reevah’s first festival was also a life-changing moment for her.
“The first one I ever attended was when One Big Weekend came to Derry in 2004.
“It was such a massive moment for the city at that time having so many artists such as Avril Lavigne, Franz Ferdinand and others performing over a few days.
“It really cemented my love for live music and festivals from a young age and I’ve continued to be a huge festival-goer ever since.”
Of course, no mention of festivals would be complete without tipping a cap to the Eagle’s Rock-based bash know as Glasgowbury. Throughout the Noughties, founders Paddy and Stella Glasgow and their hard-working team paved the way for many home-grown festivals we have now and provided a much-needed platform for Northern Ireland artists.
While they called time on the annual trailblazing event in 2013, its influence is still felt to this day.
“Glasgowbury was my first festival,” says Paul.
“It blew my teenage mind. I was with my friends and it was just such an incredible introduction to what a festival is and should be. Ash were headlining and they sounded absolutely huge.
“Imagine the euphoria up a mountain hearing those songs we all knew the words to being sung at the top of your lungs. Life-affirming stuff.
“Musicians struggle with a lot of things; quite often the thing they struggle with most is their own validity.
“Paddy, Stella and the Glasgowbury ethos was, and still is, to champion and believe in the power of music and creativity as a healer and a thing that can lift people.
“Glasgowbury was so ahead of the game for shining a light on the serious calibre of songwriters and artists we have always had here.
“It gave artists a chance to believe in themselves, be as ambitious as they wanted and to grow as performers.
“That confidence is evident in the growing and supportive industry we have here, which Glasgowbury is very much still a cornerstone of.”
Ryan McGroarty, singer and fellow synth slinger in Beauty Sleep, adds: “My first festival experience was Glasgowbury 2007. A few friends and I decided to go on the morning of the festival.
“I think we had enough wisdom to appreciate that a tent would be required, but not enough to know four people wouldn’t fit comfortably in a two-person tent. I remember Triggerman, Fighting With Wire, Duke Special and Fight Like Apes played. We were hooked.
“The first time I went to Glasgowbury I was performing and it was so exciting,” continues Cheylene.
“The team welcomed me in with open arms and showed me a whole world of amazing acts that I didn’t know existed. I met Katie Richardson (AKA Hex Hue) backstage before her set and she turned to me and said, ‘Do you want to be a dancing unicorn for my last song?’ We’ve been friends and collaborators ever since.
“I met a lot of my friends at Glasgowbury. I felt accepted. I felt inspired. It motivated me to work harder.
“Glasgowbury brought everyone together and you just can’t measure how much of an impact that had.”
Reevah also pays tribute to the benchmark-setting bash: “Glasgowbury definitely had a huge impact on music in Northern Ireland. It was one of the first festivals I ever attended and a really important moment for me as someone who was considering a career in music to see so many local artists performing at Eagle’s Rock.
“The festival became a globally-recognised event with people attending from all over the world and was an opportunity to show them the huge breadth of talent that exists across this island and the endless possibilities that can come from the right support and platforms.”
While the last few years have been tough for all three acts, there have been some highlights. Both Beauty Sleep and the Wood Burning Savages performed at the South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Texas in March.
“Everything is bigger and crazier in Texas,” laughs Paul. “SXSW was a week of non-stop gigging in venues all over Austin.
“If you give the American audiences a little bit of energy, they give it back tenfold, so that was an education.
“We played an Output Belfast Showcase on a boat going up the Colorado River, alongside Beauty Sleep and Cherym, which was great craic.
“As soon as we were finished playing our own shows, we were straight out the door to catch other artists’ gigs. We got to see and hang out with some US bands we love like White Denim and Midlake, and I’m pretty sure I saw Nicolas Cage standing in front of me in a tartan tuxedo at one point.
“We got insanely lucky and caught Dolly Parton at Austin City Limits along with the crime writer James Patterson.
“It made for the beginnings of one of the most surreal nights I have ever had, which ended with us being serenaded on a bus by a 15-piece folk band from Austria singing Jolene.”
Beauty Sleep’s Ryan also had a blast representing the Northern Ireland music scene at the festival.
“It was overwhelming and joyous. We were delighted to play so many shows across the city, from historic venues, outdoor sets and punk rock clubs, to a boat on the Colorado River.
“We were running around Austin flat-out all week and it was a dream to be there and meet many great people.”
Reevah has also been hard at work and was thrilled to be chosen as the artist-in-residence at last year’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (CQAF).
“The CQAF is such an incredible festival with a brilliantly diverse line-up of acts represented across the line-up. It was an honour to be chosen as the artist-in-residence for the festival, especially after seeing some of the amazing musicians that have done it before me including Joshua Burnside, Dani Larkin and Ciaran Lavery.
“Getting to perform so many shows and support acts such as Lisa Hannigan and Bronagh Gallagher was really special, especially after months of not being able to perform. The audiences who came to the shows were so receptive and it was a great opportunity to grow my fanbase.”
And with that, talk turns to the full-on return of festivals this summer.
“I’m absolutely buzzing that festivals are making a return,” beams Paul.
“I think all musicians, regardless of genre, momentum or perceived success have suffered greatly.
“A lot of musicians are no longer performing and have given up.
“When the pandemic kicked in, huge numbers of us, who operate on a self-employed basis, were left high and dry while other industries were given almost immediate assistance.
“A great deal of blame, and I will blame, falls at the feet of our government’s inability to consider the music industry here as a valid enterprise — even though it is a multi-million pound generating industry staffed by thousands of highly-trained people.
“My mental health had a few layers of paint sandblasted off of it by a lack of forward thinking and respect for the arts at a governmental level.
“I wish we had a minister for the arts, a non-party representative to make sure that musicians in need never have to be put in the position of begging for support while simultaneously arguing their industry’s very legitimacy.”
Cheylene is also excited to getting back to work.
“We’re so happy festivals are back. I did worry they would be gone forever. Our creativity and mental health absolutely suffered without them.
“I realised performing was a huge part of how I made sense of my world. Without summer festivals, I felt restless, uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do with myself.”
For Reevah, the long-awaited return of festival season is bittersweet.
“The last few years with no live music has not only been massively detrimental to the music and gig economy, but for artists on a personal level.
“Not being able to perform or share my music with audiences was incredibly challenging and it’s been a huge amount of work to build that momentum back up that we had before. The return of live music is greatly welcomed and it finally feels like we are in a safer place than we were before.”
Paul and Cheylene also hail the healing powers of summer festivals and its ability to bring people together.
“Music and festivals in Northern Ireland have a tremendous capability for dissolving that fear, for entirely lifting the myth of ‘us and them’ and showing us that at the end of the day, solidarity and empathy for all of the ‘us’ around us is what truly fixes things and enables progress,” says Paul.
“This isn’t some hippy platitude, it’s realism and it’s unstoppable.
“Year on year, people who call this place home are choosing to spend their hard-earned cash on tickets to local festivals. There are more and more visitors from further afield too, who see the positivity and the quality of acts and festival sites and no longer associate this place with its history, but its possibilities.”
Cheylene adds: “Music festivals are this big exclamation of celebrating, bringing people together and looking forward.
“The best festivals push people outside their box. People feel free to wear whatever they want, dance out their feelings in public or talk to someone new. It’s so healing and the best place to build communities and make friends. More festivals are exactly what Northern Ireland needs.”