For 16 years, the Ards Guitar Festival has been wowing crowds in Newtownards with tantalising line-ups featuring the best pluckers, strummers, finger-pickers and chuggers from home and abroad. And while the quality of performers has remained consistently high, the annual festival has developed and adapted to changing times, as current director Emily Walsh explains.
'It all started off in a much more traditional fashion – purely acoustic and quite classically orientated. I’ve been involved for the past seven years, during which time we’ve branched out and embraced the electric guitar and rock music as well as folk, bluegrass and blues. It’s really developed over the years from a small affair with local performers into a proper international festival.'
With luminaries such as delta blues-meets-jazz artist Kelly Joe Phelps and flamenco maestro Eduardo Niebla having performed at the festival in previous years, it is hard to argue with Walsh's assertion that the Ards Guitar Festival now attracts the best of the best.
So this year we can look forward to fingerstyle extraordinaire Martin Taylor (who Walsh has been trying to book for a number of years), unique harp-guitarist Muriel Anderson (see video above) and the return of folk stalwart Martin Simpson. As someone who performed at the festival as a nipper, it's a line up to savour.
While this is all very encouraging news, however, one can’t ignore the fact that Avalon Guitars (formerly Louden, and a linchpin of the festival since day one) was forced to close earlier this year due to financial constraints.
Having created bespoke guitars for the likes of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison over the years, Avalon established itself as a world-class industry brand which provided employment for a small but dedicated team of master craftsmen from the local area.
The closure was a bitter blow for the Ards Guitar Festival and for Newtownards in general. For Walsh and many others involved with the festival, it was a 'devastating' announcement, and one which took some time getting used to.
'Avalon have been involved in the festival since its inception, and one of their former luthiers is on our board of directors. They were an in-kind sponsor for the festival, but also one of the unique elements we had. Every year the guys would open the doors to the factory, offering tours and answering questions. These events were always fully booked out.
'We’ve been going for 16 years and we intend to carry on,' Walsh states defiantly. 'We’ve got a lot of other partners in the town and the factory is still there, so we’re hopeful that something else might come our way. Not only this, but there is a lot of talent in the town, with Avalon leaving behind many skilled luthiers. We’re very open to other UK or local producers getting involved in the future.'
Whilst the lose of Avalon is regrettable, there is a tangible spirit of perseverance about Walsh and her colleagues at the Ards Art Centre that is encouraging for regular festival-goers. Rest assured that the Ards Guitar Festival will continue regardless.
But what would Walsh say to those who fear that the festival is, perhaps, too 'guitar heavy' for the average reveller? Need we know how to wield an axe to fully appreciate this year's programme? Walsh assures me that for those who are as yet undecided about attending, there is (ahem) no need to fret.
'Admittedly the festival used to feature very technical players that were far from the mainstream. Indeed, we have always stayed true to the rule that you will only play the Ards Guitar Festival if you’re recognised as being a performer with the guitar. We do tend to go for the more unique performers. But these days the festival is much more accessible.'
In addition to the usual selection of gigs in local bars and arts venues, the festival this year also includes a free Fringe Festival with a view to attracting people who wouldn’t normally attend such an event. Fringe events will take place in the Ards Arts Centre.
This year also sees another first – a hard rockin’ all ages gig in association with esteemed local festival, Pigstock. Founder and head hog Jonny Tate is understandably excited.
'We’re taking over Molly Brown’s in Newtownards town centre,' he informs me giddily. 'It’s a great, noisy line-up with Annapurna, Hornets and LaFaro all playing. It’s going on from 4pm to 8pm, so hopefully there’ll be nobody in expecting a quiet Sunday lunch.'
With all of the aforementioned acts renowned for their raucous live shows, those hoping for a quiet pint should look elsewhere. Tate's suggestion that 'there could be plaster coming off the walls' is, perhaps, no undertstatement. This year, the Ards Guitar Festival has an axe to grind.
Ards Guitar Festival runs from Thursday, September 27 to Sunday, September 30.