Banbridge Buskfest Returns on June 21

Nicola Armstrong of Banbridge Borough Council on past winners, new faces and what to expect from this year's line-up

Banbridge Buskfest 2014 is almost upon us. What should visitors expect?

Buskfest is Ireland’s fastest-growing busking festival and has now been running for 11 years. Over 80 acts will take to the streets of Banbridge on June 21. Pitches are filling up quickly, and buskers can still register via the festival website. This year, the BuskFest prize pot is £3,000 in total, split across six different categories: Overall Winner, Best Band, Best Individual, Best Junior, Best Performance and the Spirit of Buskfest Award, which is sponsored by The Outlet.

How long have you been involved?

This is my first year organising Buskfest, but as a huge music fan myself, I’ve been to the event many times over the years to soak up the atmosphere, so I’m delighted and privileged to be involved in the organisation of one of my very favourite annual summer events.

Can you recall any favourite acts from previous years?

Last year’s winners, Worn Down Shoes from Dungannon, were amazing. We brought them back to the streets of Banbridge during Arts Fest last October, and so many people remembered them. It was like a heroes’ homecoming.

Also, Juram Gavero, the winner of the Best Individual category last year. He is a fantastic guitarist and vocalist. But, more than that, it really does take a special talent to work the crowd on a day like Buskfest. Busking is a really tough gig. There’s no fancy production or amplification, and it was amazing to see how easily he built rapport with the audience, just him and his guitar.

Is Buskfest all maudlin singer-songwriters, or do some artists push the boundaries?

Forget any pre-conceptions you may have about the ‘typical’ busker – this is a modern, challenging and exciting art form. Buskfest attracts all sorts of artists from across a wide spectrum of musical genres and backgrounds.

Over the years we’ve seen acts performing rock, blues, punk, indie, classical, folk, traditional, gypsy jazz, bluegrass, Americana/roots, world music. Some of the artists perform their own material, which can be fresh, edgy and innovative, but I’m sure there will also be lots of familiar classics performed on the day.

For some, the idea of a street full of is buskers is akin to walking toward the Gates of Hell. What would you say to those people?

Musical taste is such a subjective, and at times provocative, topic – probably not far behind religion and politics. We all have our loves and hates, but I would say to any cynics, give it a go. Buskfest brings an infectious buzz to Banbridge town centre and attracts over 6,000 visitors on the day. You can’t fail to be swept up in the carnival atmosphere.

Are all acts from Northern Ireland?

We expect to host many local artists, but we have already seen a lot of interest from international acts. Buskers from Spain and Italy have already registered to take part, and in previous years we’ve had acts from as far afield as the USA, Canada and even Australia. So it’s great to see the event taking on an international dimension.

How would you compare Northern Ireland's buskers to those in other cities? I'm thinking of those incredible buskers who work Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Grafton Street in Dublin and elsewhere.

I’ve spent many an afternoon (and quite a lot of spare change) on both of those famous thoroughfares, but I reckon we can hold our own here in Banbridge. The standard is phenomenal, and just keeps getting better every year.

Buskers take their business very seriously. For some performers it’s their bread and butter, and when your pitch is next to another excellent artist, you have to raise your game. That’s great for the audience. Also, I think that the fact that we actually do have performers coming to Buskfest 2014 from Barcelona and Dublin says an awful lot.

Have any artists who previously performed at the festival gone on to greater things?

Buskfest has spawned a lot of success stories over the years. After winning the ‘Best Junior’ category in 2013, Sarah Toner was invited to take part in a radio interview and on-air performance at the Q Network in Newry. The father of Jordan O’Keefe’s manager happened to be there and was so impressed he phoned his son there and then. That led to Sarah being invited to join Jordan as the opening act on some of his local tour dates, which was a fantastic opportunity for her.

The Left Backs, who performed last year, were named ‘Best Band’ at the Irish Youth Music Awards in April. The teenage quartet from Belfast beat stiff competition from young performers from all over Ireland to win the accolade at a glittering awards ceremony at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.

Are there any acts that we should look out for appearing this year's festival?

Well, it probably wouldn’t be fair of me to highlight any one act. This is a serious competition, so I do need to remain impartial. However, we’re very excited to announce that the fabulous Warrenpoint singer-songwriter Allison McGrath and her band Soulantics will open the awards ceremony in Solitude Park from 5pm.

Allison first learned the art of performing to a live audience in the streets of Belfast, busking her way through college and winning Northern Ireland Busker of the Year in 1989. Her amazing journey from street performer to professional musician makes her the perfect example for participants in this year’s Buskfest.

But shouldn't participants be waiting until The X Factor is in town again so they can queue up for hours outside the Odyssey in Belfast? Isn't that the one and only way to make it as a professional musician these days?

There’s no doubt that The X Factor is great entertainment on a Saturday night, but winning an iconic show like that is no guarantee of success. The music industry has changed so much in recent years with the advent of digital, but the flip-side to that is that emerging artists now have more control over their own destiny and promotional channels. Look how Lily Allen launched her career on MySpace.

Winning Buskfest can’t guarantee overnight success, either, but there is no doubt that busking is one of the most effective methods of developing stagecraft and performance skills. Success in any field usually only comes through hard graft and dedication, much as we all love the romantic idea of a lucky break.

We’re delighted to hear that the 2013 winner of the Best Individual category, Juram Gavero, has recently made it through the audition stage of this year’s X Factor, but that’s hardly a fluke – it’s probably no coincidence that he has years of experience as a professional musician. He thoroughly deserves every success.

Banbridge Buskfest takes place on Banbridge Main Street on June 21.