The Willowstone Music and Arts Festival

A small but certain success in Killyleagh. Click below for an exclusive performance from Ten Gallon Hat

In summertime the green spaces of County Down offer attractions for families and artisans alike, but few match the appeal of the Willowstone Festival in Killyleagh. Taking place in Delamont Country Park, the festival proved to be the perfect bridge between smaller events like Castle Ward’s Easter Craft Fair and bigger musical events such as Castlewellan’s Celtic Fusion Festival.

With the twin teepees of the Hilden Bewing Company on one side and a fully-equipped main stage on the other, the tall strands of willow at the centre of the walled gardens were surrounded by cross-legged music fans as the bands Heliopause, Albrecht’s Pencil and Little Green Cars played unamplified acoustic sets in the sunshine.

The campsite, one field over in the shadow of the Strangford Stone, quickly filled as six tents became twenty-six, then thirty- and forty-six, with campers competing for the best views of the lough.

Music fans at the Willowstone Music and Arts festival, KillyleaghWhile the first acts performed, groups of people casually dandered in from Comber to create a crowd including visitors from Scandinavia, the USA and all over Ireland.

By the picnic benches and small pavilion, Oxfam Ireland sold vintage clothes to bargain-hunters while staff from Pheasant’s Hill Farm sold pork and chorizo and vegetarian burgers. Smiling customers showed why the Farm’s shop was commended as one of the best independent retailers in Northern Ireland by the Observer Food Monthly.

Beyond lines of people buying crêpes and pints of Belfast Blonde or Headless Dog ale, revellers swung and circled in Paddy Bloomer’s carnival contraptions; a giant white enamel bath or fan-propelled bicycle and cradle contrived to hang from something like the blades of a helicopter, for perfect rotary motion.

Families and toddlers were entertained by gamesmaster Francis Barking. A little calm, a little composed, you roll a blanket out on the grass and look people sitting on bales of hay. If you had a pillow you might have chanced a crafty nap.

But Belfast duo The Continuous Battle of Order were the first act to play on the stage. Two stacks of black speakers stood like sentries at either side, with an inflatable canopy arching like a grey rainbow between them. You felt the snap of the snare in your chest. While The Continuous Battle’s music – an electrified amalgam of improvised jazzy guitar, metallic riffs and ever-changing drumbeats – was the most avant-garde on the bill, it was also the most exciting.

Craig Kearney at the Willowstone Music and Arts festival, KillyleaghDuring a climactic three-drummer tattoo the sound bounced around the walled garden, drawing curious and impressed onlookers to the stage. And during a skiffle-style hi-hat solo, drummer Craig Kearney played with such force that a stick snapped and somersaulted into the crowd. He had a replacement in hand before it landed on the grass.

Where Continuous Battle create the sound of ten men with only two members, the eight-strong NI Soul Troop create sassy, heartfelt music for hundreds of people to dance to. Like a present-day Jimmy Rabbitte, Donal Scullion rallied the team through a set including ‘Jekyll & Hyde’, ‘Nice Indication’ and ‘(Happy to Watch You) Boogie’, as pockets of people sway.

Ten Gallon Hat follow, with country tunes a few steps to the left of Garth Brooks. The first poi of the day can be seen flying in front of the stage, with yellow and green ribbons looping above the dancer’s heads. From here the festival takes off with Panama Kings, Ed Zealous and Republic of Loose playing to an audience that, while not hundreds of rows deep, listens attentively and enjoys each performance.

Organised by Stuart Campbell, the Willowstone Festival follows previous unique events like the Innishfree Rock Festival by attracting a diverse and dignified set of people to an often-unexplored location. Free from the immediate rudeness of scatterbrain drunkards that greets concertgoers at larger-scale events like Vital in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, the first Willowstone offered plenty of breathing space, with ample room for expansion. It felt all the more memorable and enriching for it.

Kiran Acharya