Gareth Dunlop and others support Villagers against the picturesque backdrop of Greyabbey House
Live music, cold beers, a fun day out for all the family, a stellar lineup of national and international acts, and all happening outside of the grey and grubby confines of Belfast – the inaugural Harvest Music Festival has a lot to offer.
Greyabbey House on the shores of Stranford Lough is the picturesque backdrop for the day’s proceedings. A beautifully maintained old manor dating back to Plantation times, it’s been in the Montgomery family since 1607. Crowds descend the hill to the natural amphitheatre to the sounds of the Belfast Community Gospel Choir.
It’s a hard-hearted man who fails to raise a smile with this lot is on stage. Luckily, hard-hearted men seem to be few and far between, and there are beaming faces, clapping hands and tapping toes everywhere as the BCGC cover old gospel classics like 'Oh Happy Day' and Jackie Wilson’s 'Higher and Higher', as well as tackling a medley of hits from the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Away from the hustle and bustle of the main stage, in the acoustic stage nestled beside the bar early doors, we have Neal Hughes, Andi Oakes and Dolbro Dan treating fans to some excellently crafted tunes, drawing heavily on Americana and folk traditions.
Then it's back to the main stage for two of my favourite Northern Irish acts, Emerald Armada and Farriers. Neither are strangers to the festival stage. Emerald Armada are one of the most improved acts on the Northern Irish scene in recent years, known for their excellent harmonies and thumping percussion from Dermot Moynagh. Watch out for their upcoming single 'Be Loved'.
Farriers, meanwhile, have been touring fairly relentlessly of late. Today’s set is a little more raucous than their recent Bangor Abbey gig, full of footstompers like 'So Long As I Can Stay' and 'Shore'. The good people of Greyabbey rise up from their deck chairs and pack away their sandwiches, ready to rock. Farriers duly oblige.
Gareth Dunlop should be huge – in a way he is. He’s gigged the world over, played with the likes of Snow Patrol and had his tunes featured on a slew of American TV shows and Hollywood movies, including Cougar Town and One Tree Hill. He probably deserves to be a little higher up the bill, but marks the midway point of the afternoon, his earthy blues the perfect soundtrack for a sunny day.
Over on the acoustic stage, Katie Richardson of Katie and the Carnival entertains with her new side project, The Salt Flats. Their sound is sweet and soulful – no moping troubadours here. The Salt Flats bring the party to Harvest with a little dose of Fleetwood Mac and a choice cover of 'Get On Up' by 5ive, believe it or not.
Next we’re treated to a whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ bluegrass rock show from Hayseed Dixie, who initially formed as an AC/DC tribute act but have since broadened their interests to cover Queen, Kiss and various other big rock acts. Frontman John Wheeler preaches good times from the stage like an old born again Baptist – and thankfully they’ve cleaned up their act for family audiences.
East Belfast’s Duke Special is by now a veteran of the local scene. We know what to expect now: tender ballads, for the most part, eyeliner, dreadlocks and theatrical flourishes. Tonight is a little different, however. Duke rocks up on stage with one half of General Fiasco and Rams’ Pocket Radio’s Peter McAuley thumping out the beats.
'Nothing Comes Easy' ushers in a set of lesser-known Duke Special tracks. It’s lacking in ‘hits’ but loaded with passion, drive and a few choice covers. The Ivor Cutler tune 'Elbows' and the Magnetic Fields’ 'Andrew in Drag' are as good as it’s gets. Let’s have more of this anthemic, guitar-driven rock, Sir Duke.
And so with a day of music behind us, one last beer in hand and darkness descending across the gardens of Greyabbey House, it’s time for Dublin-based Villagers to wrap things up. Still with youth on their side, they come armed with two exceptional albums’ worth of sterling material. 'Earthly Pleasure' and 'Judgement Call' from the more recent Awayland record sound huge, reverberating around the tree-lined bowl.
Conor O’Brien’s acoustic guitar is dusted off for older hits like 'I Saw The Dead' and 'I Was A Jackal' – the mix of old and new is complemented by the festival lightshow. As the last strains of Villagers' set dissipates in the cool night air, we make our way back out past the old abbey and off for home. Until next year.