A lot of this review is likely to mean little to you but bear with us, it involves some remarkable places and musicians and lots of links so you can get your ears around some new sounds. Atlantic Sessions is now in its ninth year and takes place across three towns on the North Coast of Ireland. In November. Really. Yes, it’s cold, yes, the wind off the Atlantic Ocean would take your head off on occasion and freeze the you know what’s off you, but this is a festival well worth considering. Over the course of a chilly weekend Portrush, Portstewart and Portballintrae roll out the red carpet for the very best of Northern Ireland’s musicians for four days of partying, proper grub and great pints, and most of it is free. As a festival, Atlantic Sessions has seen a significant upturn in the last two years. Last year was the first year we were inclined to attend, it was the first year we had heard of it, and it was a spectacular thing. It didn’t take an awful lot to talk us into making a return trip this year.
We arrived on day one and holed up in the Anchor bar in Portstewart for a warm-up pint and a bit of grub to get us started. We figured we might need the sustenance. The festival opens in what can be considered a bit of a clinical space; the Flowerfield Arts Centre is a cross between a community centre and an arts hub, it comes with a beautiful venue replete with immaculate acoustics and a range of art spaces and studios, home to a number of creative types. The event opens with a welcome from the council, some of the organisers and a hello from Bushmills Whiskey, who are sponsoring several events across the weekend, this, frankly, can only be good news. The festival is dedicated to the memory of Henry McCullough, of Wings, Woodstock and wild tales fame, the proverbial local boy done good. With dignitaries out of the way it is time for some music. Roe and Sam Wickens are tasked with giving a flavour of what is to come before hightailing it down the road for the first headline show. They play beautifully, as they are part of the 3:3 programme from Help Musicians UK, tonight’s sponsors, we are likely to see more of them together. After a couple of free glasses of vino and a trawl through the programme, we follow them.
The Anchor bar in Portstewart is home to the first of the festivals headline shows, and what a start. After getting a brief hint of what Sam Wickens is capable of at the launch we were more than happy to see a full set. Wickens is a self-confessed introvert with a heart of gold that lives in his sleeve. His quiet demeanour belies his passion, his songs speak of the world around us, trees, life and death itself. His voice is spectacular. Roe hails from the same school as Soak, literally and metaphorically, we’re not sure what is in the water around those parts but the school music teacher needs a medal of some sort for producing two talents such as Soak and Roe. The singular names of both suggest that the English teacher needs some attention, but that’s for another day. While there are similarities between the two, Roe brings a bass that would destroy you from the inside out, stories of bullies, fear, fighting and living. We were unsure of who Thomas was exactly but if someone penned a song that vitriolic about you we’re not sure that Liverpool would be far enough away. Roe described it as ‘a bit of a fuck you’, to our ears it was a hell of a lot of fuck you, repeatedly, each more angry than the last. Great it was too, we love a good angry song, especially one about a bully. Fuck Thomas we say.
The Anchor is the smallest room we’ve seen Ports play, and we’ve only seen them play three times. The choice of this room appears to be down to the very brave decision to pair them up with a string quartet and give them room to experiment. To say it adds another dimension to their already lush sound is an understatement. Their music soars, the strings sing, the melodies fly, much like the whiskey. Their harmonies carry you along for the ride and the respect in the room for their performance was something we noted early on. Ports ended their set with our favourite track, The Devil is a Songbird, sans PA, string quartet in full flow and with a rather clever echo chamber created by two phones sharing a line via their loudspeakers. The effect is stunning, simple and brilliantly executed. There was a little in the way of crowd participation with one inebriated gent whistling along, the first two whistles were welcome and added something to the mix, the third, not so much. His reign was short but interesting, he was gently escorted from the room before he joined the chorus. Ports went down a storm and Atlantic Sessions 2017 appeared to be well underway.
Friday saw an early start, we began the day with some amarena cherry ice cream and a reassuringly good coffee at Roughans in Portstewart, because, well, we could. Eilidh Patterson was our first act in a day where we hoped to catch four shows before the headline. Eilidh hails from Derry but seems to arrive via Nashville, the deep south and some old country worlds, bringing folk-inspired blues and hues to a room overlooking the ocean. A perfect start in a busy lunchtime spot. Shows like this can be a bit hit and miss, throwing an act into a room where there are clearly regulars in attendance can be a risky move, whether they approve or not can have an impact on the success of the show, either everyone agreed or the ice cream was so good that no one complained. For us, Eilidhs reception was proof enough that music and Ice cream ARE a good mix.
Our next stop was another coffee shop, this time Koko in Portrush, it was barely three in the afternoon and we were two shows for two. Versechorusverse aka Tony Wright of ASIWYFA fame, has a voice, contrary to the sound of ASIWYFA. He uses it well, it is soaked in bourbon, washed in cigars and ran through a cheese grater, his passion and anger at parts of the planet appeared to take a couple in the room by surprise but it went very well with our cake.
Yes, we had cake for lunch. After an Ice cream breakfast.
What of it?
Our next show was a bracing walk along the promenade to Portrush Yacht Club giving us a little time to walk off all that sugar. Our hope was to catch a little of JP McSorley before hightailing it back to Portstewart for Paul Casey, but JP clearly had other ideas. We heard great things about his show, but it was running too late for our schedule, with this many shows to catch we can’t be running late. Besides, we were thinking of actual food come late afternoon. Oddly enough. Our 6pm post whatever meal we had at 5 show was the aforementioned Paul Casey in a proper old man’s country pub, The Portstewart Arms. We first came across Paul years ago, his stories and tales are delivered with a velvety tone, his humour is dark, his stories are funny and given that he has his own successful studio in Derry, his sound was immaculate. There were a few grumbles from the kind of gents you might expect to grumble in an old man’s pub, but they were easily ignored and kept to themselves, thankfully it made no difference to Casey who played on regardless, beautifully. Friday’s headline show was a hop skip and a jump, well, a taxi ride, back to Portrush and The Atlantic Bar.
The Atlantic has been a popular live music venue for many years, but like many others around the country, it is under threat of demolition, with plans for another bland hotel chain on the books of the local council. We are lifted with the news that there might be hope after the building was given listed status recently, though it appears the developer is appealing that move and we hear management are not hopeful they will see out 2018. It would be a huge shame for the venue to be lost, replaced by another identikit beige block. We can hope the council consider its place in the small town, but we aren’t holding our breath. Fingers are well and truly crossed for them.
Given that Joshua Burnside has just won the Northern Ireland Music Prize a few punters seemed to believe he should have been higher up the bill with Rory Nellis and Gareth Dunlop and listening to all the bands it would be easy to suggest any one of them could have taken the slot, such was the quality. Their styles were different enough to keep us entertained, get us moving even, all come from a country rock back catalogue but the sentiment, tone and tales from each were very different. Burnside seems to display this quiet rage at the world and politics, yearning for change. Nellis brings hints of gospel, questions about new life and fatherhood and a sense of trying to figure out this ball while it hurtles through space, fitting really, given the pretty impressive galaxy that adorns the walls and ceiling of the venue. Dunlop delivers an incredible set, one inspired by a few years holed up in Nashville, writing and collaborating on numerous records, a whiskey soaked night if ever there was one.
Once the bands wrap up we head to the bar downstairs where one Joe Lindsay is on the decks, throwing shapes and playing tunes to a wildly appreciative crowd. We know Joe through the now infamous Palookaville nights in the Ohyeah Centre in Belfast and this set is a return to those heady days. We struggle to retain chunks of the evening and others remain unprintable. But it was a sublime couple of hours of dancing, drinking and well, debauchery. Conversations with the artists and the festival director during the evening led to a rather unexpected addition to our schedule for Saturday.
We start day three at Bushmills distillery, a place that for some reason we had never visited before now. We are introduced to Red Bush, Bushmills newest whiskey, matured in bourbon barrels, that is closely followed by a snifter of a 21 year old whiskey and a whiskey cocktail, all before breakfast. There was us thinking ice cream and cake was an unhealthy start. The whiskey somewhat interfered with our plans for the day as you might imagine, but we do catch Gerry Normans Sligo wit, sad songs and banter in Koko in Portrush, and a snippet of Antony Toner in the Yacht club before making our way to the Iain Archer show at the Arcadia on the sea front. Norman and Toner were a beautiful way to limber up for Ivor Novello award winner Archer, he sings beautifully, weaving in tunes from a career that includes Snow Patrol and Tired Pony.
I Am A Landslide from the first Tired Pony album brings us to tears and the quartet of his wife and two small children to end his show bring more joy than we ever imagined. We manage to grab a bite to eat before returning to the Arcadia for something altogether different.
We aren’t sure how Ryan Vail managed to squeeze this much tech and lasers into this small room but squeeze he did, with video mapping and full audio outside there were more punters along the promenade at one point than there were in a room filled to bursting point inside. His new tunes are deeper, harder and pack considerably more punch than anything we’ve heard from him before, it was a remarkable thing to experience, though like a few others we were inclined to get up and dance but were bereft of the room to do so. A glorious hour in the company of a brilliant artist.
Our next stop was the triple bill of Emerald Armada, The Holy Innocents and Brand New Friend in Kiwis bar, just around the corner. Kiwis is essentially the basement of a wildly underused art deco cinema and a great space for proper noisy gigs. Each act brings something different to the table but the energy, enthusiasm and determination of Brand New Friend is hard to top and the reception they get proves the point.
Atlantic Sessions managed to top Saturday with one final gig, we popped back to the Atlantic for a storming set from Documenta. Documenta are about to head off on tour with the Charlatans so this was a surprise addition to the days listing and they did not disappoint. While many a festival might be concerned about filling a room at the last minute, Atlantic Sessions needn’t have worried. There was barely room to move by the time the band, all seven of them, take to the stage. The next hour is lost in singalongs and more whiskey.
Radio 1 DJ and local boy Philly Taggart bring the day’s proceedings to a close in spectacular fashion. Our guess is he went way off script, he played full on party tunes and seemed to be having a ball along the way, the crowd lapped it up and we all danced with the kind of abandon a day of whisky soaked coastal wanderings might produce.
Sunday came with a bit of a bang, Ulster frys were sought out in desperation before we headed out to the Sunday Brunch session with Stevie Scullion, Mandy Bingham and Paddy Nash, corralled together by Ralph McClean from BBC NI. It was a welcome relief to see them play in the round, telling stories of recording, adventures and dropping in a little history lesson here and there. Scullions album under the name Malojian is a thing of beauty, Let Your Weirdness Guide You is a true wander through psychedelia, recorded with Joey Waronker on drums and percussion, recorded partly in an Island lighthouse, his solo interpretations of the songs are masterful. Bingham comes from good stock, her father David Mc Williams penned The Days Of Pearly Spencer and the songwriting apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Nash hails from Derry city, he sings of his life, of old photographs, old suits and days gone by, delivering each with a gravely rasp. Our brunch is hugely welcome in the form of bacon butties and strong tea. This was a day for bacon butties and strong tea, no question.
We grab a snippet of beauty from Emer Maguire in Roughans over a strong coffee before heading back to the Flowerfield for an evening of song and words with two of Northern Irelands finest in the shape of Glenn Patterson and Neil Martin. Patterson is considered one of this generations greatest writers and we are huge fans of his work, from The Rest Just Follows to The International his ability to tell a story, both from behind a PC and on stage is a joy to behold. Martin is considered one of Irelands finest composers and has worked across the world, seeing him in such a relaxed setting on a Sunday evening was a joy. His wit and stories were a welcome break from a punishing hangover.
Sundays acoustic shows are hosted by the dream team of Stef and Amy from Bird & Bramble, they manage to bring some magic and fairy dust to the proceedings. We close the evening out with Stephen McCartney in Harrys Shack, playing too few tunes for our liking, we caught a snippet of Goldie Fawn who was joined by McCartney and appeared to be successfully making it up as they went.
We finished off the weekend with Amy Montgomery and Michael Mormecha who were gracious enough to be playing in the same place we were we were sleeping. Sunday brought huge smiles and there wasn’t a bum note in sight, Montgomery and Mormecha are wonderfully paired and perfectly bonkers, having spent some of the morning in the Atlantic Ocean. We took their lead and went for a post gig walk along the prom to take some time to think about what the previous days brought. Frankly, we weren’t daft enough to think we would ever get in the ocean, we’ll only go so far.
What it brought was four days and nights of joy, whiskey, laughs and some glorious sea breezes, it helped blow away the mid-November blues and lift us with a whole range of new sounds, collaborations, adventures and tales to tell. The difference from the previous year was marked, it looks like the support from Bushmills, Tourism Ireland and Help Musicians UK gave the programmers, in the shape of Carolyn Mathers from Snow Water and Davy Matchett from Third Bar Artist development, room to explore, experiment and let the artists tell their stories. We have already agreed that if this same troupe manage to pull this off next year then we are more than willing to experiment with more ice cream breakfasts, and walks along the coast.