A funny thing happened on the way to the Atlantic Sessions festival last year.
I got a job.
The first day of that job was based on my availability and in an early sign of what is ongoing conviviality and cooperation, my new employer suggested I go to the festival then start with them.
Brilliant says I.
I hit the North Coast for a few days, drank a bit of whiskey, spent some glorious time with friends, made new friends and listened to a lot of music. Lots and lots of music.
I flew back to Liverpool on the 19th of November, the first day of my new job was the 20th, to suggest I couldn’t wait was an understatement, a brand new project and part of me was looking forward to TONS of flying around the country in 2020.
Ha. So much for that.
I have an Oyster card that taunts me every time I open my wallet.
My new job was to start with a team meeting in London. That was fine. Then I remembered that I had spent most of the previous eight months looking forward to a gig. I had also agreed to shoot and write a review of the Fontaines D.C. show at the O2 Academy Liverpool that night.
Busy day then…
Instead of loitering around for a bit of a nosy about that London I ran like the clappers back to the train station after the meeting to get back in time for the gig, I was to have the review published that night.
Really busy day.
With all that in mind, by the time I had gotten home from Atlantic Sessions, London, and the Fontaines D.C. gig (via The Grapes Liverpool) I was bloody knackered.
I started work on the new job almost immediately and have barely had time to look back since.
Until the Atlantic Sessions streaming thing this weekend I had all but forgotten that I had actually taken a ton of photographs of the festival last year. Imagine my surprise.
Imagine my surprise to find the memory card, unmolested since last year, in my wallet, tucked behind that bloody Oyster card.
I had to do something with the images.
(And then I found an old draft with WORDS!)
The North Coast of Ireland seems like a long way to go for a festival but as the images in the gallery show it might be worth it if the weather is agreeable, I’ve been in the snowy winters
It works like an absolute treat even then.
The current incarnation of Atlantic Sessions is the brainchild of one Carolyn Mathers, one Joe Lindsay and a host of creatively minded and adventurous folk from across the north of Ireland.
A quick boat trip, because it came in at a mere ten quid, a train and a quick bus trip brought me to Portstewart for the first of the weekend shows, via a short stroll on the beach first..
First stop was Koko in Portrush for a slice of chocolate cake with a side of Tony Villiers singing old time rock and roll and blues tunes in a cafe that has a spectacular view over the beach. With the sun pouring in through the windows and a the sea glistening just out of reach it’s an unusual start to a festival but a glorious one.
There were singsongs at lunchtime and in anyone’s book that’s a pretty healthy start to a list that has the better part of fifty shows over four days, not bad at all. After checking into home away from home at The Anchorage in Portstewart and grabbing some grub I headed to Portrush for a few pints with an old friend at The Atlantic Bar.
Post pints I hightailed it across town to the Town Hall for one of the evening’s headline shows, the Town Hall a glorious Victorian affair slap bang in the middle of town with couple of beautiful rooms. The Grand Hall, however, is hard to beat for the views across town and the outstanding acoustics.
Matt McGinn is perhaps the most gentle being I’ve ever met, everyone he meets comes away with a glow, he sings about love and life across three self penned albums and always does it with a smile on his face. For tonight’s show he plays with a full band, Ciara O Neill and Ria Maguire.
Ria delivered a truly moving song about Lyra McKee, the young journalist shot dead in Derry City on 18 April 2019. It is a song that resonates across a room full of people who have lived through 30 odd years of a bloody and dirty war and come out the other side with the scars to show for it, and it’s people like Matt that help with the kind of healing people need.
Our guess is that Matt would agree that the most heartbreaking aspect of a song that includes the line ‘Lyra lit the fire’ was that so far our political leaders have still failed to do squat. The track comes from an album of anti war songs that will probably appear before the Northern Ireland assembly does.
The thing about a festival like this, spread across two coastal towns is that without a driver on standby to speed you across country is that you miss most of the shows on offer. I hedged my bets and headed back to the Atlantic Bar for an entirely different kind of show.
With a headline set from Derry Ruckas Merchants New Pagans, a support slot from Problem Patterns and a DJ set from Northern Irelands very own Terri Hooley we were treated to a night of skuzzy punk, glorious noise, anger and a fair amount of beer.
Reader, there was dancing.
After a night that became a morning that required emergency coffee and a fried breakfast the collective we managed to drag our sorry asses down the the beautiful Arcadia to see the Sligo Sensation that is Gerry Norman.
Gerry did remarkably well considering there was whiskey on a table at 5am while we were all putting the world to rights. His set is filled with anthemic, Shligo tinged tunes and a snippet of sadness. Gerry has what we would call at home, a great set of pipes, and the packed house at Arcadia lapped it up.
Our next stop, after some strong coffee, was Ballywillan Holy Trinity church for Ken Haddock‘s performance. Churches are a bit of a thing in this part of the world, unsurprisingly maybe, Holy Trinity is a beautiful specimen and one that suits the feel of the afternoon.
Ken Haddock sings in the key of Tom Waits, playing mostly his own compositions, with the occasional Joni Mitchell cover. Who are we to say no to a Joni Mitchell cover. He has a leathery, buttery, deep voice that would be easy to listen to all day, sadly though we have to jump ship before he finishes his set as there is a gig across town with our name on it.
Now, the last time I was in Kellys was sometime in the last century. I have been only once. Kellys has a reputation for packing thousands in every weekend for top flight DJs, it is without doubt the biggest club night in Ireland. The one night I went, well, it wasn’t that.
I went to see the Hothouse Flowers and That Petrol Emotion play a fundraiser for a charity I can no longer remember. There were no ravers in attendance. Unless you count the three girls who followed in the crowd and embarrassed themselves by raving to the aforementioned bands.
Tonight though, well, this is something a little different. Tonight sees a gig by Ryan McMullan with support from NI Music Awards ‘Contender Award’ winners Sister Ghost, two acts, worlds apart.
And beautifully so.
Sister Ghost hail from the North Coast and take absolute delight at announcing their presence and bemoaning the cool kids and the others who looked down on them in high school, it was beautiful, and they play a set of glorious punky noise.
Which is as different a set from Ryan McMullan as you can imagine. While most of the punters are here for McMullan, Sister Ghost manage to win a few of them over and by the time McMullan takes to the stage the place is packed. It is without doubt the biggest Atlantic Sessions show we’ve witnessed and they played an absolute blinder with it.
McMullan is from County Down, and he may have brought a few punters up the road with him, he is an artist in the Irish ballad frame and the room laps him up, signing almost every word and taking more gig selfies than we have seen in a long time. There was a lot of love in there.
We head back into town and catch a little of The Bonnevilles at the Atlantic Bar before the previous nights shenanigans catch up with us and we head back to the hotel for a nightcap by the fire.
Sunday morning starts with a religious experience of sorts, back in the town hall for an in the round with Eilidh Patterson, Brigit O’Neill and Gareth Dunlop.
BBC Northern Irelands Ralph McClean is the traditional master of ceremonies for this shindig and with the waves crashing against the shore and the sun shining through the windows we hear songs of happiness, hardship, heartache, and Armagh prison.
It is a gentle warm up for a day that sees gigs by Phil Dalton in Warkes, Arborist at the Yacht Club, Conor Mason at the Star of the Sea church, Rory Nellis in the Anchor and a closing session by a proper little traditional outfit in the shape of Tippin it Up in the very same room.
Which just happens to be a couple merciful floors under my room. Sunday is always a quieter affair, lots of acoustic sessions, lots of stories, lots of laughs, good food, great coffee and an absolute humdinger of a closing party that creates enough pain to make Monday a hazy, painful day and will never make the pages of any website anywhere.
Atlantic Sessions is a remarkable festival, its full of brilliant talent, glorious coastal views and time with friends old and new. It is sublime. If everything gets back to normal next year, and here’s hoping it really does, I’ll see you on the North Coast.
Bring a coat. Just in case.