Review: Ava Festival 2018

Art & Culture

It’s a sunny Friday morning in Belfast and I’m on my fifth fruit kebab while nursing a sore head. Dublin’s R. Kitt and a freshly emerging live project called Age of Aquarius marked the beginning of AVA Festival in the Bullitt hotel, which I attended, whilst a screening of the exhilarating Berlin based Victoria (sublimely scored by Nils Frahm) played out in the Queens Film Theatre. 

Through bleary eyes we awoke to attend the conference. 

Something felt different about AVA Festival this year. You may suggest that that’s an obvious statement, given the re-location of the festival to the S13 Warehouse and conference to the MAC gallery, an important building in the heart of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. No, there was something else at play here.

“The initial vision for the festival and conference is now a reality”, says Generator NI’s Mark Gordon as we take our seats for the opening keynote with Bicep. “It’s becoming global.”

And that was it. 

This is my fourth AVA Festival, so I’ve been able to witness firsthand how the concept itself has grown. From humble beginnings as a project focused on nurturing and developing the scene in Ireland, it has now evolved it something much, much larger. The scene, dare I say it, does not need as much nurturing as it once did, having become synonymous worldwide with a healthy, energetic and inspired musical community. That’s not to say that it hasn’t always had an inspired dance music community. It most certainly has, since the days of David Holmes and the Art College, but now it’s about taking it to the next level.

I sip from my now lukewarm coffee as Bicep’s opening keynote gets underway, presided over by the brilliant Seamas O’Reilly. As with most interviews questions can tend to repeat themselves. If you scroll through any post album release interview with Bicep you can read all about their thoughts when making their debut record and their inspirations in doing so. However, this was different.

Seamas is fantastic at making those he’s speaking with feel at ease, so much so that admirers of Bicep in the audience were seeing a different side to the Belfast doublet. It’s difficult to conjure up an image of personality when reading through an interview. Here the three on stage bounced off one another brilliantly, sharing words of inspiration and just generally having good ‘craic’.

Throughout the day I take in a number of talks, including Timmy Stewart’s ‘Creating Longevity in an Evolving Scene’ and a conversation with Ireland’s Sunil Sharpe. The latter was very interesting; taking in stories of Sunil’s ghetto blaster youth and opinions on the uninspiring musical journalism that goes on in today’s society.

“I just don’t know who the dance music journalist are who are inspiring the youth of today”, explains Sunil. “Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great writers out there, and RA’s lengthy opinion pieces really go into detail, but when it comes to reviews there just seems to be a lot of snide remarks. I’d like to see a lot of these dance music reviewers record collections to be honest.”

That was a comment that had a few hipster dance music journalists twiddling the curls of their moustache a little tighter, but one that was hard not to agree with.

Then came the first real indication that AVA had indeed gone global. Deep house pioneer Larry Heard took to the stage.

Larry is astoundingly normal. I had interviewed him early in the week and many of my questions on his thoughts on certain things were met with a simple “I don’t really think about it, it just depends on how it feels.” 

It was quite funny seeing it unravel again here, whilst also gaining a rare insight into the early life of house music in 80’s Chicago. The highlight of the talk actually came from a final question from the audience. 

Larry was asked if there was any rivalry between the Chicago house community and the Detroit techno community to which he replied, “I don’t know if there was a rivalry, but the quality of their stuff definitely kept you on your toes. We didn’t meet up to discuss it or anything!” This was met by a collective roar of laughter from those in the crowd. I guess there’s just something funny about the thought of Chicago’s finest linking up in a bunker underground somewhere to discuss what they’re going to do about their motor city rivals.

As I walk outside for some fresh air there is just enough time for a cigarette before we are whisked off to the S13 Warehouse. 

It’s a bloody massive space. You almost forget that it’s all one room, as curtains have been put up to strategically direct attendees to their chosen stages. The Red Bull Loading Bay Stage is a vision; slanting downwards towards the booth, where the DJ stands above the crowd in all his/her glory, looking down on a wave pool of wide eyes and ecstatic dancing.

The first artist I catch is Holly Lester, who is about half way through her debut Boiler Room, beautifully meandering her way through the sounds of Chicago and Detroit. I find it interesting that even though the AVA concept itself has developed into something global with headliners coming from around the world, it remains the local acts that really bring the heat.

An energetic Quinton Campbell produces the highlight set of day one, dropping his own unreleased ‘Luvless’, complete with Alison Limerick’s ‘Where Love Lies’ sample, which ignites an onslaught of ID comments on the live stream, and initiating something close to a riot when finishing with Proud and Mary’s ‘Midi Jump’.

I stick around the Boiler Room for one more set, as I’ve been dying to catch Job Jobse for quite some time. His trancey brand of nu disco/synthwave goes hand in hand with the sunny vibes and does nothing to halt the energy that is rising from the crowd like steam.

I was quite disappointed to be leaving the sunshine of the outside stages to the darkness of the main stage. Maybe it’s something to do with Ireland only experiencing about three weeks of sunshine per year; you really need to make the most of it. This, however, was quickly forgotten with the gospel and soulful sounds of Larry Heard’s live show complete with vocals from long time collaborator Robert Owens. Soul quickly turned to carnival as KiNK took to the stage next and surprised us all with a live samba band playing alongside him. A moment that will not soon be forgotten. 
The final two performances of the day were always going to be killer. Hamburg’s Helena Hauff followed Rodhad (but it could have been a Norse God, who knows), with a face melting set consisting of electro and techno, but mostly the latter, before the crowd flooded to the main stage for the final performance of the day.

A Bicep performance in Belfast is truly a wonder to behold. There’s a George Best like admiration towards the duo; a mutual feeling of pride amongst the Irish people that one of the finest in the industry is one of their own. 

They bowed out with ‘Glue’. It was hard not to feel inspired as the choppy vocals and breaks ignited a phase of euphoria and togetherness – all dancing as one to the same elevating groove.

Day two again showcased the vibrant pool of talent that call Ireland home. I had been looking forward to catching Bobby Analog’s Boiler Room all weekend and it did not disappoint. It was a vinyl masterclass, floating seamlessly between italo piano, Chicago inspired house and tear jerking party music, finishing with the soulfully vibrant ‘Holding On’ from Ace Beat Records.

Midland provided a set that was never in doubt in terms of quality before Computer Controlled Records boss Nez took over.

If you didn’t know of Nez’s close affiliation with local label DSNT then you do now. The DSNT crew displayed something of a show of strength, all lining up behind Nez has he proceeded to deliver one of the sets of the day. It was truly inspiring to see a collective that are so together – a rarity in Belfast with the population being so small. 

I dip out half way through to catch Swoose & Cromby at the Loading Bay. In my humble opinion, there are very few DJ’s that can match the duo when it comes to keeping a party going. No frills, no left field experimentation, just straight up party music – exactly what you want on a sunny day in Belfast.

Yet another Irishman stole the show as Sunil Sharpe closed out the Boiler Room stage with his classic brand of uncompromising techno, electro and 90’s rave age sound. You could suggest that the techno format has become quite stale in recent years, a result of the genre’s growing popularity, but it becomes quite hard to back that up after listening to a Sunil set. With artists like himself and the DSNT crew flying the flag for techno in Ireland the genre and culture is seemingly in safe hands.

Darkness falls and with it comes the headliners. Obvious favourites such as Floorplan, Hunee and Mall Grab all played well, with the latter seeming like he particularly enjoyed himself, yet it was the earlier artists that truly stole the show for me. 

Jayda G provided a sublime set of disco and house and took time to dance with the crowd. She didn’t stop moving the whole time, bringing shame to those moody bastards that think it’s ‘uncool’ to show even a shred of enjoyment behind the decks. DVS1 closed out the festival with an accelerated techno set; something that I think could resemble a soundtrack to insanity, but in the best way possible. 

The question now is, what does AVA Festival do next? It’s steadily got better and better for four years. How do they possibly top this? It’s a question that Sarah McBriar and co have probably already started planning for and I for one cannot wait to see what follows.

It’s just a pity that things like this only happen once a year, and that those in charge of ruling Ireland fail to see the benefit in treating events such as these as culturally valuable. That’s by no means any fault of AVA’s. We’re very restricted here in Ireland.

During Timmy Stewart’s ‘Creating Longevity in an Evolving Scene’ discussion earlier in the day, he brought up the topic of Culture Night – a concept that happens one night a year in Belfast and sees a series of events being held throughout the city, such as car park raves, gospel choirs singing in streets and food and drink stalls dotting the concrete landscape. He said it’s like those in charge are saying, “here’s what it could be like all the time, but nah, we’ll just take it away.”

AVA is a shining example of how culturally prosperous Ireland could be if it was allowed to. As it continues to grow, and our voices of discontent grow ever louder, maybe we’ll reach a stage where we can no longer be ignored. Maybe, just maybe, change could potentially be on the horizon.

Photography courtesy of Luke Joyce, Grant Jones and Jake Thompson.