A boutique festival in full bloom
‘This is for everyone who likes driving fast cars, dancing and drinking Buckfast,” roared Allen McGreevy of Co Down band the Rupture Dogs before unleashing a riot of dark, grungy rock into the calm of a sunny Saturday afternoon at Sunflowerfest 2012.The joyous, half-naked crowd responded with some truly inventive dancing, impervious to the sea of churned-up mud around them. Other, more sedate, festival-goers watched the action from folding chairs – picnic hampers and plastic wine glasses close at hand. A small, barefoot, mud-smudged child wandered into the flying hands and heels of the moshpit, and onlookers held their breath, but the sea of dancers parted and let her through. It was that kind of afternoon, that kind of easy-going, live-and-let-live festival. You could practically feel the love.
Sunflowerfest, at Tubby’s Farm, near Hillsborough, Co Down, is now in its third year, and describes itself as “simply the best wee boutique festival this summer”. Essentially, it was like a miniature Electric Picnic: a long weekend of live music, art, children’s activities, comedy, poetry and body therapies. While many of the bands were Northern Irish, there has been a definite broadening of horizons, with British acts like Lanterns on the Lake, Brassroots and Dreadzone on the line-up, and Dublin funk-rock favourites the Republic of Loose headlining on Saturday.
Four years ago, farm-owners Vanessa and Michael “Tubby” Magowan held a backyard gig as a fundraiser for their teenage son Alex, who was planning a charity trip to Chile. “We had six bands in a marquee, and I did all the catering,” said Australian-born Vanessa, taking a quick break from her duties as the main “go-to” person on the site. “The best thing about it was the opportunity to give young bands a platform, a bit of a leg-up. That felt wonderful. So the following year, we just went for it. We grow sunflowers and raspberries on the farm, and that summer was spectacular for our sunflowers, so we took big armfuls of them and gave them out to people, as a way of advertising the festival. It worked: 1,300 people joined us that year, 3,000 people came the following year, and this summer we’re hoping for 5,000.”
These are not easy times to be growing a music festival, but the Magowans are determined to succeed. So how do they keep going? “Sheer willpower alone,” laughed Vanessa. “We treat it like a business, and with a business you have to invest some of your own money. We also have a lot of hard-working volunteers: they are brilliant, and without them, we simply wouldn’t have a festival. And my 15-year-old son Louis practically controls the whole thing: he’s responsible, unflappable, and always knows what to do.” Charity and ethical living are at the heart of the Sunflowerfest initiative: in 2010, the first year of the festival, all profits went to relief efforts after the Haiti earthquake. This year, £2 (€2.55) of every weekend ticket sold goes to Oxfam projects in Haiti, and to its Ending Poverty Starts With Women campaign, which highlights how securing women’s rights is key to tackling global poverty. “Sunflowerfest is about community, breaking down barriers, getting people to experience a bit of tolerance and sharing,” said Magowan.
A new addition this year was the Electro Disco Shed, a dark, Bedouin-style tent described as “an area for dancing and futuristic grooves”, featuring a wide range of genres, from reggae to Greek heavy metal. Rising electronic musician Ryan Vail, from Derry, performed a set of hushed, other-worldly vocals over glitchy, synthesized beats, to a small but discerning crowd. And young Jamie Lowry, aka Casion, used an old Nintendo Game Boy to make strange, robotic dance music. “I started doing it because I didn’t have enough money for proper music equipment,” said Lowry, whose tracks have names such as High Power Laser Attack on a Swarm of Flying Velociraptors Engulfed in Flames in the Future. “Tubby [Michael Magowan] heard me doing my music at the campsite last year, he liked it, and now it’s great to be part of the main event,” said Lowry.