Since I stopped covering riots and started writing about music, it’s been pretty rare for me to find myself on a plane to Northern Ireland for work purposes. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Belfast, growing ever more frustrated with how few artists deemed my hometown worthy of a stop-off on their UK tour. These were the years when we all had to pretend to like Ash and Snow Patrol, just so we actually had a festival to go to.
But the mid-noughties are a distant memory and it seems that in 2015 Belfast is a changed city. Belsonic brings in acts as diverse as Chic, Basement Jaxx and Queens of the Stone Age and now, new kid on the block, AVA has set out to attract some much needed attention to Belfast’s burgeoning electronic scene.
Developed by Up Productions in conjunction with house heavyweights Bicep, the one day event promised a conference element twinned with a cream of the crop local line up and the first ever Boiler Room on Irish soil – basically, it sounded like a pretty big deal. So I hopped on a plane and landed in an unseasonably stormy (read: verging on apocalyptic) Belfast on Saturday morning.
Lets get the obvious out of the way first - while Belfast has always had a strong contingent of dedicated dance music fans, the city is not a traditional destination for big name DJs. Most outsiders probably assume that the threats to Belfast's nightlife stem from the hangover of the troubles. You know - terrorists, gangs, a divided culture, that whole bag. But the truth is the biggest threat to the domestic music scene is a local Government that's so obsessed with upholding its views of Christian morality they deem it unlawful for a club to open past 3AM and outright blasphemy for any shop other than off-licenses to sell booze.
But lets not get too hung up on politics, all you need to know is that the powers that be make it really hard for you to have a good time in Belfast. Which is probably why people from there are so passionate about having a good time. The ability to party hard is a badge of honour in Belfast and the gravest of insults is to be deemed shit craic. So you can imagine just how pumped I was to find myself in a warehouse full of my compatriots with a huge sound system, and a lineup of local heroes on the decks.
When I arrived at the enormous shipping warehouse that was doubling-up as the venue for AVA, the Boiler Room was already underway, so it was a quick speed past the main stage, which was already hammering out hard-hitting techno, and onto the concrete expanse of the docks. In the shadow of a towering oil rig – a structure bigger than anything you’d see at Melt! – an awning shielded the decks and speaker stacks from the wind and rain, while revellers spilled out on all sides. It wasn’t much past 3PM but everyone in sight was partying like it was the last song of the night.
Local favourite, Space Dimension Controller was working the crowd into a frenzy with his cosmic funk and banging beats. The Braveheart-obsessed producer is known for having a bit of fun with his crowds, but he pulled something truly special out of the bag when he dropped the Kevin & Perry trance classic, “Ayla” for his hometown show.
Such a well judged show of force undoubtedly leaves the next act with big shoes to fill, but luckily the Bicep lads are probably the most qualified people on the whole island to slay a Belfast crowd. Their party-focused set warranted an almost constant chorus of “Oi, Oi, Oi, Fuckin, Oi” from the attendees and as I looked around at the smiling faces, this jaded music journalist’s chest couldn’t help but swell with pride. I can’t stand all that ‘our wee country’ nonsense, but there was an undeniable feeling that Belfast was truly bringing it that afternoon.
After the obligatory “One More Tune” pleads, everyone piled into the main room where local techno don, Phil Kiernan, was giving a showcase set to a rapturous crowd. Next up Ejeca brought the bass with a selection of dark house rollers. In such a large venue there’s always a worry that the sound might not perform as well as you’d want, but the ringing in my ears and the raspiness of my voice for days afterwards is testament that the AVA tech crew has the sound on point.
Next up the lights dimmed for the second coming of Space Dimension Controller, this time replete with a blinding lazer show. Then Glasgow tastemakers, Optimo, brought their trademark eclecticism with an off kilter techno set that commanded a sea of fist pumping. Finally, Bicep returned to the stage to close out with a mix of 90s house, disco favourites and fresh off the line productions.
The last moments of AVA are a blur of hurried afterparty planning and running through the rain towards the orange lights of the Taxi rank, but the lasting memory of AVA is of a festival that well and truly pulled it out of the bag. Not just in terms of ensuring a good time was had by all, but also in taking those first important steps towards finally making Belfast a destination on the dance music map.
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