AVA Festival founder Sarah McBriar is a woman on a mission. Equipped with a strong knowledge of events and a passion for house and techno, what was once a rough plan to boost Belfast's local music scene has quickly blossomed into an unmissable annual highlight of the city's go-hard-or-go-home club culture.
Personally, I didn't know much more about Belfast beyond Bicep, Jim McDonald, and Tayto crisps, but growing up partying in Manchester left me with a penchant for the close-knit scenes and communities that build up in smaller cities. Places outside of London usually have to try a bit harder when it comes to nightlife, but the result is an intangible melting pot of trusted selectors, reliable small clubs, and a collaborative spirit that often offers an insight into how the city functions. Just a short three-day trip left me with that familiar kind of feeling. Belfast is also a jungle of complex licensing laws, which seems to leave an unquenchable thirst for partying into the wee hours, which you won't fail to notice. Whether you gravitate towards the city's undying lust for a good time, its unique local characters (cc: the selfie obsessed Belfast Lizard), ridiculous music talent, boozy afters, or just sheer charm—AVA Festival has managed to incorporate it all.
Entering its third year, McBriar's venture has far surpassed her initial plans to showcase both burgeoning and established talent from Northern Ireland, with the festival going from strength the strength in a short span of time. What was once a one day event is now a weekend-long affair, setting up shop just a short way from the city centre at the mammoth T13 hangar in Titanic Quarter. Once the construction dock of an ill-fated liner, the area's industrial backdrop gave an other worldly feel to the two day marathon which was kickstarted with a series of conference style chats. A little food for thought before the main course, the future of electronic music was questioned with panel participants from Resident Advisor and Boiler Room, followed by an in-depth discussion with Leftfield founder Neil Barnes around his recent comeback tour. Who doesn't like a conference element though, really? That idea of "expanding your horizons" certainly does diffuse some of guilt around getting absolutely steamboated at 3pm on a Friday afternoon.
As the afternoon faded away, the conference element slowly dissipated to make room for Belfast's eager crowds and, well, plenty of drinking. By early evening the sea of dancers was swelling into storm tide at the Extended Play-curated Becks Stage, with plastic cups of beers flying about as lads on shoulders swinging t-shirts around their heads yelled football chants along to Dennis Sulta's "It's Only Real."
Everything felt like it was working up to the peak slot from Jeff Mills. Jeff Mills, being Jeff Mills, decided to do things a little differently. Coming across a bit like a bloke with the aux at a houseparty playing Autechre B-Sides rather than bait bangers, he knocked the crowd sideways, delving deep into avant-new-age-sci-fi-tinkering. Still, if you wanted a bit of leg-shaking, the Becks Stage was only a short walk away, and over there you'd have found Job Jobse playing records like New Order's never-not-incredible "Bizarre Love Triangle." Still, the general consensus seemed to be that Friday night was the "warm up" for Saturday's main event, so it saved Jeff an absolute beating for not playing "The Bells."
By early afternoon the following day, I was pretty relieved I'd stuck to pints of Becks and not much else. Arriving several acts into the notorious AVA Festival Boiler Room session on Saturday, local DJs including Jordan and Or:la were rip-roaring their way through sets in the makeshift marquee, which made for the perfect marriage of Belfast enthusiasm and a love for the sesh. In the case of talent, you can't break a crowd's bond with their local DJ regardless of how many SoundCloud plays or EP releases, proving that hey, worldwide acclaim isn't always everything…
As the progressively rowdier Boiler Room dampened down after Belfast local Ejeca's closing set, all roads led to the main arena, where Hammer and Midland had been warming the growing crowd up for Bicep. Always a huge homecoming gig for the pair, they showered the crowd with exactly what they wanted: an uncomplicated peak time set filled to the brim with absolute heaters. Paired with their trademark visuals and no holds barred light show, it was the perfect soundtrack to an absolute realm out, and as all good reviews go, I got pretty lost in it. From the patchy memory intact, Marcel Dettmann closed the festival with a robust finale, and as 1am rolled around, the crowd's dispersed over a carpet of empty cans and bottles to find whichever after-party floated their boat, rounding off yet another illuminating instalment of a festival that you're sure to be hearing a lot more from.