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AVA: a triumphant return for the Belfast festival

Last weekend, AVA festival returned to Belfast. Despite venue closures and ongoing restrictions across Northern Ireland, the event went ahead outdoors in a brand new location, welcoming 10,000 ravers back into the dance. DJ Mag went to Belfast to experience the comeback of the festival, and speak with the DJs who soundtracked its return

Last weekend, after almost 18 months without a show, Belfast’s mighty AVA returned to the city in a brand new location, taking over the Boucher Road Playing Fields on 23rd & 24th September. Unable to take place in its usual city-centre location due to curfews and venue closures across Northern Ireland, the thought of AVA returning had initially been a pipe dream for DJs and fans alike. While campaigns like Free The Night NI are working hard to give Northern Ireland’s nightlife a sense of movement and normality in this transitionary phase of the pandemic, AVA truly made the impossible seem possible again for the 10,000-strong crowd that flooded the festival’s gates across the weekend.

You might have heard that Belfast loves techno — DJ Mag certainly has — but unless you’ve experienced a crowd there, it's hard to understand quite how serious the sentiment is. From the moment we arrive at the festival site, Kessler is hammering frenetic techno and breaks on the new Boiler Room stage - The Surround. It's still got a 360-degree arena, but instead of being hosted in its usual greenhouse location, it's a mammoth uncovered space, surrounded by shipping containers and framed by a backdrop of the Divis mountain. It's still early doors — not even 3PM — and the Belfast-born, Rotterdam-based artist is dropping heavy, peak-time tracks like his own 'Tribunal' on Club Glow, and Air Max '97's hypnotic 'Psyllium'.

The Grasses stage, tucked away at the back of the festival site, has been warming up since midday. It may be the smallest stage on site, but it's providing a platform for both rising stars and firm favourites - the stage opens with a live performance from PercBoi 3000, and sets from selectors like Marion Hawkes and legendary Belfast party crew Twitch follow. At this point in the day, the energy of the largely-local crowd feels like it couldn't get any better. How wrong we were.

Elsewhere, on the Nomadic Stage, it’s three of the city’s favourites warming up the crowds: Holly Lester, Bobby Analog and Jordan Nocturne. It’s been grey all morning, but the sun is creeping out now, and the three consecutive selectors serve up full-throttle house, techno and italo - with a little bit of Sean Paul for good measure. It's sweaty and lively, capturing the energy of the greenhouse from AVA’s infamous recorded sets from the likes of HAAi and Denis Sulta. The DJs and crowd are hugging periodically in disbelief — it really is amazing to be here — and the sheer euphoria is tangible in the air.

“I arrived at artist liaison and the first thing I was greeted with was a hug,” Jordan Nocturne says. He’s just finished a high-energy hour of edits and synth-heavy club bangers, leading the crowd into euphoria with ‘Keep On Pumping’ — a recent Nocturne Edit thats been favoured by the likes of Peggy Gou — and closing things on Carl Cox’s mix of ‘Just Kick!’. “I haven’t seen a miserable face yet. The tempos are up from previous years and the energy has been palpable from the outset. On a weekend like this, Belfast crowds are unbeatable.”

As day turns to night on day one, the energy shifts. Although it might have felt impossible to go any deeper, the sounds take another turn, and the crowd experiences an almighty second wind. At Nomadic, another Belfast favourite, Space Dimension Controller, opens his full-throttle set with Daft Punk's 'Voyager' to rapturous applause, before handing over to Canadian DJ and producer Jayda G for 90 minutes of rolling house and bumping grooves. It's Optimo who steal the show, though, bringing the crowd to its first real karaoke moment with a rendition of ABBA's 'Lay All Your Love On Me'.

Back at The Grasses, NI’s Carlton Doom is prepping the crowd for their final dance of AVA day one, courtesy of DJ Boneyard and Saoirse. It’s Doom’s first gig in a year and a half, and after opening his set with Slipknot, and following it up with an edit of T2’s ‘Heartbroken’ by Zeez, the crowd are going nothing short of wild. “For me, being newly sober, and my first gig in 18 months, I actually have nerves for the last time in a long time,” he says. “Belfast is fiercely loyal to their local DJs and artists, and their support is intense, loud and overwhelmingly loving. The nerves die down as soon as I start playing, and I just go into party mode. 

“My set has been broadcast live on the radio and the station actually received a COMPLAINT that the crowd was too loud. I think that says it all. I'm forever grateful for these opportunities to play to home crowds on this scale, and can't thank AVA and all the ones who come to see me play enough. I'm still filled with joy.” 

The day closes out with a typically vibrant set from Saoirse, but not before the mysterious — and frankly unrelenting — DJ Boneyard, who serves up a set of killer IDs, Steel City Dance Discs anthems and dark, twisted rippers. It’s an absolute highlight of the event, with the packed tent and laddish crowd going wild for the masked “anonymous” DJ. Its a seriously climatic moment. By time Saoirse takes the reigns, the crowd are on cloud 9, while back at The Surround, object blue, KI/KI, FJAAK and Or:la have been working the crowd up to a thunderous finale helmed by Helena Hauff.

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When DJ Mag returns for day two, the tempo and energy is higher than the first. The crowd has grown in size, and it’s another serving of homegrown talent across AVA’s three stages. The winner of the festival’s emerging DJ competition in 2019, CAOIMHE, is opening The Surround. “What can I even say?” she says. “AVA just keeps outdoing itself every year, and I’m so delighted I’m able to be a part of it and open the stage. I was so sad that last year’s festival had to be cancelled as I was only getting started, but being back at it this weekend is reminding me how much I love it.”

MOODTRAX, Dart and Inside Moves follow on The Surround stage, before Swoose steps up for an hour of powerhouse tracks primed for club play, like Youandewan’s ‘Cola Beach’, and his own ‘Bloom’ and ‘Polypor’ on Shall Not Fade. His final track is a stand out moment, though, as he holds up the record sleeve up for Laurent Garnier’s techno classic, ‘Crispy Bacon’, to cheers and whistles, like a dedicated leader of the AVA congregation. There’s more homegrown talent on the other stages warming up, too, with the likes of Däïre, Farhannah and Korova B2B Plain Sailing setting the scene on The Nomadic and in The Grasses.

When Swoose’s time is up, he hands over to Timmy Stewart as T-Bone, who plays b2b with JMX. There’s tracks from Mark Broom, New Order and Technasia, and as a key figure in the Northern Irish nightlife scene and a founder of The Night Institute, it’s a welcome return for Stewart especially. “I always look forward to AVA, it’s a proper annual celebration for Irish creative arts,” he says. “This year is incredible — a real step up in terms of production, broadening of the musical offering and bringing people together from all over. It’s even more important after the restricted few years we’ve all just had, it feels magic!”

Back at The Nomadic stage, Nez and Phil Kieran are keeping the greenhouse alive, paving the way for a penultimate set Tommy Holohan. The Surround has turned deeper and darker now too, Carista is hammering acid, breaks and techno - Anz’s ‘Morphing Into Brighter’ sounds wicked and sharp on the AVA Funktion-One’s, and tracks by Avision, Doctor Jeep and Special Request keep the crowd pushing with maximum output. Bulgarian hardware wizard KiNK takes over from Carista, and it’s another standout from the weekend. His live set up is on point, and a guy in a bucket hat turns to his friend in the crowd - “I’ve never heard of this guy” he says. Hs friend tells him it’s the best performance he’s ever seen from the producer.

Co-founder of independent label Soft Boy Records and Irish rap star Kojaque fills The Grasses after live performances from Gemma Dunleavy and Abi Coulibaly. The faithful crowd sings every word to his songs about heartbreak, smoking and bringing your girl to the show. It’s a heartwarming moment, and Kojaque, in his furry pink bucket hat like a rave Jamiroquai, is beaming.

As the festival draws to a close, the energy in the air is feverish, if a little panicked. It’s when the reality of Belfast’s club closures and nightlife restrictions really sink in — no-one is ready for this to finish — and the closing DJs are ready to go out with a bang, along witht he crowd. From Sally C and Cromby b2b in The Surround, smashing out ‘Bang The Box’ by Kettama and CM’s ‘90s club thumper ‘Dream Universe’, to scene mainstays like R.Kitt and NTS’s Anu over at The Grasses, it really is 100MPH until the very last minute. As DJ Mag catches one last thunderstorm of unabated, driving techno from Sunil Sharpe in The Nomadic, Hammer captures the purest AVA energy in the final moments of the festival, with the euphoric chords of Bicep’s ‘Glue’, carrying on the wind as the crowd slowly starts to thin. 

If there's one takeaway from AVA, it's the sheer spirit of the artists and the crowd, and the sense of joy and hope it brought to everyone involved in the festival - from the bar staff to the headline acts. It was two days of smiles, laughter and positivity, and a feeling in the air that Northern Ireland is gearing up for its full return to the dancefloor. Belfast, eh? Welcome back.

AVA Festival 2022 tickets are on sale Wednesday October 6th.

(Pics: The Hype Factory / Marty Logan / Lewis McClay)

Amy Fielding is DJ Mag's digital staff writer and fashion editor. Follow her on Twitter here @amebbbb

Want more? Check out our recent review of the return of GALA - London's first outdoor festival in 16 months