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'.