Riri Hylton hits Belfast for sets from Mall Grab, MCDE and Rebekah—and to experience one of the most exhilarating party atmospheres around.
Belfast's AVA Festival hit the ground running this year with arguably its best lineup to date. The fifth edition boasted an eclectic array of local and international talent who were embraced by a standout audience. The AVA format is unique in that it's the only UK dance music festival to combine a conference with two days of music. At The MAC on Friday, the techno and acid house pioneer Kevin Saunderson gave this year's keynote speech, while Horse Meat Disco and The Black Madonna discussed club scenes and the role of activism in electronic music before hitting the decks.
Having switched venues after reaching capacity in its third year, AVA will move to a new home in 2020. The current site, a disused former B&Q building outside the city centre, suits the festival's industrial ethos, so it might be hard to find a more fitting location. That said, judging from this year's turnout, the festival is still only getting started. Festivalgoers travelled from far and wide, but it was the local crowd who set and maintained the energy across the two days, showing just how rich and alive electronic music is in Ireland.
Here are five key performances from AVA 2019.
The Black Madonna
The Black Madonna lit up The Loading Bay, AKA Red Bull Music Stage, on Friday evening with melodic disco and thumping house. Masterful mixing created a seamless line between genres in what felt like a truly heartfelt and enchanted contribution to the night. She brought her trademark rapture to the party, rocking away throughout her set and amping up the crowd. This, after all, is what many people love about her. After decades of graft, the veteran DJ has certainly earned her stripes, but far from kicking back and riding the wave, she blew through her 90-minute set with a spirit and verve unparalleled by most of her peers.
Motor City Drum Ensemble
Ravers were drawn to MCDE at Unit 4 like moths to a flame. A disco ball hovered over the crowd as he played soulful and funky tracks, drawing on gems dating back to the golden era of disco. The likes of "Space Walk (Joey Negro Edit)" by Disc & Dat added real warmth to a busy floor, leading the way for more contemporary deep house cuts. Crucially, though, he never lost sight of the initial glamour established at the beginning of his set. It was a joyful and exuberant performance.
For those unschooled in the Mall Grab hype, this set was the perfect baptism of fire. Following MCDE in Unit 4, the young house heavyweight forewent the usual lush and melodic offerings for something cooler and more bracing, which was well received by the rows of cheering and fist-pumping ravers. He's known for skilfully ramping up energy levels, mixing classic house with hip-hop samples and the odd pop song. But this time, there was something slicker and more earnest about his approach. The crowd got particularly animated when he dropped one of his own tracks, "Liverpool Street In The Rain," all but confirming that the audience were mostly already converts.
Sally C's set at Boiler Room, AKA The Garden Centre, on Saturday felt like a raucous and highly anticipated gathering of an extended family. The Irish DJ played hip-hop, trance, acid and tech house, bringing a natural synergy to the dance floor. When she dropped Kettama's "Kilt," it became immediately clear the crowd was very local. Eyes lit up and scanned familiar faces as if trying to savour the moment en masse. Later, when she threw Nathan Micay's "The Party We Could Have" into the mix, it felt like she might be introducing one of this year's summer anthems. The modern trance track seemed perfectly at home alongside all the other sounds in her set, a testament to her musical range and technical acuity.
Rebekah literally shook the earth beneath a fully packed floor at The Loading Bay on Saturday evening. Her hard-hitting, four-to-the-floor set was structured using trembling basslines, steely synths and metallic reverb. As she built a wall of sound, punters who couldn't access the pit lined the perimeter as far back as physically possible. Such an intense, rapid-fire set might have felt overwhelming in the wrong hands, but all the elements sat well with each other and were perfectly amplified in a space that seemed made for this industrial techno revivalist. She's influencing a new generation of techno enthusiasts, and it's clear to see why.
We've compiled a YouTube playlist with some of our favourite tracks from AVA Festival 2019. Check them out here.
Resident Advisor hosted a live RA Exchange at AVA Conference 2019.
Photo credits /
Lewis McClay (The Hype Factory)
Marty Logan (The Hype Factory)