For a third year in a row Sark Folk Festival proved itself to be an amazing mix of music and atmosphere over three and a bit days (warning this is a long review, if you make it all the way through, I’m going to say thanks now!)
The journey over to Sark is often a slightly exciting one as the seas between the islands have a habit of getting a bit lumpy, but, despite strong winds, my trip over to the 2012 Sark Folk Festival on Thursday 28th June was remarkably calm.
Once we’d gone through the usual process of finding out which tractor was best to drop luggage off at its ultimate destination it was onto the ‘toast rack’ (the tractor driven bus) to get up the hill. It was at this point that the unique atmosphere of Sark struck me and I felt the all the weight had lifted off my shoulders marking the start of a nice relaxing weekend – even though I was on BBC Introducing duty so, technically, working.
At the top of the hill I headed over the Bel Air pub where the music kicked off and really wasn’t going to stop for the next three days.
It all started when The Crowman, who was armed with an array of instruments on the back of his Crowcycle, decided that a spot of impromptu busking was in order. This got a few of the assembled drinkers clapping along and soon the guitar was being shared round for a few of those who knew how to play to have a go.
This sense of sharing and everyone getting involved was something else that was to continue all weekend and is one of things that really sets this festival apart from most others I have attended.
As the evening continued more arrived at the Bel Air, either from Guernsey, or from setting up the festival on the other side of the island, armed with an array of instruments from guitars and banjos to bodhrans and hurdy-gurdies and everyone with an instrument got involved in the ‘session’.
I got to have a go thanks to the Ten Toe Hobo (aka Dave Etherington) who kindly leant me his guitar and it was quite an experience trying to play along and improvise with some excellent and much more experienced musicians – certainly one I want to try again.
After a somewhat sudden lights out moment at the Bel Air it was time for a trek back across the small island to the “witch’s house” (where Annie was kind enough to let me stay for the weekend). As we passed the old mill Daz suggested we take a look inside and for a few moments I was “the highest person in the Channel Islands” with a spectacular view across the trees back to Guernsey and over to Jersey.
Friday was the official start of the festival and, despite the heavy rain in the morning while some of the volunteers hurried to set up their tents, the atmosphere as the festival officially opened was already great with all the volunteers putting the finishing touches to the flags and making sure the sound systems were ready for the music.
Musically things kicked off the way they had in previous years with a stalwart of the Guernsey acoustic scene. For 2012 it was the turn of Mick Le Huray who put in a sterling performance for the small, but quickly growing, crowd highlighted by his original song Five Long Years (as featured on the GBG#3 album).
From there I decided to give the weekend over to serendipity (save for a few acts I knew I had to catch) and its first work took me up the hill to the Tintageu Stage which was to once again prove one of the real highlights of the festival.
Opening this small stage was a group of familiar faces, albeit in a slightly different arrangement, Blue Gypsy Revolution.
Playing an acoustic rock-y end of folk, they set a high standard for the stage which was maintained all weekend and suited the atmosphere of the afternoon brilliantly.
At this point I should probably point out I didn’t see one act that I would consider anything less than very good all weekend, so the rest of this review is going to very much of the positive sort.
Heading back into the main tent I caught a couple of tunes James Dumbleton (and a few guests) which were, as ever, very well performed and help show how good the more traditional sound of mandolins and fiddles can be without the need for an acoustic guitar, and then it was time for Sark’s own – The Recks.
Being their third gig in three days the band were clearly well relaxed playing together and brought the party atmosphere to proceedings for the first, but certainly not the last, time.
While not strictly folk The Recks mix folk elements with swing, funk and rock ‘n’ roll in, what I can only describe as, uplifting party music to create an excellent sound unique amongst Channel Islands bands and I’m not surprised that in their short time together they have received nothing but positive reviews and some high profile gigs – I just can’t wait to see them again!
The Space Pirates of Rocquaine continued to up the party atmosphere with a storming performance. Mixing folk with rock the band who can be relied on to liven up any event pulled out all the stops this evening and really seem to thrive on this bigger stage and with an enthusiastic crowd in front of them.
The band’s repertoire of original songs has grown over the last couple of years to impressive standards and the addition of wah pedal to Tim’s mandolin added an extra dimension to a couple of songs as the Pirates provided not only my highlight of the day, but one of my highlights of the whole weekend.
In between tasting some of the excellent veggie food on offer from the Harbour Café’s table in the food tent I caught a couple of Lucy Ward’s songs and immediately decided I needed to get her album. The winner of the Horizon award at the Radio 2 Folk Awards Lucy combines a unique voice with some excellent musicianship to make a really good sound that, along with her between song banter with the crowd, is well worth catching if you get the chance.
Despite the wind (and occasional rain) I headed back up to the Tintageu Stage during Lucy’s performance to catch Lydia Pugh.
Though she is one of Guernsey’s hardest gigging musicians it seems I only ever get round to catching Lydia at the summer festivals and tonight it seemed the intimate nature of the Sark Folk Festival’s outdoor stage was suited perfectly to her music as we all gathered in close to get out of the rain and wind.
Highlights of Lydia’s set included a cover of Incubus’ Wish You Were Here, along with a selection of original songs which mixed an easy listening (in the best sense) and folk-ish vibe with a sense of the island she calls home.
Back in the tents and Anglo-Irish band Rune were headlining the Vermerette Stage with a very traditional sound that still managed to prove why folk music is often quite clearly a forerunner to modern dance music and rock as, despite the somewhat downbeat subject matter of the songs, many in the audience were soon clapping along and, had it been a different environment (or on the festivals Alligande Stage) I think many would have been up and dancing.
With that my Friday came to end (sadly my body deciding to go into shut down meant I missed The Shee, though I heard good things from those who caught them) and I headed back along Sark’s fabulously dark lanes to the Witch’s House.
Saturday is the main day of the festival, when the site fills to its maximum capacity (somewhere around 1,200 in the middle of the afternoon) and the music lasts for a full 13 hours from half past 10 in the morning until 11:30 at night.
My day kicked off with Burg on the Tintageu Stage. Familiar from his work with many bands, including Teaspoonriverneck and Thee Jenerators, Burg (armed today with Black Bess, a hollow body Gretsch with a fantastic tone) plays a mix of country and blues sounds in a manner that feels amazingly genuinely for a Guernseyman and adds yet another string to his musical bow.
Tonight The Skies had the job or starting the live music on the Vermerette Stage today and did so by stripping down their electronic folk rock to a purely acoustic performance which served to show their songs off in a slightly new, but equally satisfying, light.
With the promise of a debut album soon I’m very interested to hear what this two-piece can do when not ‘restricted’ by the live environment.
While midday at most festivals I’ve been to is when people started to appear, bleary eyed, into the world, at Sark Folk Festival by midday the site was already filling up and the atmosphere was already high with much anticipation of the great music to come.
I don’t think the atmosphere at Sark Folk Festival can be overstated, as it seems everyone from the casual festivalgoers to the volunteers and crew were in a good mood all weekend, even when things may have been getting stressful and busy for those working and helping out. This atmosphere was in full effect by early Saturday afternoon and it is something that really marks this (and Guernsey’s other small festivals, particularly Chaos) out from the mega-corporate affairs that many festivals have become.
Anyway back to the music and husband and wife duo Bruise made an excellent racket on the Vermerette Stage in the early afternoon. While a White Stripes comparison may be a bit cheap, this guitar and drums band did have something of the Detroit duo’s energy, but with a generally mellower and more approachable air with a hint of folk in the mix too which made for a really good sound and performance.
Back up the Tintageu Stage it was time for some folk storytelling with A Day Before Thursday who take some very old and traditional songs and deliver them in their own unique acoustic style, which emphasises the narrative aspect of the music along with some excellent guitar work from Sim.
The duo were also joined for a couple of tunes by Emma Weldon on fiddle today as she did her best to appear with as many different bands as possible over the course of the weekend and brought something extra and exceptional to every set she graced.
Next on the Alligande Stage it was time for something a bit different, and certainly not folk, as Scottish youngsters Act Natural hit the stage.
Spending the weekend working as volunteers the band seemed to have been given slot in return for their work and trip down from Glasgow and, despite not being the right sort of music (covers of Avenged Sevenfold were not what I was expecting at Sark Folk Festival) they certainly embodied the same spirit as everyone else involved over the weekend.
While there were maybe a few turned up noses, for me Act Natural sounded great and, while they would fit in better at Chaos or a Rock of Ages night, seemed to go down well with many and provided a bit of variation to the weekend as well.
Another of the weekend’s highlights took place on the Alligande stage at 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon with The John Wesley Stone, who seemed to hosting their own ‘revival meeting’ such was the energy on display.
With mid-afternoon on Saturday always the festival’s busiest time the tent was packed for the rockabilly-skiffle-folk band and they were firing on all cylinders from the off and didn’t let up for 45 minutes and an encore.
Across the set blood was shed, dancing was done and the already upbeat atmosphere of the festival hit new heights as the band put in what must their best performance yet and led to Mark Le Gallez commenting that it was “one of the best gigs I’ve ever played”.
There was some frankly amazing banjo and mandolin speed playing next from faux-hillbilly’s The Leon Hunt n-Tet who fitted in brilliantly after The John Wesley Stone and they, in turn, were followed by a band made up of many of the festival organisers, The Barley Dogs.
The Barley Dogs brand of pub-folk rarely gets a chance to be seen on this kind of scale and, in making the transfer from pubs to a bigger stage, it still works brilliantly.
Launching their album this afternoon the band seemed to be even more amped up than usual and it showed in their performance, which mixed traditional songs and tunes with originals which got the crowd clapping along and totally engaged.
Heading into the evening and it was time for another “best gig yet” for a local act as The Crowman took to the Tintageu Stage.
Starting off with the crowd sitting down around the open air stage and relaxing to the upbeat garage folk sounds, by mid way through the set a few were up and dancing and by the time James Le Huray joined The Crowman and Emma Weldon on stage for Jigaboo many were up and dancing to one of the weekend’s most high energy performances.
The excellent music on Tintageu continued next with the delightful surprise that is Sarah Joy.
With excellent guitar, singing and songwrting skills on display, and a great connection to the audience (who huddled in close against the strong, cold winds as the sun headed below the horizon), Sarah provided the thing that is most valuable about festivals, something new and enrapturing.
Ending her set on a poem and an a capella song which managed to got people up and dancing (something I’m not sure I’d ever seen before), Sarah showed herself to be an artist well worth keeping an eye and ear out for as, if she doesn’t make big waves at some time, it will prove the ludicrous nature of the music business even further.
Saturday night’s last band, 3 Daft Monkeys, did what it is now traditional for Sark Folk Festival Saturday night headliners to do and that is mix folk with some other sounds to really get the crowd dancing.
Combining folk with elements of ska, cabaret and vaudeville the crowd were on their feet and moving from the start and didn’t stop for over an hour and really didn’t want the band to leave the stage either which left the Saturday of the 2012 Sark Folk Festival on a high as we headed off into the darkness to find our beds and tents around the island.
The last day of the festival and things started on a light and relaxed note with Milo Bellamy on the Vermerette Stage and Jamie-Lee on the Tintageu Stage as people began to make their back onto the site.
Jamie-Lee’s set was sadly cut short due to a hand injury the guitarist is still recovering from, but for the short time he played he sounded great, with his Andy McKee inspired instrumentals still sounding as strong as ever.
The liveliness of the music soon picked up though as Sark’s own Big Sheep kicked off the Alligande Stage and, once a few sound issues were dealt with, played a great set which served to wake up the audience suitably for a final few hours of music.
Back on the Tintageu Stage, The ID Shade kept the chilled out vibes going with another strong performance which, while clearly not folk, still fitted in with the weekend excellently.
Whose Shoes were my last on site band of the weekend owing to having to get an early boat and they were a great way to finish things up.
I’ve been a fan of frontman Dave Etherington (aka Ten Toe Hobo) since I first saw him play a couple of years and being backed by Rob Gregson on bass and Sarah Van Vlymen on fiddle (and today James Le Huray on drums) never fails to heighten his mix of folk, blues and country type sounds into something well worth catching.
Once again highlights of the band’s set included their versions of Like A Hobo and Vincent Black Lightning along with original number Loose Lips Sink Ships, penned in Sark during a previous festival, and this set really sent me off back towards the harbour on a real musical high.
On the way back to the harbour I was treated to a couple of excellent lo-fi busking style performances from Sarah Joy and Bruise at different spots around the island which really demonstrated to me how the festival takes over Sark for the weekend with great music all over.
Heading away from a festival as good as this is always a bit of a downer but I have to say that as I finish writing this (a week later) there are still elements of the great atmosphere flowing through me and it is events like this that remind me why I love live music and just how great our small islands are at making it.
Next up its Chaos (which I’m playing) and while musically rather different, shares much of the same energy and enthusiasm as Sark Folk Festival, and long may they both continue in this way.
All photos by Tom Girard and photos for Friday, Saturday and Sunday courtesy BBC Guernsey.