The fourth annual Sark Folk Festival took place on Guernsey’s smaller neighbour between the 5th and 7th July 2013.
The show featured performers from all over the world including Seth Lakeman, Hat Fitz & Cara Robinson and The Ross Ainslie Trio alongside artists from the Channel Islands including The John Wesley Stone, The Space Pirates of Rocquaine and Tonight The Skies and even acts from Sark itself in Big Sheep, The Recks and Peter Gabriel Byrne.
1,400 packed out the island for the weekend, literally leaving no bed unfilled or camping pitch free for this award-winning celebration of folk, roots and acoustic music.
You can see a full gallery of my photos from the festival on the BBC Introducing Guernsey Facebook page and my abridged review of it was published in the Guernsey Press on Saturday 13th July, you can read it in scans below.
For my full review of the Sark Folk Festival, including some videos from Guernsey Gigs, just scroll down below the scans.
Going by some of the other media reports you could be forgiven for thinking the Sark Folk Festival was a celebration of local seafood with some music on the side, well I’m happy to confirm that was far from the case as I let you know about some of the music that was on offer over another amazing weekend in a field on our smaller neighbor island.
This year that particular field was located near the Coupee (the land bridge that joins the main island to Little Sark) and once again gave us some spectacular views back across Brecqhou, Herm, Jethou and Guernsey which were particularly amazing come sunset.
The music started out, as has become tradition, with a Channel Island folk-stalwart, this time in the form of Roland Scales who, armed with a set of bagpipes (more in the Breton style than the Scottish) and an instrument similar to a hurdy-gurdy, but emphatically not, played a selection of truly traditional songs from both the Channel Islands, the UK and Brittany. While this was a bit of a baptism of fire for someone less familiar with true traditional music like myself, it was still fascinating, especially when accompanied by Roland’s commentary on the origins of the songs.
I was back on more familiar ground a little later as Sark’s own The Recks took to the stage and, while they received very good receptions at The Fermain Tavern recently, their ‘hometown’ crowd clearly wanted to show up the Guernsey audience. The band played a great set that had people up and dancing and packed out the Alligande stage (the festival’s largest) for the first, but far from the last, time this weekend.
With a new album being released at the festival (the excellently titled Vraic and Ruin), The Space Pirates of Rocquaine were Friday’s ‘local’ headliners. Playing through the whole album and with a good number of extra songs thanks to having their set extended, due to a few technical issues on the other stage, they went down a storm with the audience for the fourth year in a row. The band’s mix of Guernsey and Sark inspired folk tales and great folk-pop songs had people moving and singing along, in particular to Creux Mahie which led to a Freddie Mercury call and response moment from singer and guitarist Rocqchick.
As the evening approached I headed down to the Tent O’Ladeez, a mini-stage curated by Ukuladeez and featuring pure acoustic performances all weekend, and as I arrived Burg was in full flow. His blues and country sounds held his audience rapt in what had a feeling of a story telling session but with an acoustic guitar and some excellent tunes added into the mix, all while relaxing in the evening sun.
As the Alligande stage prepared for the first day’s headliner (and arguably the biggest name of the weekend) there was a real sense of anticipation, but as Seth Lakeman took to the stage and people near the front, myself included, began to stand up, it seemed the good-natured air may be derailed as some began to loudly, and not politely, request that we sit down.
Thankfully this was short-lived and Seth Lakeman judged the mood in the tent as he and his band launched into a set of his more upbeat material and there was plenty of dancing from the off. While I am not hugely familiar with Lakeman’s work I can safely say tonight he lived up to the hype as he switched instruments and worked the crowd like a master as he also steered his band through what was evidently not the set they had planned when they stepped onto the stage.
While I understand some were disappointed that his slower songs didn’t get an airing (and I would certainly be interested to hear that side of his work too), for an energetic night at a music festival I don’t think there was a better way to end things as the crowd were well warmed up for the two days to come.
The opening slot on the Saturday of the Sark Folk Festival is always a challenging one and this year it went to committee member Claire Rakich. For many of her songs Claire took the traditional folk route of songs with no accompaniment that showed off her voice excellently and for a few songs she picked her guitar as well.
Along with a couple of songs with here sister and one with The John Wesley Stone’s Tinshack, the highlight of her set was an amazing and epic ‘story song’ she wrote after hearing a tale from the occupation in Jersey which managed to say more about the period and life on the islands than any history lesson while also reaching to the very heart and soul.
Another local act, Peter Gabriel Byrne, a singer-songwriter who also doubles as Sark’s harbour master, kicked off things on Les Burons stage with a set of his own songs which come from the tradition of singer-songwriters that came to the fore in the 1970s with a hint of folk leanings of his homeland.
Always a highlight of the festival for me, Ten Toe Hobo, followed Byrne on Les Burons and, despite the major set back of the head of his guitar being snapped off the previous night, still played an excellent set on a borrowed guitar. His mix of blues and folk inflected songs, along with some great ‘banter’ with the audience, was highlighted by original song Loose Lips Sink Ships and his rendition of Like A Hobo and Vincent Black Lightning.
The third of the festival’s Sark acts was up next in the form of Big Sheep. Having played the festival every year as the island’s folk representatives the band seems to grow every year and this time was no different with Ash Jarman of The Recks adding his trumpet to the mix. The band’s mix of original tunes and cover songs had people dancing and a Sark flag waving and it was all the more impressive considering Lifejacket’s Claire Mockett stepping on drums at the last minute and fiddle player Jess Nash (usually seen with The Space Pirates or The John Wesley Stone) only plays this one gig with them a year.
Following on straight on for this The Barley Dogs continued their tradition of great sets at the festival. Following launching their album here last year the energy was understandably not quite as high for their set this afternoon, but none-the-less the band’s brand of pub folk once again translated to the larger stage brilliantly and had many, especially the many youngsters in attendance, up and dancing from the off as they mixed traditional songs with their own songs and tunes.
O’Hooley and Tidow provided another of my highlights of the weekend with their set on the Alligande Stage. Drawing mostly from their recent album, The Fragile, the duos mix of wit, innuendo and light humour, combined with amazing musicianship and singing provided a real treat. A particular high point of this being their two vocal only songs, Banjololo and a frankly astounding cover of Massive Attack’s Teardrop, that showed just what the human voice is capable of when given space and encore Shelter Me, taken from their debut album, was a personal highlight as its been a favourite of mine since I first saw them play.
Another Guernsey band launching a new album this weekend were The John Wesley Stone who unleashed Sharaibu on the world with a truly storming set. Playing many songs of the album, along with a few of their older songs, their energy soon ran through the tent as the four piece filled the stage and the audience sang back with some real power. The set was rounded off with a rendition of Walls Of Jericho that featured Ukuladeez, Jack McGahy, James Le Huray and Clem Brouard all joining the band on stage as the band and audience became one for the sing along number that was yet another high point of the weekend.
Not long after finishing up with The John Wesley Stone, Hillbill was back on stage as his alter ego The Crowman in the Tintageu tent. Once again attracting a massive crowd (for the smaller stage) his garage-folk combined the energy of a child with ADHD whose been taught the very basics on guitar with the crazed antics of Lux Interior to create a truly unique performance that is unlike anything else at this festival, or likely any other, and with Emma Weldon, aka The Fiddling Pixie, adding more backing vocals to the show The Crowman continued his tradition of making his Sark Folk Festival sets an unmissable part of the show.
With the Vermerette Stage tent already overflowing Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson took to the stage and with their mix of Irish folk and Australian influenced bluegrass and blues upped the already energetic festival to a new level. The most striking thing about their set was how two performers manage to fill the same sonic space as a whole band with Fitz’ resonator and electric guitars sounding at once like a six string and a bass and Clara’s drums and washboard filling the everything from standard drum kit to rhythm guitar and slap bass type sounds.
As the set neared its climax the duo were joined on stage by O’Hooley and Tidow for Power which brought a Deep South revival meeting feel to proceedings as the whole tent was shouting the title back at the stage and following this with an encore of Blind Willie Johnson’s John The Revelator ended their set on such a high, headliners The Ross Ainslie Trio had their work cut out.
Unfortunately, for me anyway, the still upbeat but certainly less powerful sounds of The Ross Ainslie Trio were something of an anticlimax after Fitz and Cara, but that’s not to say they didn’t make some great sounds with their tunes mixing upbeat rhythms and traditional tones of pipes and flutes. That being said the atmosphere around the festival on the Saturday night was enough to leave everyone heading out into the darkness on a major high as we stumbled back through the lanes to the campsites, b&bs and hotels of the island to either carry on the party or rest up for a final day of folk action.
Sunday started off with Ukuladeez and, while I’ve not always appreciated their sounds in the past, today was something a bit different. Being accompanied by a double bass, violin and piano expanded their sound and, to use a cliché, filled out the bottom end that their voices and the higher tones of the ukulele normally leave empty which added an extra strength to their sound that had, for me, been missing in the past. This led to an at least solidly enjoyable performance with their song about Heat Magazine proving a highlight as it combined their irreverent style with a great song that was, frankly, straight up entertainment.
The Tintageu Stage once again provided some excellent smaller scale acts today with Jack McGahy proving a highlight of these for me with his acoustic-pop originals and covers which are delivered with a sense of self deprecating humour and good grace that make for a truly enjoyable set that really allows the audience to side with Jack and his songs. For today’s set he was joined on stage by a youngster, I think his sister, who dueted with him on a song about their imaginary adventures which received a great reception from the audience.
As the festival wraps up mid-afternoon on the Sunday, so festival-goers can catch their boats back to Guernsey, the headliners of the day kicked off at half past one, and The Whisky Riverboat Band, who closed the Vermerette Stage, certainly filled the headliner role as people were soon up and dancing to their bluegrass, hillbilly sounds.
Gathered around a single mic with acoustic instruments the four piece played a mix of originals, covers and traditional songs in a truly upbeat style. For one track they were joined by some members of a local morris side who added dancing, 12-string, trombone and tuba to the mix before the crowd really got moving and Crowman started a conga.
Ending the set with some more organised dancing which had an air of a line dancing club may have added a slightly odd tinge to the set but there’s no doubting the music was excellent and another set a bit different to anything else on offer but still fitting under the banner of folk.
The final act of the weekend was, as the Festival’s compere Kerry described, an hour-long encore from the previous night, as Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson took to the Alligande Stage. Playing a more relaxed set than the previous night we got to see a different side of the duo’s music, though it was no less powerful and well delivered as people relaxed around the tent not wanting the show to end.
Sadly the Festival did have to end but not before Fitz and Cara called The Crowman and various members of the organizing committee onto the stage for another run through of Power which got people on their feet and moving and once again brought out the group euphoria that only music can do and ended the fourth Sark Folk Festival on an undeniable high.
As people made their way from the festival talk was largely taken up with the fact that this had been the best festival yet and people already preparing for next year’s event – and if this year was anything when tickets go on sale at the start of November its going to be another sell out!