The fifth annual Sark Folk Festival took place over the weekend of 4th, 5th and 6th July 2014 and, as with previous years it acted as a great way to discover new music while also seeing some show stealing performances from some of my local favourites.
As has become traditional things really got going the night before the festival as many festival goers, volunteers and organisers descended on The Bel Air Tavern for a big session with music (and the astonishingly priced drinks) flowing freely around both the inside bar and the outside patio and garden.
Whether you’re a player or not this open session is hugely enjoyable and something unique, in my experience, to Sark Folk Festival as everyone comes together to celebrate music on any instrument that comes to hand, I even had a quick go on a banjo!
As ever Sark Folk Festival gets going at a leisurely pace with the site opening just after lunchtime on the first day, giving people more time to get their boat over and camping pitch sorted without missing any of the acts.
First up on the Alligande Stage (the festival’s largest) was Tim Bishop. In a slot usually reserved for the some of the elder-statesmen of Guernsey’s folk scene, Tim is a relative newcomer, but it was clear why he was chosen to play this one this year.
Since I last saw Tim perform he has grown in confidence on stage and has taken on something of a very tame Neil Young in the style of his vocals (in Young’s folkier moments, at least). Tim set the scene for much of what was to come across the weekend and seemed to go down well with those who had made their way to the site for opening time.
As with every festival its impossible to see every act, and in particularly with Sark’s two double stages the music and performance was literally non-stop all weekend, so the next act I caught was Megson on the Vermerette Stage.
With their Teeside accents being the first regional UK accents of the weekend their heartfelt story songs gained an extra meaning as their low-key but evocative performance transported me into the stories and the meanings of them in the way that folk music really seems to have a particular knack of doing.
The first full-scale band of the weekend were The Will Pound Band who played a selection of jigs and reels and the like (if I’ve got my terminology correct) which with a later slot could easily have had people up and dancing.
As it was they played to a busy, but relaxed, tent of festivalgoers who certainly appreciated their youthful take on a traditional folk sound.
The first local band of the weekend came in the form of The Space Pirates of Rocquaine. With a reputation for impressive performances here in the past they had a lot to live up to and didn’t disappoint.
With new songs along with the old classics they had the tent full, and I don’t think that was because of the rain that had begun to fall, going by the audience reaction.
While the arguably bigger names, and certainly the bigger scale bands, were featured on the Alligande and Vermerette Stages, one thing that has always made Sark Folk Festival the special festival it is are the more intimate performances on the Tintageu and Les Burons Stages in the festival site’s lower field.
A venue with, usually, one of the best views from any festival site over Breqhou, Jethou, Herm and Guernsey – though by the time Burg took to the stage much of this was obscured by rain and fog.
Now a visiting artist to our islands, Burg made his name in Guernsey and his large following filled the Tintageu Stage for his first public performance in the islands in quite some time.
His set tonight was a mix of earnest but largely uplifting songs of life and the road and a few more lighthearted drinking songs that fitted the mood of the festival perfectly, and with a song dedicated to the “Shh-ers” of festivals past (who I assume were watching Martin Carthy) and the announcement of a new EP on the horizon, his twanging guitar and sweet Americana vocals went down a storm.
With excellent vocal harmonies at their centre The Ryan O’Reilly Band, a three-piece of guitar, Dobro and drums, came across like a street band who’d made the transition to the stage without loosing any of the immediacy they’d have needed as buskers.
They were my first new discovery of the weekend that really struck a chord with their country-ish folk that had a swaying positivity to it, despite some of the subject matter and they presented a modern folk vibe with songs of London’s streets today.
Having largely missed her solo performance here a couple of years ago I was excited to see Lucy Ward tonight, especially with a full band in tow.
Lucy presented a set of folk as a kind of cheeky cabaret with nods and winks aplenty, hinting at the often-overlooked side of the double meanings in many folk songs, and Lucy herself being a bubbly and exuberant front-woman who clicked with the large audience with ease.
With some rabble rousing political moments in the mix and a band who were all clearly excellent on each of their instruments, Lucy provided a set that, for me, was a highlight of the first day.
The first night of the festival was rounded off by The Willows, another act making their return to the festival. Despite a few sound issues that rendered the Dobro silent the band played some very good folk music very well it wasn’t until half way through the set that the band picked up the energy of their songs to begin to match the general mood in the tent.
While they played very well, and their was clearly a portion of the audience who really enjoyed The Willows set, for me, and many I spoke to afterwards, it was a little low-key for the end of the night.
As the first day of the festival with a damp walk back through dark lanes to the campsite, so the second day began with a damp walk back through the Dixcart valley to the festival site by the Coupee.
First on stage were Stalk The Lantern so, being part of the band, I can’t such much other than we had fun and were grateful for the chance to play and fo all the good feedback we received throughout the day.
After we came off stage I was able to catch a few songs of Ukuladeez set and, much like at their album launch, they showed how they’ve developed as a band. Backed today by Tantale’s Graham Duerden on drums, they had a bit more power behind their sound and the crowd seemed to be very much enjoying it.
Over on the Tintageu Stage, Haddo were performing and, for a duo, provided a really big sound using stomps to create a rhythm and providing enough music with violin, accordion and voice to give the idea of a much larger sound. With a set of personable folk songs and some excellent clog dancing, they provided one of the hidden gems of the weekend.
Not only were Clameur De Haro making their Sark Folk Festival debut, they were also making their public debut, with a set on the Vermerette Stage.
With some really good fun, upbeat originals songs, along with bluegrass-ish versions of Supernaut, Back In Black and others of their ilk they were a bit of a novelty anomaly, but a very entertaining one that went down a storm. And let’s be honest, any band with a song who’s only lyric is “Leeroy, where’s my horse?” is bound to raise a smile.
While Sark’s own Big Sheep had the tent packed for their set on the Alligande Stage, Guernsey duo Blue Mountains were playing down on Les Burons bringing the audience a selection of traditional songs and more modern numbers all with their own sensibility which went down very well with those sheltering from the fog and rain that was yet to disperse as promised.
After their set at Chaos 10 the previous weekend that saw them hit an astonishing high I wondered if Buffalo Huddleston could live up to that here. With the tent packed and a real sense of anticipation for them, if anything the six-piece excelled themselves even more here.
With the front half of the largest tent all up and moving from the off this was certainly the best I have seen from Buffalo Huddleston and by far the best reaction I’ve seen them receive, and every clap, whoop and cheer was thoroughly deserved.
While today may be Becky Hamilton’s last performance with the band, all the members seemed to use that to make the show extra special and provide one of the festival’s major highlights – for the second weekend in a row.
The high energy performances continued next with The Barley Dogs who also playing something of a set of their careers with huge energy to another packed out crowd, despite the face that the weather was starting to make a turn for the better outside.
The Crowman and The Fiddling Pixie have become something of a fixture on the Tintageu Stage and so their was a big crowd at the smaller stage for their set. The duo did their usual thing at Sark Folk Festival of pulling out all the stops and delivering a supremely confident, anarchic and enjoyable set of their, self-described, garage-folk.
With a broken stomp box the sound crew made the decision to simply put a mic near The Crowman’s foot which added and extra kick to their performance and this got a few dancing and many more clapping along while the Pixie provided something of a stabilising effect to keep The Crowman on the rails as things teetered on the edge of all out chaos.
Jackie Oates was next up on the Alligande Stage and, while she had a truly amazing voice, her performance was a bit too low-key after what had come before, though, as always its nice to hear such talented performers.
Down on Les Burons Stage things were a bit more upbeat again as Ten Toe Hobo, aka Dave Etherington, made his annual appearance. Backed tonight by Rob Gregson on bass and Sarah Van Vlymen on fiddle this was something of a mini Whose Shoes gig really and as usual it was a great set of songs delivered in one of the most warmly communal atmospheres I experienced all weekend, complete with volunteer Calum teaching a youngster circus tricks as the set rolled on.
While Dave’s voice was a little worse for wear (two weekends at festivals will do that to you, I speak from experience) it really just served to add a bit of extra grit in places and once he warmed up it was certainly not as noticeable and the combination of his songs of busking life combined with the first appearance of the sun in the part of 30 hours really raised the spirits.
Breabach made their return to the Sark Folk Festival next over on the Vermerette Stage and provided an upbeat and dance-y, yet still traditional sounding, set of tunes for the still packed tent. While they were musically as good as I remember, being stuck near the back of the tent meant I didn’t get to experience the full power of their performance as well as those at the front, but it was still an enjoyable set all the same.
Fay Heild and The Hurricane Party were Saturday’s headliners on the Alligande Stage and despite having a great voice, they had trouble engaging with the crowd, many of whom were, once again, looking for something more upbeat and this caused the crowd to thin considerably as the set went on.
It’s a shame when this happens and it’s hard to predict what the crowd will be wanting when the bands are booked and the line up organised, but it seems, for many, myself included, this years headliners were a bit too low-key – though I know others in the crowd liked this element this year as, in their opinion, it made it more a celebration of folk music.
The third day of the Sark Folk Festival always starts a little earlier to try to fit as much in as possible before the mid-afternoon finish that allows festivalgoers to get back to the harbour in time for the evening boats, this year it was Jersey’s Kevin Pallot (and a couple of his band The Pinnacles) who had the job of starting the day at 10:30.
Pallot has been playing for a few years with past sets at the Vale Earth Fair and the like and his rich soulful voice and acoustic guitar created a great sound to start the day that was serious but heartfelt and absorbing and he even managed to get something of a singalong going despite the early hour.
Part way through the set he was joined by a couple of his backing band on bass and percussion which lifted the sound somewhat and, with the crowd interaction growing, created another fine communal music moment. A special mention has to go to percussionist Blondie whose use of a Cajon and Djembe really brought both instruments unique sounds to life.
The relaxed atmosphere was pretty swiftly shattered next as Sark’s own, The Recks, hit the Alligande Stage like they had a point to prove. While their first song was a little slower paced than usual, the second song got the whole tent, which was already packed, on their feet and the energy began to reverberate between the band and the crowd and things were flowing.
The Recks set tonight was tighter and more coherent than their last show I caught and provided a real highlight, not just of the Sunday, but of the whole weekend.
Hard though it was to believe (and I was there) the energy got even higher next as CC Smugglers took to the Vermerette Stage. Combining country and folk sounds with a bit of the spirit of the honkey tonk and skiffle, the six-piece band may have been sweating off a heavy night but it really didn’t show as they had the crowd up and moving from the start and frontman Richie Prynne had them in the palm of his hand for the best part of an hour.
With the crowd already frantic things got even crazier for CC Smugglers’ encore as they unplugged and headed out into the centre of the tent to round off their set packed in the centre of the crowd and again added to that feeling that we are all part of this festival together that makes it so unique.
The penultimate act of the weekend, as has become something of a tradition, was The Vraic Gatherers and Friends. Essentially comprised of the festival committee and a few others they play a selection of traditional and original songs and tunes in a largely informal, semi-improvisational, fashion the set really acts as a chance for the organisers to let their hair down a bit and thank everyone who put time and effort into making the festival a success, and I have to echo their sentiments here as it remains one of the most well run festivals I’ve ever attended.
While it was all go from the start it didn’t take long for that erstwhile Crowman, Hillbill, to drop his guitar and double bass and head off more into his Lux Interior channeling, Thee Jenerators fronting, rock ‘n’ roll territory heading off into the crowd several times to dance, sing and drink with them, while he spent the rest of the time running and stomping around the stage like this was some kind of long distance race on a very small track.
The rest of the band went with this entirely with Shacks taking the reigns to steer them as much as possible, Jimmy being as energetic as he could while held comparatively in place by his guitar, mandolin or double bass and Tater keeping the beat fast and steady at the back.
As well as Hillbill’s antics the real highlight of the set for me came in the form of recently recruited fiddle player English Bob (aka Gregory Harrison) who here had some real opportunities to shine and rock the fiddle like I’ve never really seen anyone do and making some excellent noises with it while imbuing the instrument with some real rock ‘n’ roll emotion.
OK, so it may have been about as far from folk as the Sark Folk Festival is ever likely to get, but that didn’t stop the crowd becoming unglued and some of them even joining the band on stage for gang style backing vocals as the volunteers working at the back decided now was chance and got to dancing on the bar.
With an encore or two The John Wesley Stone helped the fifth Sark Folk Festival end on a massive high and their were tears and cheers as another festival came to an end but many were already talking of next years which is set to get going on Friday July 3rd 2015 with tickets going on sale in early November and I for one can’t wait!
Guernsey Gigs also put together this video with music by Robert J. Hunter:
Some of my photos were also used in The Guernsey Press on Thursday 1oth July along with Alex Warlow’s review: