There can’t be many music festivals in the world that begin with a boat ride along one of the most picturesquely craggy shorelines I’ve ever seen followed by a 15 minute climb up a wooded path to eventually bump into a mix of both friends and performers at the conveniently located pub at the summit. But, this is just the first of many things that make the annual Sark Folk Festival so unique.
Though the festival officially begins on Friday, it’s become something of a tradition for the build up to the event to really begin on the preceding evening. Those who’ve already pitched their tents or located their guest houses gather at the aforementioned pub, The Bel Air, and no doubt a few at The Mermaid, with instruments in hand to have what has become known as ‘a session’.
At the Bel Air there were a few going on with different groups playing tunes and anyone else welcome to join in, listen or just enjoy the atmosphere – and a lot of ‘atmosphere’ was enjoyed before a casual wander back to the camp site under the island’s spectacular star-filled, officially dark, skies.
The festival proper began on Friday afternoon with the site already busy as the first act stepped on the stage.
It’s become tradition for a long-standing member of Guernsey’s folk scene to kick things off and this year the honour fell to Scotts John, here backed by Rob Gregson on bass. John played a selection of 60s new-folk movement style songs with his acoustic guitar and Dylan-esque harmonica hung around his neck and had a friendly affable style that gave the feeling of a small folk club despite the bigger stage and environment.
The bass adding some extra depth to the solo acoustic sound and a highlight of John’s set was an original number he penned in 1976 upon his visit to Sark. Simply called Sark it had a lilting quality that entirely fitted the laid back air of the island (at least for us tourists).
After closing the festival in raucous fashion last year The John Wesley Stone were getting back to basics this time round on the smaller Tintageu Stage. Playing with lots of energy, as always, the tent soon filled with the audience spilling out up the hill and a few getting dancing – not a bad reaction for only the second act of the weekend!
As the set went on the country-skifflers changed things around a bit as drummer Tater took on guitar and vocals for a few songs and the energy continued to grow. Highlights came in the form of Get A Grip and Crack House Honey, and Hillbill getting himself and his guitar tangled with a mic stand as the band set the tone for a weekend of high energy, rousing, performances.
Back on the bigger stages, this time the Vermerette, Robert J. Hunter returned to the islands after last weekend’s triumph at Chaos, for an acoustic full band version of his set. Once again his blues was hugely powerful, just with a different tone that allowed different sounds to be highlighted and put a new spin on other songs.
With most numbers receiving huge applause Rob was supremely confident on stage and the band once again clicked together brilliantly with James Le Huray’s bass allowing Rob’s guitar to shine out and Greg Sheffield’s drums really swinging. Ending with an encore of Hurricane brought things to a big close and continued the already high quality of music on offer.
Next, over on the Alligande stage, there were jazzy, folky, acoustic sounds from Whose Shoes. Led by travelling troubadour Dave Etherington the band grew as the set went on with first violin, then bass, drums and finally accordion being added to the mix.
As ever the selection of songs was chosen to perfection with original number Loose Lips (penned at the first Sark Folk Festival) being a highlight but Charlie Winston’s Like A Hobo and Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning also standing out.
As a part-time band there were a few wobbly moments but these were largely carried thanks to the great songs and Dave’s always-engaging nature on stage.
After a break for some much-needed food, as ever the selection was huge but I went with the reliable folk festival staple of veggie noodles from The Harbour Café’s stand, I caught some of Kiss The Mistress’ upbeat and fun set of songs and tunes that really engaged the crowd and added a spin to a traditional sound.
After that I headed down to the smaller stages and caught the tail end of Jim Causley and James Dumbleton’s set which included a very nice song based on a poem called My Young Man’s A Cornishman, that I very much enjoyed.
My main reason for heading down to Les Burons stage was Blue Mountains. They were another band to draw a pretty big crowd down the field and, while it was possibly not their smoothest performance, it came with a lot of feeling, and the dying light as the sun set felt very appropriate for their murder ballads and other dark-tinged traditional songs.
The evening’s headliners on the ‘main’, Alligande, stage were Inverness five-piece The Elephant Sessions. As soon as they stepped on stage it was clear we were in for something a bit different as three members came armed like a standard rock band with electric guitar, electric bass and drums, while the other pair were carrying a mandolin and violin.
As the set kicked off the packed crowd was dancing right away to the instrumentals that melded a folk led sound with rock tones and dance beats to create a fantastic whole. With the mandolin and violin leading the way in a series of duels the band played a selection of traditionally-tinged original tunes packed with big dance beats that brought the first night of the festival to a rousing close.
The busiest day of the festival is always the middle day with music starting at 11am and running until 11:30pm and my day started off with Guernsey-born performer Beccy Elder on the Tintageu Stage. Leading a very low-key acoustic three-piece, Beccy’s light voice floating over the strains of a guitar and a cello started the day perfectly while a yoga session took place in the field outside.
The Alligande stage started in busy and energetic fashion, as Sark’s own folk band Big Sheep made their annual festival appearance. Mixing traditional songs, a few Levellers covers and originals the band consists of, seemingly, most of the island’s resident musicians along with The Space Pirate’s Jess Nash on fiddle.
The set was delivered with a light positivity with Ash Jarman’s trumpet elevating the songs and adding something extra to the band’s sound. Mention also has to go to Martin Mackintosh on drums for stepping in at literally the last-minute and keeping the beat admirably on a set of songs he’d not even heard before!
Hot on their heels The Crowman and the The Fiddling Pixie were on the Vermerette stage and delivered one of the most confident and assured performances I’ve seen from them. Throughout, the crowd were clapping and singing along which The Crowman seemed to feed on increasing in energy, and his own unique lunacy, as the set went on.
For the second part of the set a fuzz pedal was deployed adding to the steampunk garage-folk aesthetic of the whole thing. A particularly special moment came with an altered version of Mystery Train dedicated to Folk Festival stalwart Louis De Carteret and the set was rounded off by the not often heard Lucifer Lady.
Despite their new record, due for release to coincide with the festival, being held up in customs Ukuladeez weren’t deterred as they put on a great show on the Alligande Stage.
The six ‘ladeez’ and their three, so-called, ‘Ukuladee-boyz’ have developed their performance into a full show that is fun and engaging and featured some great harmonies and solo sections from all involved. Once again their new song about Facebook went down a storm and raised a lot of laughs in the busy tent and by the end of the set the band had people dancing at the front.
It might still be hipster-ish and jangly but it’s also tightly delivered and great fun and the Ukuladeez seem to treat Sark as the time to pull out all the stops and this year it really paid off as they prepare for a visit to the Fringe in Edinburgh.
Being predominantly based, and originally formed, in Sark makes this weekend something of a special one for alt-folk five-piece The Recks and, this year, they did something particularly special to mark that.
Adding a piano and cello to their usual range of instruments they started their set of with a selection of brand new, in their words ‘folkier’ songs. Certainly they were more folky compared to their usual mish-mash of jazz, dub, indie and any other style that takes their fancy but with that they certainly remained The Recks.
The once again packed in audience were certainly not expecting this to start with but most stayed and, as it went on, seemed to be very much enjoying the new material. Towards the end of the set things returned to business as usual and those at the front soon got moving before a highlight moment of the weekend as Ash Jarman took lead vocals for a frankly staggering rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.
With a reaction like they received for this they were soon back on stage for an encore of crowd pleaser Valentine that left the audience happy and warmed up for more great things to come.
By the time I’d made it over to the other stage the tent was once again packed for The Barley Dogs who sounded, from my vantage point outside the tent, like they were playing a great set, but the next band I got to see properly really did something special.
Since last summer Buffalo Huddleston have been on a seemingly ever-increasing high, in fact at Sark Folk Festival last July they seemed to have real watershed moment. In recognition of this not only was the tent busy but the crowd was on their feet and packed up against the stage a full fifteen minutes before the band came on.
From the off its clear that Buffalo Huddleston were in relaxed mode as they were once again joined by Becky Hamilton on violin and, following a few technical issues with the bass (that most of those packed in at the front seemed happy to ignore or not even notice) they proceeded to put in what has been widely discussed as being the set of the weekend and their career to date.
With every song greeted like a smash hit and most of them being sung back at the band, MC Jull-z described the noise coming from the crowd as a ‘wall of sound’ as the six-piece delivered a flawless and fun performance. Buffalo Huddleston may be a controversial act for the traditional folkies, but for everyone else they made for one of the most special moments I remember experiencing in music in the Bailiwick.
Having made their reputation on the streets of St. Peter Port on Saturday mornings The Rectory Hill Skillet Lickers busking band took to a stage for what may have been the first time and delivered a set of well pitch lo-fi country/bluegrass style songs (though I’ve since been informed it’s ‘ragtime and blues stomp’).
Led by Clem Brouard on guitar and an ingenious three-point stamping percussion system, the band’s set consisted of fun, stamp along songs with an edge that made it feel like anyone could do this (though with the talent evident on stage I suspect that’s not quite the case).
Midway through the set Clem, Louis, Shacks and Greg left the stage leaving James and Gemma, aka The Clapham Commoners, to deliver a few songs as a duo. While James Le Huray’s musical ability is evident simply from the range of styles and instruments he was playing over the weekend, appearing with The Barley Dogs, Robert J. Hunter, The John Wesley Stone and more, what really stood out in these songs was Gemma Honey’s voice.
While I had in the past heard her with Party In Paris, here a new side of her was revealed that mixed poppy tones with a classic, almost jazzy, style that impressed many at Les Burons stage, myself included.
Les Passagers Du Gawenn followed Buffalo Huddleston on the Vermertte Stage and kept it nice and busy and moving with their high energy, yet largely traditional sound – though they did add a drum kit the folk mix making for some very fun sounds.
With a reputation preceding them Orkney band The Chair had made a long journey for their headline slot taking in a gig the previous night in Belgium.
Though they had a more traditional in sound than the previous night’s headliners they were still extremely energetic and were another band to fuse traditional folk with a more modern edge with the inclusion of a standard ‘rock’ rhythm section of electric bass and drums.
I will admit that to my less well-trained ear for folk music The Chair’s music did get a bit same-y at times, but there’s no denying they got the crowd moving, were hugely tight and combined that with a highly engaging stage presence to round of Saturday night.
While Sunday is always the shortest day of the festival as things wind up so people can catch the boat home for a return to the real world on Monday morning, the last few years have seen it feature some real highlights, particularly last year’s sets from The Recks and CC Smugglers.
The music started early on the Vermerette Stage with Guernsey four-piece The Bee Charmers. Having come on in leaps and bounds since their debut a few months ago, the band provided a relaxing start to the day as Stu Ogier’s increased vocal presence nicely counterpointed Jo Lamb and Jojo Dowding’s harmonies on a range of interestingly chosen covers that wound up with an unexpected take on Nirvana’s All Apologies – I didn’t expect to hear that at the folk festival!
Celebrating their first birthday this weekend Clameur De Haro put in their tightest set to date that perfectly balanced their previous ‘novelty’ form with genuinely good songs and performance.
Another band who paid tribute to Louis De Carteret in song they delivered some nice bouncy, bluegrass and country tinged sounds with a mix of originals and unlikely covers including Black Sabbath’s Supernaut and The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love.
The highlight of their set though came in the form of new song Dear John, about Guernsey politician and all round ‘character’ John Gollop who joined ‘The Clams’ on stage for a dance.
Upon first hearing about what Badlabecques do I will admit to being skeptical – folk music all performed in the little spoken language of Jerriais (Jersey Norman French), I had trouble envisioning how this would translate into something more than an interesting novelty.
I am very happy to report though, I was proven wrong as the band played a selection of jaunty, fun tunes and songs including a translated Leonard Cohen number, traditional Jersey songs and songs written in the language during the Occupation that really brought the language to life and had me wishing someone could do similar with D’Gernesiais (Guernsey’s French ‘patois’) before it becomes extinct.
The final Sunday afternoon set of the festival has become something of a special one over the last few years with Hat Fitz & Cara Robinson and then The John Wesley Stone nearly bringing the tent down, so The Space Pirates of Rocquaine had a lot to live up to and it was clear from the off that they had set out with a point to prove.
Mixing new songs with old classics they brought the crowd to their feet from the start and seemed in their element throughout. Lisa Vidamour was in full on rock ‘n’ roll mode throwing shapes and interacting with the crowd and all the other members upped their game to match delivering the best performance I’ve seen from them in a very a long time.
Of the new material a highlight was The Hangmans, one of the band’s darker numbers that feels like a companion to The Varioufs. It was the sing-along favourites though that really brought the set to life with Creux Mahy, Sarnia Cherie and encore of The Witch of the Longfrie setting the tone and leading to a band having a great time tearing up the stage while the crowd did similar.
This brought the festival to a close on a high that mixed all that make’s Sark Folk Festival the special weekend it is as folk music, fun and a genuine family atmosphere all rolled together to keep revelers smiling as they made their way back to the boats (or for the lucky few to The Bel Air for what all reports suggest was a storming encore set from The Recks).
Here’s Guernsey Gigs’ highlights video of the weekend:
A selection of my photos appeared as a double page spread in The Guernsey Press on Tuesday 7th July: