For the last few years the new year of live music in Guernsey has really got going with the Vale Earth Fair’s ‘unplugged’ nights at The Fermain Tavern where as many acts as they can squeeze in play acoustic (or semi-acoustic) sets in a showcase style event of non-stop live music.
Once again Tantale drummer Graham Duerden was compere of the night doing his best Jools Holland impression while hyping up each of the acts and the first was one launching his debut album – Ramblin’ Nick Mann.
While some of his songs feel a bit half-formed this was the most together performance I’ve seen from him – his homemade guitar even worked for the whole set. With a slightly knowing nod he grabbed the attention of those who wanted to be grabbed and, other than the indignity of the bass player from the next band tuning up while Nick was still playing, it was a good fun set paying homage to old blues with a unique twist.
With their bass tuned up, new band, Borderline Puppets, were first on the ‘main stage’. They delivered a set of suitably raw, grungy, acoustic rock including a mix of covers and originals drawing on the sound of the mid-1990s.
While the very nature of the music is rough and ready, they fell just the wrong side of this and came across as slightly unrehearsed and reliant on a book perched on a stool between guitarist/vocalist Danny Machon and vocalist L-J Turnbull.
As the set went on they seemed to relax into it somewhat and for a first gig by a brand new band it certainly could have been worse and it’ll be good to see another band inspired by these sounds develop.
Another relatively new band were up next, and it was my first time catching them live, Wondergeist. On record they feature a range of guest artists but live they are an acoustic duo and their brand of indie-folk suits that well. Between Steve Wickins and Peter Gilliver they have a good contrast of sound and style which work together well, Steve playing with a laid back air and Peter a much more intense, jittery presence.
Later in the set Wondergeist were joined for a few songs by Gregory Harrison on the violin which added some extra dynamic to the set that went down well with those on the now busy ‘dancefloor’ area at the Tav.
Over the years at these unplugged nights some bands take their usual set and change it around to fit a more acoustic style, others however just do what they usually do on less amplified instruments, and it was this second option that Honest Crooks chose to go with.
In this case that worked just fine as they had the dancefloor packed with gently jigging and skanking bodies as Raddy strummed his acoustic guitar and Andy bashed the cajon, rather than a full drum kit, in particularly effective style. Otherwise things were pretty much as we’ve come to expect from Honest Crooks as they continue their rapid ascent in popularity.
Gregory Harrison had hoped to be launching his new EP tonight but the physical copies of it had yet to arrive, but he didn’t let that stop him as he delivered a set of his acoustic, modern-folk inspired, songs that not only went down well as he played, but had many talking afterwards as well.
As always Harrison’s rich, soulful voice was an immediate highlight of his performance and this combined with some fine technical guitar displays to grab the attention of the increasingly noisy audience.
The subject of noisy audiences has come up a few times over the years, particularly in relation to folk gigs and at the Sark Folk Festival, and for the most part it’s not something that has bothered me – after all most of these events are social occasions as well as music events.
Here though things seemed to go a little too far the wrong way at times with audiences members not just chatting at the back or getting raucously involved with the music but being actively (if probably not intentionally) disrespectful of the performers and other audience members.
While Honest Crooks earlier in the night had just played what they normally do on acoustic instruments, grunge-rockers SugarSlam went the other way and slightly rearranged some of their material to fit the nights ‘unplugged’ feel.
Being their first acoustic based show in their near 30 year history it worked rather well, particularly as it showcased a bit more of the power-pop aspect of their sound, doing what gigs like this should in exposing the other side of the same coin, so to speak.
As well as new numbers State and Luck from their upcoming EP, the band played a few old classics, including Wonders from their early 90s debut record that hasn’t been heard live since then, along with a great cover of Sacred Hearts’ Adorable.
This was before rounding the set off, in tribute to Lemmy and Philty Animal Taylor, with a run at Ace of Spades that saw drummer Brett’s ‘Cool Rod’ drumsticks splinter with a good dose of speed-country-rock’n’roll.
Regular visitor to the Vale Earth Fair, Grant Sharkey was back next introducing seemingly every song with the line, “This is a song about the 2008 financial crisis”. As always his loyal group of fans were down the front and lapping up his mix of humour, songs and politics, while the rest in attendance found a lot to like as well.
When limited to a specific set time Grant is at his best as it leaves less time for the political points to shift from thought-provoking to hectoring and the limitations of one man and a double-bass become less obvious – though Grant always does a lot more with that combination than most would think possible.
This led to an enjoyable set that, while not quite as fun and engaging as his last visit to Guernsey just before Christmas, was still good and had the crowd singing along as well as earning an encore in the form of ‘the Onesie song’.
Having enjoyed their outing at Chaos back in the summer I was looking forward to see what Near Bliss’ take of Nirvana unplugged might be, but, from the off it was clear this wouldn’t be quite the classic that performance was. As great as much of Nirvana’s music is, it would be very hard to argue that it is particularly happy, so when, early in the set, Near Bliss frontman Steve Wickins grinned his way through Rape Me, it was clear things were on shaky ground.
Added to this the three-piece hadn’t done anything to rework their sound other than Steve playing an acoustic guitar which left the drums thundering over the top in far too heavy fashion, while showing the gaps that can be found when fuzz and distortion are removed from grunge without other augmentation.
While those on the dancefloor seemed to be enjoying themselves with the familiar songs, the rest of the venue emptied as the over-long set went on and Near Bliss’ performance grew looser until it climaxed with a sloppy take on Smells Like Teen Spirit to close the show.
While it may not have ended on a high, the Vale Earth Fair’s unplugged night was one of their busiest fundraising events I remember in some time and, with this being their 40th anniversary year, set things off to a great start in the build up to the August Bank Holiday weekend festival.