Now into its seventh year the Sark Folk Festival continued its huge success on the weekend of 1st, 2nd and 3rd July 2016 after tickets officially sold out in less than half an hour the previous November.
With that in mind there was clearly a lot of expectation for the festival and with all accommodation and transport to Sark packed for the days around there was a real buzz on the island from my arrival on Thursday 30th June.
My review was published in The Guernsey Press on Saturday 9th July and you can see a full set of my photos from each day of the event on the BBC Introducing Guernsey Facebook page and my extended review is below the cutting.
After some wet and foggy weather put paid to the usual outdoor party and open music session at the Bel Air on Thursday night, this year’s Sark Folk Festival didn’t really get going until the festival gates opened on Friday afternoon.
In the past its been the Alligande Stage that has been home to the festival’s first acts but, in something of a sign of their new, more equal position, it was the smaller stages that heard the first music this year, in their new home of an amazing ‘double teepee’ style tent in the festival’s second field.
Under this new canvas long time festival performer Claire Rakich was first to step onto Les Burons stage with a mix of acoustic guitar and unaccompanied songs.
In these intimate surroundings Rakich’s voice was captivating and at its best when unadorned by accompaniment as she shifted from lighthearted and fun songs to genuinely haunting moments all delivered with a relaxed self-deprecating confidence that started the festival on an evocative high.
On the bigger stages a full strength, eight-piece, version of The Rectory Hill Skillet Lickers opened proceedings on the Vermerette Stage. With so many instruments in play this could have been a sonic disaster but credit to the sound team for getting a great sound and the Skillet Lickers for playing their rag-time street busking blues very well.
While many kept a bit of a distance in the already busy tent this was a great upbeat way to start things as the band played off one another excellently with Clem Brouard and Shacks leading the way, and they even had a washboard player today!
The more Americana end of folk continued on the Alligande stage with JD & Folk delivering a set of country-folk standards that were well performed if a bit flat after the somewhat manic energy of the Skillet Lickers.
Continuing their run of festival dates after Chaos the previous weekend and Dark Hollow the week before that, Blue Mountains returned to their spiritual home on Les Burons stage.
Unfortunately for much of the set Colleen Irven’s vocals were a little lost in the mix which lost the performance some of its power. The band was still highly enjoyable though, and delivered a wide set of songs ending with an excellent pure acoustic moment on the floor of the tent, in amongst the large crowd they’d drawn down the field.
One thing the Sark Folk Festival has always done is stretch the limits of the definition of folk and roots music and far as it can go and this year’s prime example of that were Guernsey alt-rock, indie, crew Wondergeist.
Despite the slightly out-of-place style, the laid back sounds the band made were spot on for the early evening slot and, had the sun been beating down like we all wished it were, I think they would have made even more of a mark. Nonetheless, with the tent packed – mostly it seemed for the music and not to avoid the weather – Wondergeist were a nice change of pace amongst the more acoustic and stripped back sounds on offer.
With people already standing while the band set up (and a few shouts for them to sit down by those seated further back) it was clear Robert J. Hunter and his band brought some expectation along with them – not surprising following last year’s excellent set here.
From the off they didn’t disappoint as they blasted out their brand of dirty blues, albeit in slightly more acoustic form than usual, with Hunter continuing to show why he has gained the reputation he has. With the tent packed this may not have been quite the stand out set last year’s was but it was still a highlight of the first day of the festival.
Dallahan brought things back down a little with set of much more traditional, mid-tempo folk that had an upbeat quality to it. The quintet played off each other very well, demonstrating a real musical chemistry, that, from about the half-way mark, started to get to the audience who began to get a little more lively.
There was no choice but to be lively to the infectious hybrid-folk sounds of Mad Dog Mcrea. With huge energy coming from the band they added a bit of a rock beat to their folky sounds that reminded me of Gogol Bordello in places (especially when they broke into Start Wearing Purple during their encore).
With the whole tent bouncing along to songs about pirates, unfortunate goldfish and more, the six-piece band’s folk ’n’ roll sounds provided my highlight of the first day.
The upbeat sounds only continued to round off the night with Monster Ceilidh Band who had the Alligande Stage tent packed to bursting and, mostly, dancing along throughout. Before I get to the band I feel the need to mention the line of people staunchly sitting in their plastic chairs in the midst of the tightly packed crowd. They may have been wanting to make a point about people standing up earlier, or simply not wanting to move, but it seemed they could easily have become a danger to themselves or others had the crowd surged in any direction as they are wont to do at events like this, anyway i digress….
Monster Ceilidh Band mixed live dance rhythms with traditional sounding ceilidh (Scottish and Irish dancing) tunes in another kind of hybrid-folk. For the first half of the set I was a bit worried this would all become a bit same-y to my untrained ear, but as it went on the band varied and mixed the sounds up with elements of drum ’n’ bass to keep it varied, interesting and above all huge, culminating in a tune dedicated their drum ’n’ bass hero Andy C.
With two encores called for and delivered Monster Ceilidh Band rounded off the first day of the festival on a high and with the sort of crowd that we’re used to seeing for the typically more busy Saturday night.
With more than 12 hours of music on offer the second day of Sark Folk Festival could be compared to the musical equivalent of a marathon so its nice that it got going in relaxed form with an informal circle singing group in the open air before the music on the stages began.
Sark’s own harbour master, Peter Gabriel Byrne, and his band were first on stage with some light acoustic balladry that continued the relaxed ‘early’ feel. As is to be expected the rotating cast of musicians from Sark is limited but former Recks trumpeter Ash Jarman and others showed a real variety to their playing as they made appearances across the weekend.
Getting together seemingly once a year in an official capacity Whose Shoes are always a bit of a treat and this year was no exception. Led by Dave Etherington, this year celebrating his birthday and literally heading directly from his tent to the stage, his loose vibe leading the band makes for a hugely enjoyable style of busking blues.
With insistent, upbeat rhythms throughout and Sarah Van Vlymen’s violin providing some nice leads there were many highlights but renditions of Like A Hobo, Whiskey Train, It Gets There Slow and encore of original song Loose Lips were some fine early highlights of the day.
After much travelling and working on her debut album Guernsey singer songwriter Nessi Gomes made her Sark Folk Festival debut on the Tintageu Stage with a set of captivating, classical guitar accompanied, songs. Her enchanting voice and guitar playing had those in the tent and gathered on the slope outside in rapt silence making for another moment like only this festival can deliver.
As the cliché goes, from the sublime to the ridiculous, as Clameur De Haro marked their third birthday on the Vermerette Stage by launching into a folked up take on Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild.
Its impossible not to have a good time when this band are playing and they got people dancing early on in the day and had the tent packed for a set that included everything from a guest appearance by Deputy John Gollop to a stage dive from cajon player Shifty making for a show guaranteed to make you smile and have tunes stuck in your head for days to come.
Back on more of an even keel Jerseyman Kevin Pallot brought the Saturday afternoon back to a slightly more relaxed feel with his three-piece band. The trio delivered a selection of rhythmically powerful folk pop that had something to say and showed another side of this regular festival performer’s work away from the past full band material I’ve heard.
In the slot reserved in the past for The Barley Dogs, their spiritual successor The Laird’s Chair made their Sark Folk Festival debut. Taking on the more traditional folk side of what the Barley’s did the quartet struggled a little with a broken fiddle string early on but recovered to deliver a fine set of songs and tunes.
Despite battling some issues with onstage feedback (a regular occurrence on the Alligande stage it seemed) the Gren Bartley Band delivered a set of nice relaxed pop-y folk music that was nice and easy to listen to but never really seemed to go anywhere.
A regular fixture at the festival The Crowman and The Fiddling Pixie had a good-sized crowd down at the Tintageu Stage. Starting with a few of their more folky songs which show an often overlooked depth to Crowman’s writing, it wasn’t long before the garage side of the self-described ‘garage-folk’ sound started to come through but the audience revelled in all of it, singing along to the likes of The Robert Johnson Resurrection Blues with gusto.
With a crowd already gathered while they were setting up, festival regulars The Space Pirates of Rocquaine had even more to bring to their performance this year as they were marking the release of their second album, Vraic & Roll. With Lisa ‘Rocqchick’ Vidamour in full on ‘rock star mode’ throughout, the band delivered what is probably their best set to date mixing the energy of last year’s show stealing closing set with slightly more considered playing to hit a sweet spot between the two.
Along with Lisa a standout point was the power Moxie’s drumming brings to the band that has transformed them somewhat into a more definitely folk-rock act that has real cross generational appeal. With the crowd clapping and singing along highlights came with the likes of Cruex Mahy, Prosperity and Folk Everything amongst others culminating in an encore of Mr Le Goupillot all making for possibly the performance of the festival.
Due to the timings on the Vermerette and Alligande stage having slipped a bit I was only able to catch a small section of O’Hooley & Tidow’s performance but it sounded as excellent as we have come to expect from these regular visitors. With genuinely touching and impassioned moments alongside songs like their ode to small Yorkshire breweries, Summat’s Brewin’ , the duo who span folk and anarchy are truly worth seeking out.
As I headed down to the teepee stages Gregory Harrison was in full swing in front of a large crowd with his soulful bluesy songs coming across as well as I’ve ever heard and getting a very positive reception. This led to an encore in the form of a timely rendition of John Martyn’s I Don’t Want To Know About Evil with an amazing sing along.
Having been away for a few years (aside from visits with his garage rock band The Electric Shakes) Burg, AKA Steve Lynch, made his return to the Sark Folk Festival with new band members AJ (gob irons and backing vocals) and Olly (upright bass) in tow. Building on Burg’s stripped back americana/country/folk sound the trio delivered some slow and loose grooves that would be perfect for a hot day but also fit surprisingly well on this chilly summer night.
While Burg’s playing and delivery was, as ever, second to none, AJ played his harmonica like I’ve not seen before with real dynamics from the sound of a steam train down to haunting atmospherics and for the one song he took lead vocals, a rendition of Coming Home originally by Dallas Green, many heralded him as one of the best voices of the weekend. The trio were join by Becky Hamilton on fiddle for a couple of songs just adding more to the southern vibes and with the crowd singing along in the intimate tent it made for my standout performance of the weekend.
For the second night in a row the Alligande Stage tent was standing room only as people packed in to catch another returning act, Hat Fitz & Cara Robinson. The Australian/Irish duo played a set of their more upbeat bluesy material that came with a presence that filled the tent and a huge amount of onstage chemistry that helped the already great songs sound even better.
Fitz was amazing to watch from a playing perspective as his guitar seemed to be an extension of himself while Cara had a similar connection with her drums but then added to it with washboard, flute and whistle while both wailed out soulful heartfelt vocals as well. With enough dynamic across the set to keep it hugely engrossing they invited Ash Jarman on stage for final track Power and a much called for encore that rounded off the second day of the Festival on possibly its all round highest point to date.
After such a full on Saturday the final day of the Sark Folk Festival is, for the most part, a far more relaxed affair and it started off with a small crowd who’d braved the morning rain listening to Guernsey folk stalwart Scotts John.
Coming from the 60s new folk tradition John tells stories with his songs that are always worth hearing highlighted here by his song Sark, written in his native Glasgow in 1977, after his first visit to the island, its amazing it’s now getting played back on the island that inspired it.
Sark’s own folk band, Big Sheep, started to liven things up a bit on the Alligande Stage. Led by local shepherd Dave and his ever revolving group of musicians, including former Recks Barney and Ash and Jess of The Space Pirates, they mixed original tunes and songs with numbers by the likes of Joni Mitchell and The Levellers.
Across the set they built the energy and if you focussed on stage you could forget the weather outside and be transported to a nicely relaxed, sunny summer’s day. While a bit scrappy in places as they aren’t a full time band they still play well together and it wouldn’t be Sark Folk Festival without them.
Having travelled from Shetland Ross Couper and Tom Oakes started out by trying to get their audience on their feet but realised it was going to take a bit more work, so dived into a set of lively instrumental tunes on guitar and fiddle. After a while a few did start to get to their feet and it was clear that this pleased the duo, but either way their music was great clap along stuff backed up by some excellent chat between songs that perfectly suited the relaxed atmosphere.
While The Vraic Gatherers played their usual Sunday afternoon set on the Vermerette Stage the Alligande side of the tent was quickly filling up in anticipation of the final band of the weekend, Buffalo Huddleston.
With violinist Becky Hamilton back the band mixed things up somewhat starting out with the original trio of Becky, Sarah Van Vlymen and Mike Meinke delivering a few of their early songs before being joined by the rest of the band. This gave the set a nice build that the audience rode into a frenzy singing and dancing along for over an hour.
With most of the songs being sung back at the band the amazing popularity of Buffalo Huddleston was evident and fantastic to see for a band from the islands playing their own music.
As I headed back to the harbour I could hear the band’s encore across the valley and closer Sunrise sounded huge with the crowd’s singing audible as well, rounding off what had been a great festival on an insurmountable high – I don’t envy the organisers trying to top this festival next year!