In 2016 the Sark Roots Festival appeared on the Channel Islands scene, late in the season and looking in some way like a cross between the wildly successful Sark Folk Festival and the Vale Earth Fair, combining a diverse selection of musical acts with workshops on various earthy subjects and the idyllic setting of Sark – specifically a field to the north of the island overlooking Guernsey and Herm one way and Alderney and France the other.
I’ll admit that I was initially sceptical, while the music side looked good it didn’t seem to be anything we hadn’t seen at any of the other festivals happening around the Bailiwick over the summer and the other stuff, which to my mind looked like a lot of ‘hippy nonsense’ (to use the polite version of my commonly used phrase), looked like too much distraction from the music.
After good reports from pretty much everyone who went, and as I missed the 2017 Sark Folk Festival, I thought I’d give it a go for this year though and I have to say it failed to live up my original expectations in the best of ways.
Of course the location was spectacular – other than the destroyed vineyards and intentionally abandoned properties, where in Sark isn’t?
The set up of the field, while reminiscent of the folk festival, was rather more rustic and humble with extra additions of a play area including trampoline, tight ropes and a home-made climbing frame, several fire pits which would come into their own later in the evening and various tents and tipis where the weekend’s non-musical events would take place.
The main tent included a good-sized stage at one end and, slightly separate, a bar at the other selling a range of small brewery beers and ciders from Sark Brewery, Guernsey’s White Rock Brewery and Rocquette Cider.
So onto the music which began with a regular of pretty much all festivals in the islands, Ten Toe Hobo.
Delivering possibly a more blues tinged version of his usual busking style set he provided a relaxed start to the weekend that really captured the tone perfectly.
The set got more energetic as it went on with original song Loose Lips a favourite as always and Move On, another original track I’m sure I’d heard before, also sounding great and of course the song that has become something of his theme tune, Charlie Winston’s Like A Hobo being another highlight.
While a few bands and performers have come out of Sark over the years there was only one truly Sark based act on the bill here, Big Sheep.
Featuring the festival’s lead organisers Roz (ukulele) and Lazlo (bass) along with leader Dave (guitar and vocals), Ash (trumpet and vocals) and part-time Space Pirate Jess (fiddle) they presented their usual mix of original tunes and songs and a few made famous by The Levellers.
While there were a few points where it all became a bit of a mess when it coalesced they have a great sound, particularly with Roz’s vocals working alongside Dave’s to build some deeper tones.
For obvious reasons they were very warmly received and got the first dancers of the day up with a group of the island’s youngsters who seemed to be having a great time all weekend and gave the whole thing as much a community fair kind of feel as that of a festival.
The first of the weekend’s acts from Jersey was Sergeant Pipon’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (abbreviated to Sergeant Pipon on the programme).
They came across like a slightly more risqué answer to the The Space Pirates of Rocquaine with a foot a bit more firmly in rock ’n’ roll territory.
With songs of drinking, debauchery and other nocturnal activities, run through a filter of tunes sounding suspiciously like some familiar favourites, they were the first of the weekend’s band to get really irreverent and were great fun with it.
With the sun now set the tent was filling up for The Rectory Hill Skillet Lickers and, with them at full, eight-piece, strength on stage, the upbeat tones continued and they soon had a few dancing at the front.
Clem and Louis Brouard sharing the stage they added to the family feel of the festival while their brand of lo-fi, vintage, rag time sounded as good as ever.
Gemma Honey’s sweeter voice and Clem’s abrasive vocals played off each other brilliantly while a few songs previously heard from The John Wesley Stone were highly appreciated and Ash Jarman continued to show his ridiculous musical skill swapping from brass to some very finely played spoons!
With quite a sonic contrast Lord Vapour brought their fuzzy cosmic grooves fresh off their recent debut European tour.
With new material that builds on their past jammed out heavy psychedelia they built to huge crescendos and, while in the past they have sometimes felt rhythmically imbalanced they had a more measured pace here that saw them at their best driven by the relaxed but powerful drum work of Squirrel.
And, as Richey from The Reck’s pointed out, they all have great looking hair.
While Lord Vapour had got heads nodding it was The Pirates (formerly Pirate Party Brigade) from Jersey who really got the moving with the highly skankable punk ska energy.
As a party band par excellence they blasted through a set of infectiously energetic songs in tight and punchy fashion led by the brilliantly gritty charisma of Monty that provided a strong highlight of the first day.
And then came Sark (and Channel Island) favourites, The Recks…
Being undeniably in the party spirit on a technical level the band were just the wrong side of lose and ended up going about as all over the place as a band can while still sticking to a performance.
With that though they brought an amazing energy to the tent that ran into the crowd and back and it was one of those moments of everyone coming together in a way that defies conventional wisdom making for a rousingly raucous performance.
Ending on a take at old favourite Porcupine that was maybe a little too busked, their performance here suited the mood of the night and rounded off the first day of the festival in an appropriate style – oh, and Richey was wearing a very nice coat… (he might have told me to point that out).
After a raucous end to the first night my second day at the festival began (after a failed attempt at dodging some rain after breakfast) in much more sedate fashion with Blue Mountains.
Their relaxed and fun manner worked well to give their rather dark songs a lighter edge and they held the gradually growing crowd rapt.
Andrew Degnen added a ukulele to one song, along with his usual fiddle on the others, particularly Henry Lee which was reworked with a bigger lead violin part, and they debuted a brand new song about Sark as, they pointed out, it seems you can’t be a folk band in the islands without a song about the place, all before coming to a fine climax with Emmy Lou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl which was as evocative as always.
Things got a bit more groovy next with some upbeat indie from Jersey’s Axon Bower. While there wasn’t anything much new to their sound for a summer afternoon in a field it was spot on and brought some great vibes to the event as the sun looked set on staying out.
Continuing with an indie rock sound, but in a slightly different way, were Tantale.
Going acoustic for this more sedate event they mixed originals with covers from the likes of REM and Soundgarden and captured some of their usual psychedelic tones with a very chilled out feeling.
Added to this was the fact that they were playing with Jawbone’s Alex Childs on drums showing a very different side to her playing than in her regular band and putting in a stellar performance having only had two practices!
Lead by a relaxed Crowman, The Crowband took Sark Roots on a surreal flight of fancy that mixed folk, steampunk and music hall in a way unlike anything else.
With entertaining chat between the songs, things got more demented as the set went on with cultural reference points spanning everything from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to The Hangover via the small northern town of Pimbo, culminating in a singalong to Give Me Booze from their latest album to finish.
Things didn’t get much more conventional next as what Parish 13 took to the stage looking and acting like they could be residents of Royston Vasey.
While they started off looking and sounding like a gypsy/pirate novelty act, as they went on and people got on their feet it started to feel a little more organic with an interesting selection of songs including cover of Gogol Bordello and The Mad Caddies.
While it was hard to escape the feeling they were trying a bit too hard for the novelty factor they upped the energy in the tent well as we headed into the evening.
The piratical theme continued, albeit in slightly less of a forced fashion, with The Space Pirates of Rocquaine.
It took a couple of songs but they soon got the crowd involved with a set that was the perfect balance between their more restrained, family friendly, selves and their more rock ’n’ roll tendencies.
Rise sounded anthemic once again while SS Briseis brought a rowdy punk energy before they delivered an encore of Mr Le Goupillot to close the first highlight set of the weekend.
A grooving jam set the tone at the start before we spent an hour surfing the psychedelic waves with a strong garage heart.
The set and sound were different from their previous visit showing a band capable of quite some variety who all played off one another on stage excellently making for a tight and powerful performance that was the best I’ve seen from them and was another highlight of the festival.
With a lantern parade going on outside the tent remained packed for the big ska party of The Honest Crooks.
This band couldn’t be more suited to an event like this and the crowd was skanking from the start. With a selection of their own great songs making up the bulk of the set there were a few covers thrown in too but all were warmly greeted and the addition of trumpet player Danny on a few songs added an extra level to the ska punk sound.
With a longer set than expected they packed in the tracks and even got Henry from Lord Vapour up for kazoo duties on Gentlemen’s Dub Club’s High Grade (its safe to say he’s no Bobby Battle on the instrument but did drink a pint from a shoe as if to make up for that – I’m not sure why either), before the band closed their set with a big jammed out ending that got the a small pit going amongst the revellers at the front.
It seems only inevitable that after all that Buffalo Huddleston would close the show and they did it in just the fashion we’ve come to expect.
Their upbeat folk-hop had the audience going from the start and its hard to argue with the appeal of this band with new songs greeted as positively as more well-known ones building a great atmosphere in the tent that permeated out into the field leading to two encores, and there was a point where I wasn’t sure if the crowd would let the band leave the stage rounding off the second day on a real high as we relaxed around a fire pit watching distant lightning arcing across the sky.
As is probably to be expected the Sunday of the festival was a more relaxed affair but it was good to see that by lunchtime the site was getting busy and, with the sun well and truly out and it feeling like a summer’s day the field became the perfect place to relax and enjoy the afternoon.
Musically things got going with John Le Sauvage playing a mix of country and folk style songs in a chilled out fashion.
With an easy manner on stage he went down well spanning everything from Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues to Pulp’s Disco 2000 and Cranberries’ Zombie.
After letting their rock ’n’ roll side out the previous night The Space Pirates of Rocquaine (billed as The Bootleg Pirates) were back for something a little more sedate.
Starting out with a few solo and duo songs from Guppy, Lisa and Tim to set the mood before the full band, including extra vocals from Jess Nash on a few songs, took to the stage for a very different set to the previous night including their more folky songs.
They still found time for some upbeat moments though, like their take on Billy Bragg’s You Woke Up My Neighbourhood and their own Follies D’Amour before ending on an atmospherically slowed down version of The Witch of the Longfrie.
Boondoggle brought some jazzy acoustic pop the show and were much more relaxed on stage than when I’ve seen them in the past, capturing the mood excellently.
With a different combination of sounds thanks to Carrie’s great voice and Dennis’ clarinet and sax they stood out from the pack of acoustic artists currently on the scene in the islands.
With the boat calling I just had time to catch New Zealander Monty Bevins before heading off to the harbour and he continued the afternoon’s atmosphere with a soulful singer-songwriter style.
While young men with acoustic guitars are ten a penny he was in the upper set of those on the circuit, if not being truly remarkable, but sounded nice.
Sark Roots Festival then was in many ways exactly what I expected but in others nothing like I anticipated. With some great music on offer it all came packaged in probably the most laid back of any of the festivals in the islands and certainly left a strong impression, even on this sometimes jaded and cynical sort.