For as long as I can remember St James, the impressive looking former church on the main road into St Peter Port, has been the home of classical music in Guernsey with rarely anything even bordering on pop gracing its impressive main hall, or at least that’s the perception.
Over the last year this has begun to change as not only did Track Not Found hold their EP launch in one of its smaller rooms last December but a few other events have, slowly, begun bucking the traditional trend.
This was well and truly smashed over the last weekend of October 2018 as Sound Guernsey presented their first full festival event with three stages of live music over two days.
While Sound were instigated to provide live music events for under-18s this was open to all ages and the breadth of not just the music, but the audience, reflected this and, like other festivals Chaos, the Vale Earth Fair (both of whom were involved) and others, there was very much an ‘everyone welcome’ spirit to proceedings.
The task of kicking off the festival went to one of bands that have made their name at the regular Sound nights, made up as they are of audience members at those events, Vice.
Despite having a hard job being first on in the big, still fairly empty, hall they didn’t seem phased and launched into their set with their usual gusto.
While they still need to find exactly what it is that makes them what they are and embrace the power of the music they are aiming for, they put in a tight and enjoyable performance, and with a few songs from the Scott Pilgrim Vs The World soundtrack perfectly hit a certain side of modern teen angst.
Much focus can rightly be on the powerful vocals of Jessie Birch for me the real highlight player in the band here was guitarist Tiegan Thornborrow who showed a strong but understated presence along with a growing grit and power in her playing.
Second up was The Phantom Cosmonaut, so as usual there’s not a lot I can say about that other than to thank everyone who came to see us and we had a great time – and special tanks from me to Brett for being awesome on the drums over the last couple of years.
Then came the first real test of the sound in the notoriously awkward (for loud amplified, rock music) hall, Granite Wolf.
The five piece were as loud and intense as you might expect and, despite being a band usually fuelled by a rowdily drunken audience, played with all their usual power to this more subdued crowd.
A broken bass string led to a bit more chat than usual from frontman Shinfo but he carried it well, playing up the venue’s former life as a church, while a replacement was sourced before they continued to create a glorious wall of noise while evidently having a great time.
The highlight of the set came with closer Rock ‘N’ Roll Hound, that is a prime slice of heavy, groovy goodness.
WaterColour Matchbox continued the heaviness, in a slightly different way, next with their mix of technical hard rock and prog metal.
Frontman Peter Mitchell seemed more relaxed on stage than I remember seeing and, as always, bass player Scott Michel was the energetic focus.
New drummer Luke Corbin (also of From Darkness) seemed to fit right in, once again showing off huge skill and belying his youth.
Like Granite Wolf they kept the dedicated metal heads in the crowd more than happy while also clearly impressing others and their set closer with Shinfo on guest vocals finished things on a powerful high.
The doom groove beast that is Brunt rumbled into view next and proceeded to fill the venue with their deep, heavy, slow like molasses, brand of instrumental hard rock.
Playing maybe their most ‘conventional’ set in sometime their tracks oozed over the listeners in the hall and all you could do was go with it or get out the way.
For those that let it flow and dig what they do Brunt’s performance was another fine example of what they do with drummer Squirrel being possibly the most animated I’ve ever seen him behind the kit.
Lord Vapour were up next and, with their recent increase in more extended instrumental passages they seemed to be slowly becoming a more 70s and psychedelic influenced version of their sibling band Brunt.
As with the previous set it was drummer Squirrel who stole the show and, for me, the best parts of the set were where the trio headed into more structured territory of their earlier songs, particularly a great rendition of Island Man.
While their sound and style can, at times, be somewhat impenetrable to the uninitiated those who love it sure love it and showed that here while closer, the subtly titled Sugartits, remains a brilliant hard rocker.
Not only was this a big show for pop-punkers Burning At Both Ends because of the festival but also because it marked the release of their second full length album, Hail Apathy.
Apathy is not a word to describe their performance here though as it was one of their most upbeat and energetic in sometime with Peter Mitchell again seeming more relaxed and comfortable in stage than I can remember.
It may be their technical playing that is the stand out element of their performance, suitably given the heavier nature of their take on pop punk, rather than sense of pure joie de vivre some bands in their genre go for but they can’t easily be faulted and, as on their new album, Leave These Thoughts provided the set highlight.
Undeniably the most successful band to come out of Sound Guernsey’s events so far, and currently riding high as arguably one of the most successful on the island as a whole, Track Not Found seemed to once again take a big opportunity and seize it with all six of their hands here.
More controlled than I remember seeing them but without dropping any of their energy they put on a great show.
Both Grace (vocals and guitar) and Maisie (bass and vocals) showed yet more confidence at the front of the stage while Emma’s drumming continues to grow in precision and power.
Their set mixed new numbers with older tracks and while the newer material showed the band’s continued development some of the older tracks were greeted like old favourites showing this young trio have really hit in something special.
Down to a three-piece for tonight Tantale started out with some semi-acoustic sounds before heading into their usual fully electric territory, but all maintaining their strongly Pearl Jam and such grunge luminary influenced style.
Compared to usual the set had a more straightforward and groovy feel that was refreshing.
There were a few moments where the lack of the full band led to some wobbles but for the most part they carried it though with a surprising sense of fun and their usual great songs.
For a few of the bands on the bill this weekend marked a turning point, while for some that meant new material or new records, for others it was something a bit more final, as it was here for Static Alice who were marking their last gig (certainly for the foreseeable future).
With that in mind that launched into their set with a real sense of purpose and they had the audience in the now busy hall, with them from the off.
For a pop rock band Static Alice have proved surprisingly divisive at times but here they put in one of their best outings I can recall with a strong mix of old and new material spanning their five years and three records.
Ending on the raucous high of Warriors they were soon called back for a two song encore of Black Cadillac Man and then Hurricane making for a huge ending and its genuinely a shame to see them go.
With the hall good and busy it was time for the first night’s headliner, making a long-awaited return to the island, The Robert J Hunter Band.
With an amazing array of sounds and tones all packed into what they describe as ‘dirty blues’ the trio, completed by fellow islander James Le Huray (bass) and Greg Sheffield (drums), delivered huge sounding, tight and slick power blues for an hour or so.
While obviously having transcended that somewhat troubling description of being a ‘local’ band, now being based in London and gigging with professional regularity, their set here was probably the best I’ve seen from a band with their roots in the islands.
Rob is clearly not the young man from Alderney he once was, but enough of what inspired and drove him nearly a decade ago remains to make his tremendous presence strong and confident but never over bearing.
Mid-set slower track Preacher was the first of several ‘wow’ moments in the set of no frills dirty power blues and Flaws ended it on a massive note before they returned for an encore of old favourite Hurricane that closed the first night of Sound At St James on a storming and powerful high.
As is often the case with Sunday lunchtime at a festival the second day of Sound At St James began in relaxed fashion with a range of acoustic music.
The Peace Tent, which had landed in St James’ Dorey Room for the weekend complete with coffee, toasties and range of music and entertainment, began with a recorder band followed by a hurdy-gurdy and drum duo that kept many relaxing in the room entertained, and even got some dancing.
In the main hall at the same time father and son Glenn and Charlie Holmes played some acoustic tunes in their own styles. Glenn delivered so precision played bluesy number while Charlie delivered a few nicely relaxed atmosphere instrumentals.
The third stage was located in the upstairs cafe area with a range of acoustic acts across the weekend and, to kick off Sunday, they remained acoustic but with a little more grit as Ollie Goddard of Coastal Fire Dept played some of his band’s ‘grunge from the Vale’ style tracks that sounded just as good in this setting as with the full band (more of whom later).
The first of the announced acts on the man stage on Sunday afternoon was another who made their name at the Sound Guernsey events, Kiya Ashton.
Her confidence taking to the big stage was undeniable with her voice and guitar work sounding amazing in the space.
Highlights came with a cover of the Cranberries’ Zombie and her own song Sweet Decadence (as heard on the Out Of The Box album).
With their reputation beginning to grow Isle Stone took to the stage and set out to defy expectation with a selection of tracks ranging much further than when I’ve seen them in the past.
With a rocked up version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition and some nicely done Hendrix it was clear the band were aiming high but when they pulled out a cover of Schism by Tool they impressed more than a few fans of the prog-metallers in attendance and it was clear they had upped their game even more.
A couple of original tracks showed they are beginning to find their own voice, while guitarist Charlie Stevens, fresh from appearing on stage at Brixton Academy with Michigan funk band Vulfpeck, looked every bit the budding rock star.
After warming up on the acoustic stage earlier Ollie Goddard was back with Coastal Fire Dept in the main hall.
Once again the band’s 90s grunge influenced sound, tight playing and great songs couldn’t be faulted and they sounded great through the big PA, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that these sounds should be causing more of a reaction from the audience.
Maybe it’s something to do with the band, maybe it’s that it was Sunday afternoon or maybe it’s the lack of an instigator in the crowd but something feels missing from pushing them on to the next level.
A chaotic take on Molly’s Lips though closed the set in a raucous high, complete with flying mic stands.
Clameur De Haro were up next and, as usual, brought a great sense of fun to proceedings.
As with Coastal Fire Dept the audience seemed a little flat, which had an effect on the band’s energy but they still worked through it with highlights coming in Iron Pushang and the always enjoyable Happy Little Mr Sunshine.
Low energy was never going to be an issue for The Sacred Hearts as they launched into their set in high gear from the off.
Being one of only very few bands who’d played St James before, the last time being in 1990, they showed they are still as powerful today as they ever were and certainly came across as far from the nostalgia act a band reforming like they do might.
With Friend Of Mine dedicated to local drumming legend Colin Hewlett and a storming mash-up of Love Bomb and Hush to close, they set the theme for the evening of upbeat crowd pleasing sounds.
With the crowd now growing and warming up The Honest Crooks continued their trend of storming festivals in the island by having people at the front and dancing from the off.
With a performance that was just as good as we’ve come to expect the four-piece seemed to have plateaued at a high level with the likes of Rain & Shine, Stay Near and a cover of Sublime’s Doin’ Time providing the highlights amongst highlights as they head toward the long-awaited release of their debut EP.
As expected The Recks had the audience hooked and dancing straight away as they went on to once again deliver a set that upped the ante on both their already standard and that of the night.
Having had such a successful summer, and with more to come over the next few months, they have become a band it’s hard to find fault with and more than ever it seemed Richey Powers was intent on whipping both band and audience into a frenzy which peaked on set closer, Lights delivered in its full form.
Having last played the main hall of St James back in 1985, after which they were banned from the venue, The Risk were back for a rare outing in three-piece mod/power pop mode.
Slightly rough around the edges, the band carried it with their customary sense of humour and energy as they attracted a crowd ranging some who may well have been here in 1985 to some who had never experience d the band before.
With a set of hit after hit after hit it was non-stop dance along fun and set the scene for the headliners to follow nicely.
With the strains of Edith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien blasting through the PA, Of Empires took to the stage for one final time.
Having announced their split earlier in the summer the Brighton based but Guernsey founded rock ‘n’ rollers have spent the summer building up to this, with a Brighton farewell show a couple of weeks earlier.
Bolstered by extra members Charlie Sherborne on second guitar and Charlie Sinclair on occasional tambourine and backing vocals, the band sounded bigger than ever and were clearly out to have a good time.
Their brand of rock ‘n’ roll may be more about smooth grooves than raucous rocking but they delivered on this excellently with Jack Fletcher as swaggering and posing as ever as he owned the stage and held the audience rapt.
After a run through all their big tunes and a few other new ones besides, they closed the set on one of their earliest tracks, the Lost Boys inspired Carla, and they were joined by Andy Mason on harmonica and Josh Fletcher, who has done a lot of visual work for the band, on guitar.
With the stage packed and all cutting loose they ended the weekend, and their time as band, on gloriously triumphant note.
So two days, three stages and upwards of 40 different performers certainly made Sound At St James a real festival, and one timed brilliantly for autumn by being inside.
With more varied live music events lined up for the venue already I hope this is the start of a shift, opening up such a great hall for more styles of music and specifically I hope Sound At St James returns as it felt like a unique addition to the regular calendar that seemed to bring people together in celebration of the great music being made in the islands.