Island haven's eclectic event
Primal Scream on stage at Guernsey Festival of Performing Arts 2011

What do you know about Guernsey? Something about Matt Le Tissier, Nazi occupations and cows? Same here, so when we heard that Primal Scream, Example, Lissie, Goldie, Chipmunk and the 12 year-old drummer from Britain’s Got Talent were all heading over for the weekend, we climbed aboard a cosy little propeller plane, took a half-hour jaunt across the channel (you should have seen how quickly those stewardesses got their duty-free down the aisles) and were soon looking over a gorgeous harbour with a couple of random members of The Go! Team.

Turns out the island is a few square miles of heaven – you actually need a special license to live here – with it’s own quasi-government and its own rules: no VAT, for instance, which is very handy in the pub. Now they have their own proper festival, which also plays by its own rules, hence the line-up is intriguing…

Day One

You often hear festival bills described as ‘eclectic’ – isn’t that kind of the point of festivals really? – but the Guernsey promoters have clearly tried to include every age group when organising this fest, from currently-huge pop acts to underground hip-hoppers, big main-stagers to, yes, a couple of talent show alumni. Sadly we miss young BGT drummer Kieran Gaffney, who was rather impressive by all accounts, but do share a cab with big time DJ Darius Syrossian, who could have been doing heftier gigs this weekend but was also keen to check out this channel island. He recommends a look at the volcanic rocks along the coast before we get going, and he’s not wrong.

Over to the first ‘name’ act on the main stage and it’s taken me an age to realise that ‘Hayseed Dixie’ is a country bastardisation of ‘ACDC’, given that this is exactly what the hairy Yanks do for a living: bastardise metal songs in a hillbilly fashion. The jokey juxtaposition doesn’t always work when the songs are too obscure but occasionally they pull off a pearler, and a euphoric version of Bohemian Rhapsody makes you wonder why Brian May didn’t switch to banjo years ago.

Backstage they’re giving out what look like quails’ eggs and fretting slightly about where the next big draw, Chipmunk, might be, as an awkward gap begins to form in the main stage schedule. Ah, the joys of running a festival. The Go! Team eventually emerge and, after a slightly muted start due to all the punters having wandered off during the extended interval, they drag people back in and bring everything to a great big rock ‘n’ roll crescendo. Then compère Janice Long announces the rest of the evening’s line-up, and one significant omission. “Fuck you Chipmunk!” shouts a disgruntled bloke up the back.

Time to cool off at the little Get Down stage, which welcomes a couple of alumni from Brighton’s Tru Thoughts label, who’ve since moved rather a long way from the south coast. Quantic has been residing in Columbia and plays a dance-friendly clutch of obscure old vinyl sevens that he’s picked up on his global travels. Simon ‘Bonobo’ Green, meanwhile, now lives in New York and is a bit concerned how his full band will fit onto the tiny stage, which is basically some scaffolding with a floor. No worries though, they operate a roll-on, roll-off system with a singer and flautist coming and going when required, then the whole band head off for a smoke while Green and the drummer indulge in an impressive laptop-breaks-and-beats battle. With the rolling hills behind this corner of the site is a grand but intimate setting for the trademark Green melodies, and full marks to the good people at Access Scaffolding for the pipework.

In recent weeks Frank Turner has gone from little-known folk-punk to a fixture in the album charts, and his chant-along anthems go down very well indeed in the big tent, even when he admits to having once enjoyed a gig in Jersey (much booing). It’s all good-natured stuff, and during the requisite band introductions he saves a special one for last: the bloke who has been following him around all weekend. “The guys who organised this festival decided I needed security, because I’m so fucking dangerous,” he says, before bringing said bodyguard out for a round of applause. Clearly still bemused by his new rock star status, Turner then tries to get the whole tent singing along, “even the security guys who have no fucking idea who I am.” To be fair to them, most people had no idea who he was until recently.

Earlier on Clash had been accosted by a couple of not-particularly-youthful ladies in Girl Guide outfits (performance art types, presumably) who gave us a badge and had a crack at Ocean Colour Scene’s best- known single in an amusingly misguided fashion: “I See Trevor, Up Ahead.”

The ‘Scene wouldn’t be our first choice for main-stage headliners, but then there are a lot of blokes of a certain age on the island. OCS kick off with the aforementioned rifftastic ‘Riverboat Song’ then get the old Britpop fans bopping with a few other well-known singles, before frontman Simon Fowler announces a track from their most recent album and we make a break for Seb Fontaine in the dance tent. That 30-second departure from dadrock to dance is like a microcosm of the musical years 1998-2001, when you think about it.

Day Two

One novel aspect of the first Guernsey fest is a free-for-all area outside the main entrance with its own concession stalls, a bloody great reverse bungee-jump fairground ride thing and the Chaos Stage, on which umpteen local bands have been booked. Sadly we seem to always catch their soundchecks whenever venturing off-site, but do witness one Guernsey band on the main stage early on Sunday afternoon, and it’s another novel festival experience. Actually only Zero One Zero’s frontman James Sinclair-Scott is native to the island and he now lives on the mainland, where the band have been snapped up by one of the more heavyweight management companies. In recent weeks, however, it seems they’ve gained a sizeable following here, in one particular niche market.

Enter the main tent during their set and there’s the usual groups of mid-afternoon punters dotted about, until you get nearer the barriers where a great gaggle of young teens – mostly girls – are packed in three rows deep, screaming, bouncing declaring their undying love and taking extremely shaky video footage. “The festival brought us over a few weeks ago, to play in the secondary schools,”explains Sinclair-Scott. “The great thing about a small island, by the time we got to the last school they knew about us, they turned up with pictures for us to sign, it really spread. We’ve got a real following here now. Did you see the girls with the Zero One Zero T-shirts? They made those. We’re thinking of doing a tour of schools in the UK now.”

He admits that it’s usually tough for bands on the island due to the lack of venues, but they’re planning to return regularly now that this fanbase is in place – you can’t beat having screaming girls at your gigs five months in – and they even do a post-gig signing-and-photo session. As for the show itself, Sinclair- Scott is an engaging presence, with hints of Axl Rose vocally, albeit also a bit of Mika image-wise (mostly just the hair, in fairness) and they channel more Axl ‘n’ Slash with an impressive stab at ‘Live and Let Die’ late on. Some of the chaps backstage are under the impression that the PA is playing the Guns ‘n’ Roses version, which is quite a compliment.

There’s a bit of déjà vu next as another great hole engulfs the main stage line-up when US rock starlet Lissie fails to show, but the tent begins to fill up anyway as there’s clearly enormous enthusiasm for Example, who’s up next. Perhaps wary of the Mika business his career picked up no end when he cut off the curly locks – well, that and switching to trance-pop – and the tent goes absolutely Beyonce-at- Glastonbury mental. It’s a good policy, booking artists who’ll have a massive number one hit the week before the festival.

In search of proper hip-hop, though, we head off to the Get Down stage where some more admirable booking has gone down. The likes of Marcus Intalex and Goldie will showcase two generations of drum and bass here later, but now it’s underrated Brit-rapper Jehst - often described as a poet by those who know it – with hype-help from fellow UK MC Micall Parknsn.

Witty souls, they turn the small stage and small crowd into prime comedy – hey, they’re used to it – and bemoan one disadvantage of island life. “It’s very expensive to smoke a Camberwell Carrot round here innit,” says Jehst, while Parknsn continues the theme for the local coppers looking on. “I like to smoke weed. Sorry police but I got three kids, I gotta bung summat.” Jehst then does his bit for crime prevention with a splendid bit of spoken word that initially sounds like classic ganster bravado about robbing banks but winds up with everyone getting nicked. “And that’s the moral of that tale…”

A change of pace on the main stage now as Springsteen protégés The Gaslight Anthem rattle through some warm, well-crafted and welcoming folk-rock. Then frontman Brian Fallon has to go and bring up Jersey. “You hate them?” Big cheer. “What happened? Did someone date somebody’s sister?”

After that the rest of the site rapidly begins to empty – Goldie ends up playing to about five times less people than Jehst and Parknsn managed earlier – as it’s time for Screamadelica. “The first rock band in Guernsey since 1945” joshes Bobby Gillespie, chuckling to himself, but no-one really minds. This is music-watching bordering on worship, as a lot of 40 year-old couples dance like they haven’t danced in years (ecstasy is probably quite hard to come by here too) and the young’uns gradually get what the fuss is all about. By the end, and Come Together, Bob has lost control, the locals are in full choir mode and aren’t stopping until they’re good and ready.

It’s a lovely sight. It’s a lovely place. Rock on, Guernsey.

Words by Si Hawkins

View a photo gallery from the Guernsey Festival of Performing Arts 2011 HERE.

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