Salty Dog: Stradbally’s original pirate music ship

How Music Works: A boatload of scurvy musicians is a big port of call at Electric Picnic

All bands on deck: The Salty Dog stage at Electric Picnic

All bands on deck: The Salty Dog stage at Electric Picnic

 

Of all the attractions that have helped Electric Picnic become Ireland’s biggest festival over the past decade, the Salty Dog is among the most unique and longest-running offerings in Stradbally.  

The 40-tonne boat stage docked on dry land has become a haven for reprobates, delinquents, layabouts and storytellers – or musicians to you and me. 

“It began as a means of soaking up the crowds leaving the main festival and returning to the campsites so that they wouldn’t all return at the same time together,” says Hugo Jellett, who is part of the organising team that includes his wife Roz Jellett, his brother-in-law and stage manager Liam Mulvaney, and “the rest of the scurvy-ridden barnacle-magnets,” as they put it themselves. 

“We’ve really played into the sense of it being maverick – an outsider place,” says Jellett. Corralling the whole thing is The Captain, an alter-ego character of a deeply unsavoury type. “He’s unscrupulous and all he really wants to do is make as much loot as he can out of everyone and then scratch his arse for the rest of the year,” says Jellett.

As with any good ship, The Captain is in charge and has the final say in who can come aboard. He knows what music he likes. “The Captain doesn’t like singer-songwriters, generally speaking, and the Captain doesn’t do heavy metal,” says Jellett. “The Captain’s tried opera once or twice and didn’t like the look of them.”

Pool of talent

The Captain’s genre-flouting standards means that this year’s line-up will be drawn from the pool of nationwide talent, including Corner Boy, Otherkin, Stomptown Brass, Jinx Lennon, David Kitt, No Monster Club and The Pale.

“We’re fortunate by being a fringe stage that it doesn’t have to be brand new bands every year,” says Jellett, citing returning appearances from The Hot Sprockets, Graham Hopkins and the Salty Dog No Stars – the crew themselves who walk the plank by performing an album in full (This year, it’s The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St).

The Captain’s booking policy has developed since the first year. “We started out with it being more from roots-based music,” says Jellett. “There was a lot of folk in the early days and a lot of old Cajun or Southern music, and then as it sort of morphed into something a little bit bigger, we began to introduce what we called ‘dirty old rave’ at the end of the night.”

Seasick Steve performs on the Salty Dog stage: “There was a bit of a struggle getting him off.” Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Seasick Steve performs on the Salty Dog stage: “There was a bit of a struggle getting him off.” Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Jellett says the experience of playing on the deck of a boat is different for the artists. “You hear the whole sonic experience coming back at you from the trees,” he says. “In a traditional stage you hear your sound back off a couple of boxes in front of you. In the Salty Dog you hear everything reflected back off all the trees, the foliage, the woodland and with the crowd noise in it. It’s an extraordinary experience.”

Seasick Steve is one artist who would likely agree. As a genuine landlubber with a fear of maritime experiences, it was a chance for him to play on a boat when he appeared at the festival in 2010. “He said he’d come over and play three songs and then played for an hour and a half,” laughs Jellett. “There was a bit of a struggle getting him off.”

Dry dock

While last year’s Salty Dog involvement in a Rathmines venue that eventually became The Bowery didn’t work out as planned (“something went wrong along the way and then the locks were changed”) , this year’s Salty Dog at the festival will mark the first expansion to the area since former festival owner John Reynolds gave the team the money to transport a 40-tonne ship from a dry dock in Cobh in the middle of the night over 10 years ago.

Each year the boat gets a little bit more rotten and sinks a little bit further into the bed of the forest

 The harbour is coming to the boat, not vice versa. The expansion is based on a turn-of-the-century Amsterdam port, with new buildings and more activity.

“In that harbour there will be 40 or 50 actors, performers, musicians, fisherpeople, net makers and lobster pot menders and purveyors of every form of port-side antic from greed downwards. The aim is that it would have this real feeling of being what it’s like to be portside and all the noise and bustle that comes with it – that frisson of not quite knowing about a place when you land in it, and the edginess of it.”

Festival Republic boss Melvin Benn, who now owns the festival, is a big fan of the Salty Dog area and was keen to see the area expanded.  “He said it was one of his two favourite stages in the world and that was quite a boost for us coming from him.”

Jellett is keen to stress that the team, who all have day jobs outside of music, “were all just folks who wanted to build something”. Sourcing lobster pots, fisher people, oyster shuckers and other creators happened organically over the past year. 

“We’re not going to a prop shop and buying all this stuff and getting it delivered by the truckload. It’s just folks like you and I. And you know, each year the boat gets a little bit more rotten and sinks a little bit further into the bed of the forest but it wouldn’t really be an Electric Picnic without the Salty Dog around.”

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