Bearded Theory Festival 2013 – review

Asian Dub Foundation

Bearded Theory Festival 2013
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
17-19th May 2013

Having just returned from the Bearded Theory Festival it seems difficult to comprehend that this year’s event was in fact only the 6th occasion it has been held; such is the level of organisation and diversity of both music and on-site activities you would be forgiven for (wrongly) assuming that the festival had been running for many, many years and was neatly cocooned under a huge multi-national corporate banner.

Bearded Theory has in its short existence captured the true spirit of a UK music festival where musical diversity is encouraged along with community and comradeship; this is down to the small but truly dedicated team of organisers who have repeatedly shunned the safe meal ticket offered by drinks manufacturers and the like.

Instead Bearded Theory self funds from ticket sales; as such festival goers are offered bands from all genres regardless of PR campaigns and alleged critical release schedules…2013 was to be no different.

Once again set within the grounds of the magnificent Kedleston Hall, the main stage and arena back dropped by a lake and ornate waterfall; the setting is idyllic and not sullied by the usual array of enormo flags advising you to guzzle shite lager and dial people cheap rate in far flung countries of the world.

Five stages are carefully arranged, each connected by an array of market stalls which are interspersed by a huge range of free activities on offer for children both big and small which included wood carving, potters wheels, zorbing, drum workshops, and busking points where, if you felt brave enough, you could compete with the listed bands.

We arrive on Friday and set up base camp with the sounds of Liverpool’s The Hummingbirds wafting across from the Main Stage, I’d seen them a week or so previously at the launch of The Liverpool Music Awards within the city’s Town Hall. Their jangly guitar indie-pop is not really my thing, but certainly provides acceptable accompaniment as we hastily set up the tent…one eye on the darkening sky – the forecast had suggested rain on both the Friday and Saturday.

Apparently The National Trust had shrunk the festival footprint this year, which added to the ‘village’ type atmosphere, all the usual stages are present; Magical Sounds Dance Tent which despite the early hour is banging out tunes rarely heard before 4am in most venues; Tornado Town is busy – might have something to do with the fact it’s entirely covered; despite the overcast weather all the stalls are busy, the huge Angel Fields children’s area is a hive of activity, when suddenly the excited squeals of the pin-balling kids is drowned out by the Magners-fuelled mayhem that is once more Neds Atomic Dustbin. The crowd, no doubt similarly fuelled by Magners, respond accordingly, the majority of the hits are belted out Kill Your Television, Happy, Trust and Stuck – what’s with all the single word titles?

All of which suitably prepares the crowd for the arrival of New Model Army, as they step out onto the Main Stage, a sea of arms opens to welcome them, the same sea resplendent in a 1000+ NMA t-shirts. One of the great festival bands they tear through their 60 minute set, special mention to Justin Sullivan who introduces Today Is A Good Day by pointing out that Margaret Thatcher died on his birthday and remarking “sometimes you do get what you want”. It wasn’t just Justin, the crowd tonight got what they wanted, and got it by the skip-full.

Didn’t really fancy Reverend & The Makers so took a wander around, the Magical Sounds tent is literally bouncing, it’s as if someone had transported Manumission to a Derbyshire field but forgot to tell the punters. For those foolish enough the helter-skelter and carousel are ensuring that all that cider, burgers and other ingredients are suitably whisked to provide visuals throughout the night…at which point we retire to bed.

Saturday morning; it clearly rained overnight though the ground looks to have stood up well to the onslaught, though the prediction is for more rain. Once breakfast is defeated, a battle plan is drawn up; there might only be five stages but a level of planning is required to avoid those clashes. I circle Bootscraper who are set to appear at Tornado Town, having loved their self-titled 2012 debut album (buy it at TNS Records) I was delighted that their maelstrom of mandolin and banjo effortlessly transfers to the live stage; gypsy punk/aggro-folk music at its very best!

Ruts DC are on the Main Stage, playing as a four-piece minus second vocalist Molara who was bottled at a gig only a week or so back, despite this Ruts DC are tight and unleash a deep bass driven groove across the entire arena, Leigh’s guitar countering the dub vibes. It’s a festival so we get the hits Staring At The Rude Boys and Babylon’s Burning but we also get Jah War and a couple from the current album Rhythm Collision Vol 2 the entire set a blend of the bands punk roots and modern clean digital dub.

Reggae was clearly the theme for Saturday afternoon as Macka B takes to the stage to deliver his gravel voiced exultations to Jah; smooth flowing political British reggae drawing from both his current Change The World album to the previous 2008 released ‘More Knowledge’.

I manage to catch a couple of tracks by Frenzy, I recall seeing them couple of times back in the ’80’s rockabilly hey-day; they might not have the quiffs anymore but they certainly have the songs, slap bass-fuelled rock n’ roll. Citizen Fish are over on the Main Stage, their brass driven anarcho rants get the front rows skanking though no-one can hope to keep up with Dick as he hurls himself around the stage bellowing anti-everything diatribes.

Back to Tornado Town, complete with inflatable storm clouds and lightning bolts suspended from the roof, and to witness one of the weirdest bands of the weekend, the oddly named Tankus The Henge. Centre stage an upright piano literally with whistles attached; hammering away on the keys whilst bellowing into an old Bakelite telephone is a bloke who seems to have come dressed a la Gene Wilder whilst filming the original Willy Wonka (the wardrobe assistant was possibly a goth); whilst trying to formulate some sort of understanding I realise that said piano is also a smoke machine; things are getting very weird.

We return to base camp, fire up the Campingaz stove and after 15mins serve up a pretty decent chilli…courtesy of Stagg (other manufacturers are available) and the invention of boil-in-the bag rice, all the while The Quireboys are entertaining the crowds on the Main Stage…again not my thing so dinner came at an ideal moment.

Suitably refreshed its back to Tornado Town for the dirty rock & roll peddled by Pussycat & The Dirty Johnsons; Pussycat taunting the audience with her salacious approach to get amongst them. On stage The Johnsons hammer out their hook driven grimey rock n’ roll, all of which suitably built the expectation for the headliners Asian Dub Foundation; I had never seen them live before.

I own a couple of their albums so that’s a pretty shameful admission I know…it really has been my loss. Asian Dub Foundation took Bearded Theory by the scruff of its neck, dressed it down and taught it to DANCE; their mix of hip-hop, sub industrial guitar squall, drum & bass and even bhangra had the entire festival bouncing. Nathan on flute was incredible; at one point playing both flute and beat-boxing simultaneously – how can flute be so cool; how can it be the same instrument and yet be so far from James Galway – stunning.

Woke reasonably early Sunday morning – to bright sunshine!! At midday the main arena was cleared for the arrival of the Kedleston Knights, who entertained the kids with their medieval jousting, seems to be a lot of people wearing beards…ah yes, its Bearded Theory and each year they attempt to beat their own World Record for the most number of false beards worn collectively; no-one from Guinness is introduced to verify this attempt, but we do get Beards an Australian band who all have…surely I don’t need to spell it out, what’s more they sing about…see you’re ahead of me now!!!

Beards select Robot Beard as the winner of the Best Beard competition, except Robot Beard is in fact two robots, can it get better than two robots in a field dancing to a band who sing songs entitled You Should Consider Having Sex With A Bearded Man and rouse the crowd to chant “the Kings Of Leon are shit”

The glorious sunshine bathing the entire site encourages people to put out rugs and deck chairs as they watch Ezio on the Main Stage, it’s all pretty chilled – a perfect festival atmosphere; then Goldblade arrive.

Now I have to declare my allegiance, many will know of my involvement with the band, but despite this it is fair to say that within minutes Goldblade have captured Bearded Theory. The crowd go mental, the first mosh pit of the weekend; frontman John Robb descends from the stage and hollers from the crash barrier, within three songs he’s stripped to the waist as Goldblade deliver the punk mayhem we have come to expect, mixing well known favourites Fighting In The Dancehall with This Is War and Someone Stole My Brain from the new The Terror Of Modern Life album (which was set for release the following morning). Robb has the crowd in his hand, arms raised, fists clenched – the crowd, now a mob singing along, an energised rabble collectively testifying their belief in the ‘Power Of Rock n’ Roll’

We stumble across impromptu ‘flash-mob’ style sets from Drum Machine a 30-piece batala influenced drum group, Ferocious Dog are rumoured to be doing ‘secret gigs’ – so secret in fact we fail to catch them; we even find a stall selling Horse Jerky under the banner Hunglikahorse!!

Some forty minutes later and John Robb is back on stage, this time with Goldblade guitarist Brother Pete as they join The Farm for a rendition of the Clash’s Janie Jones; Robb was the compere for the Justice Tour package and as the tour progressed he became the vocalist for this old Clash number.

The Farm set is perfectly timed, the sun is setting, the vibes are getting loose, arms flail to their funky rolling rhythms.

Stiff Little Fingers were up next – difficult job, following Goldblade and preceding The Levellers, but Jake Burns & Co. have been at this for long enough not to be phased, and deliver a near perfect festival set; which then left us with a dilemma – head to Tornado Town for Gallon Drunk who I missed on their last UK tour or The Levellers.

Well, it was the culmination of a festival and The Levellers are arguably THE festival band so they got our vote; we were not to be disappointed.

The Levellers are sublime, they pace their set perfectly building towards the finale, the huge crowd were excited for Goldblade – they have gone into overdrive, a celebration of community, an understanding that this festival brings people to together regardless of the bands performing, and The Levellers fully understand this. They are sound tracking the celebration as opposed to being the focus and it’s within this humility that The Levellers have justifiably become the biggest band outside the mainstream music industry.

So Bearded Theory 2013 came to a close, frankly another triumph, without doubt this is one of the friendliest festivals in the UK calendar, perfectly sized and with an openness to the music it offers that is reciprocated by its audience; already looking forward to 2014.

Bearded Theory Festival 2014 – Tickets are on sale now.

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