This weekend gave me the rare privilege of hearing the music of the Stone Roses drifting live over Northern fields on 2 separate occasions.
On Saturday night, one of the most influential and consistently great acts of the late 90's reformed for a much lauded appearance to a crowd for whom the muddy fields had failed to dampen their tangible enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment. Arms aloft and with friend and stranger alike they relived their youthful days for which song after song provided the soundtrack. Unfortunately, the crowd in question was at the Beat-Herder Festival listening to Orbital whilst I was in the beer queue at Heaton Park for the second coming of the Stone Roses homecoming resurrection.
This year was to be my first venture into Beat-Herder. Since moving to the North on a permanent basis this festival had always clashed with prior commitments such as the great Glastonbury mop-up for which more often thanÃÂ not I tend to be engaged in. Having never been to the festival before, it was easyÃÂ to dismiss the cult-like status this small festival has achieved in my adoptedÃÂ hometown of Bradford as that of a local event (read ”ËRoyston Vasey') madeÃÂ special through it's proximity and overt familiarity, in much the same way asÃÂ the traditional summer fayre becomes the highlight of the social calendar in theÃÂ more far flung reaches of the isles. Set in and around a small clump of trees inÃÂ the vicinity of Skipton, in a place that public transport has apparently only onceÃÂ heard a vague rumour about, the sign exclaiming “Welcome to Beatherdershire”ÂÃÂ on the approach served to reinforce this misconception in a brilliant moment ofÃÂ tongue-in-cheek acceptance.
My initial arrival was on the Friday afternoon. Knowing that I needed to openÃÂ up my place of work the next day and that Saturday evening meant a trip toÃÂ Heaton Park I had decided to take it steady. Beat-Herder steady proved veryÃÂ quickly to be entirely different to steady elsewhere. Every tent and area that IÃÂ waded to through the growing mudbath had been meticulously cultivated fromÃÂ the mind of someone whose only mission seemed to make the place fun. From the 'Beat-Herder and District Working Mens Club' with its committee meetingÃÂ notes proudly displayed next to a sign exclaiming 'Workers Unite, for the rightÃÂ to Paaaaarty!', to the sunken bar whose refreshment was only really available toÃÂ those on their knees, the venue itself was a perfect reflection of the punters whoÃÂ had been waiting patiently 12 months for the gates to reopen.
One couple that I met had planned a pregnancy after their marriage aroundÃÂ Beat-Herder. A tattoo parlour in the woods offers tattoos of the festival logoÃÂ and has no shortage of takers ”â many of these are first timers and they chat inÃÂ the queue to seasoned veterans proudly showing off the tattoo they also got onÃÂ their first visit. Despite the cult-like following that the festival has, the organisersÃÂ have admirably resisted the urge to turn it over to the commercial interests thatÃÂ have proved the ruin of many a small festival with all of the traders, bars andÃÂ purveyors of curiosities remaining fiercely independent. This is an event thatÃÂ walks the tightrope between the DIY ethos that makes the festival so special,ÃÂ and the desire for quality acts (which this year included the mighty Lee ScratchÃÂ Perry, Mr Scruff and Death in Vegas) with a poise unparalleled.
Leaving Beat-Herder so early on the Friday was a wrenching experience. HavingÃÂ stayed long enough to watch Bratfud favourites Alt Track perform to a near-ÃÂ home crowd on the Rajazzle stage it was time to wade back through the mud toÃÂ the gate, every step becoming more treacherous in the rapidly dimming light.ÃÂ The sense that the party was only just getting started weighed heavy on me as IÃÂ made my way back to concrete streets and sanitation.
The next day was marked by my inability to muster the necessary enthusiasmÃÂ for the evening ahead. I have been to the type of 'mega-gig' I was anticipatingÃÂ before, and for all the hype they always lack something. Think of any truly greatÃÂ performance throughout history and rarely have they been at a standalone gig ofÃÂ arena size upwards. From Hendrix at Woodstock to Bowie at Glastonbury, thereÃÂ are few exceptions to this rule.
I had earlier in the week spent several hours trying to figure out public transportÃÂ possibilities to this gig, and more importantly from the gig back to Skipton whenÃÂ it was over, and came to the conclusion that driving (or in my case blagging a lift)ÃÂ was the only realistic way of doing so. Even the Manchester police were issuingÃÂ press releases in the run up to the gigs that public transport possibilities wereÃÂ minimal and that they would not be mopping up the stranded masses. HotelsÃÂ across the city must have benefitted from a surge in last minute (or second)ÃÂ bookings.
Arrival at the Park and Ride drop-off point meant being suddenly immersed inÃÂ a mass of people. Many were furiously downing can after can at the roadsideÃÂ ahead of the expected search and confiscation of their illicit liquids. The kindÃÂ of money that is pumped into this type of event makes it almost certain thatÃÂ whoever has secured the sponsorship of the bars will spare no expense orÃÂ endeavour in protecting their investment. It was still late afternoon and yetÃÂ every few hundred yards we passed another unconscious victim of excess.
On our way up the path towards the entrance to the arena we passed a golf clubÃÂ with a small crowd of people milling around outside. Anticipating the horrors ofÃÂ the bars within the protected zone, we decided to chance it and try to gain entry.
Luckily (and with the proprietors probably fully aware of the inevitable carnageÃÂ vs profits dilemma of any business in such a position) we found it welcomingÃÂ to gig-goers and an oasis as yet undiscovered by the majority of passers-by. IÃÂ wondered what the usual clientele would have made of the scene, gazing pastÃÂ the sign proclaiming ”ËThe wearing of “DENIM”Â or untailored shorts is especiallyÃÂ prohibited' to those who had bypassed the queue to the toilets and opted to useÃÂ the showers instead.
After a few sensibly priced drinks it was time to make our way to the designated fun zone. The walk to the arena was long and marked only by the regular sightÃÂ of small crowds taking advantage of semi-secluded (to them at least) snickets inÃÂ which to relieve themselves in the notable absence of toilet facilities. Eagle-eyedÃÂ yet bored looking security guards and police were on the lookout for anybodyÃÂ enjoying themselves a little too much and the crowd shuffled along in nearÃÂ silence.
Entry to the gated arena was easy, and the expected body cavity searches wereÃÂ noticeably absent which must have been met with some fleeting disappointmentÃÂ by those who had taken extraordinary measures to conceal their contraband.
The feeling was “in, out, no fuss but empty your wallets before you leave”Â.
We arrived as The Wailers were mid-set and assumed the muted atmosphereÃÂ was in anticipation of the main act, yet were later to discover that most peopleÃÂ had decided to only arrive for the main act themselves.
Having arrived as a group we decided to split up with a team of toilet-seekersÃÂ going head to head with a bar vanguard. The muster point was declared andÃÂ away we went. It was midway through the second act (the woefully receivedÃÂ Beady Eye - proof if it were ever needed that Liam Gallagher should simply takeÃÂ his money and give thanks that his lack of vocal ability was never really noticed)ÃÂ when the bar party finally returned having spent ÃÂ£40 on a round for 6 peopleÃÂ and waited in line for an hour. Luckily for me it was my round next and the barÃÂ shut the moment the Roses played their first note.
The sound quality of large events such as this (and for which sadly the largeÃÂ festivals are not immune) has been deteriorating steadily for many years.ÃÂ Advances in the technology of speaker design have pushed us into the ”Ëline array'ÃÂ era which favours scientific perfection in the face of the grim reality that largeÃÂ crowds, wind, rain and less than pristine musicians are often caught by less thanÃÂ perfect equipment. This combined with increasingly zealous EnvironmentalÃÂ Health legislation and litigious neighbours has seen a noticeable decrease inÃÂ volume levels at such gigs. Where in times gone by you could measure how muchÃÂ you enjoyed a concert by the number of days it took to regain your hearing,ÃÂ at this gig it was difficult to make out the ever-wafting and flat tones of the
musicians due to the volume of the conversations around you, and we were not aÃÂ remarkable distance from the stage itself.
Huge video screens either side reminded you that you were actually watchingÃÂ a live performance by magnifying the tiny figures onstage, though whether thisÃÂ was footage from the night before is anyone's guess as the relatively flat venueÃÂ offered few vantage points for those less than 8 feet tall.
Despite the shortcomings of the occasion, the wonderful feeling of the hair on theÃÂ back of the neck standing up as 75,000 people sang along (and drowned out) theÃÂ soundtrack to their youths was familiar and pleasing, and the perhaps misguidedÃÂ sense of being at something that would be a footnote in the history of rock andÃÂ roll was there. I was glad to be in such good company. It was disappointing toÃÂ say the least however that interactions with strangers was minimal ”â peopleÃÂ generally kept themselves to themselves and there was no sense of a sharedÃÂ adventure.
Having failed to blag a lift directly back to Beat-Herder I consoled myself withÃÂ a brief venture into Bradford's legendary 1in12 Club on my way homewardsÃÂ where the wedding reception for a member of the band Doom was still in fullÃÂ swing. Band members and assorted luminaries from the 80's and 90's punkÃÂ scenes were letting their hair down and it was a welcome respite from the frigidÃÂ atmosphere of the concert I had left.
The next morning I was keen to get back into the mudbath of Beat-HerderÃÂ as soon as I possibly could. I finally arrived just as a giant conga was makingÃÂ its way through the crowds to the soundtrack of a song about kebabs by theÃÂ hilarious Lancashire Hotpots. Even 3 days of trenchfoot, hard partying (BlackÃÂ Lace had played the night before at a very late hour) and rain had not lessenedÃÂ the enthusiasm of the attendees. If anything, it had made them more determinedÃÂ to have fun.
I met up with friends who showed me pictures of the costumes people wereÃÂ wearing the evening before. It is a recent tradition that Saturday night beÃÂ fancy dress themed around a particular letter. Last year was the letter E andÃÂ I hear someone successfully managed to dress up as an Excel spreadsheet.ÃÂ This year was the turn of the letter A (successive years spelling out 'beat-herder'). I saw pictures of people dressed as Astroturf and evenÃÂ an Axolotl. A friend who had dressed as an aquarium by commandeering theirÃÂ cat's bed, spraying it blue and hanging plastic fishes (and a plastic hyena thatÃÂ mysteriously arrived with the fish-order) from it was startled as someoneÃÂ walked passed asking “is that a tattoo?”Â before seamlessly disappearing backÃÂ into the mud.
A walk up to the trees where Mr Scruff was midway through a marathon 7 hourÃÂ set took us past a purpose built church where a vicar with a crucifix in hand wasÃÂ dancing wildly in front of lines of revellers in the pews to a backdrop of hard Electro. AÃÂ Sunday church service earlier in the day had a choir, hymn-books and a packedÃÂ church singing 'Relax' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
A ”Ëteleporting' phone box takes you through a tunnel and out into an identicalÃÂ phone box on the other side of a row of rustic wooden shops. A 'proper' pubÃÂ with its ornate wooden bar and piano in the corner served real ale in a relaxedÃÂ atmosphere opposite an outdoor cinema and a barbers shop offering reducedÃÂ prices for those who wanted 80's style mullets. This part of the woods is aÃÂ wonderland reflective of the type of people who have religiously patronised thisÃÂ festival since its inception.
Beyond the woods lay more enticements, each area packed with people dancingÃÂ and chatting. From the Trailer Trash tent with its giant robotic rabbits andÃÂ lizards outside to the old school (but high speed) big wheel towering over theÃÂ festival with a warning sign hidden on the kiosk window exclaiming 'do not stand, sit, lean or climb on fences. If you fall, animals could eat you, and that might make them sick'. There were calmerÃÂ areas too with giant deckchairs and 10 foot wicker foxes. The whole site gaveÃÂ me the impression that all of the best bits had been taken out of GlastonburyÃÂ in its heyday and dropped in one place, with all of the crap and commercialismÃÂ removed.
We returned to the Working Mens Club tent to watch Captain Hotknives makeÃÂ his annual appearance to a huge crowd before wading across the main field toÃÂ the soundtrack of Lee Scratch Perry to catch the final live band performance ofÃÂ the weekend, the energetic and brilliant Middleman on the Rajazzle stage.
Having arrived early, the irony was not lost on me that we had inadvertentlyÃÂ caught the final half of a Stone Roses tribute band playing on that stage. As withÃÂ the previous night, the crowd was singing along to the classics and again theÃÂ neck hair was on end. This cover band, playing to a far smaller and justifiablyÃÂ tired crowd in a muddy field near Skipton managed to outperform theirÃÂ namesakes, and the atmosphere had all of the elements that had been missing atÃÂ Heaton Park. It was proof if ever it were needed that it is not enough for a bandÃÂ to simply turn up and play, no matter what band it is or how much money hasÃÂ been thrown at the occasion.
I have been surprised many times in the past when watching bands who I don'tÃÂ particularly care for or even like completely blow me away when performingÃÂ live. These were all bands that recognised the important elements that make aÃÂ gig special. It is a combination of the visual element, crowd interaction and theÃÂ organisers pulling out all the stops to get the atmposphere perfect. Whilst it'sÃÂ true that the band here had no ultimate control over the latter, it was clear thatÃÂ they were a cog in a perfectly tuned wheel that was sadly grinding to a halt asÃÂ midnight approached.
Even with the festival over, the jubilant atmosphere continued well into the nightÃÂ and I left with a feeling of remorse for having missed such a significant part ofÃÂ it. It's easy to become misty eyed following an event and exclaim that it was theÃÂ best you have experienced, but following many years of such festivals small andÃÂ large I feel no shame in admitting this. Next year my diary will be cleared forÃÂ this late weekend in June and from now on I will unashamedly class myself as aÃÂ member of The Beat-Herder cult.