Catton Hall, Derbyshire
22nd-26th May 2014
Bearded Theory festival started out as a “birthday party gone wrong.” Now in its 7th year, it has a new site for 2014. First timer Nyika Suttie went to see just why the festival won awards last year, and why it is so many people’s favourite.
I’ve been wanting to go to Bearded Theory for the past four years but I’ve never made it, so I was thrilled to finally get to go this time. Famed for its surprisingly large headliners and sea of fake beards, the festival has gone from strength to strength since it was “held in a beer garden at Knockerdown”.
We arrived on Thursday afternoon to find an already buzzing and slightly soggy site but fortunately the rain had stopped by the time we got there. Tent up, gin and tonic in hand, it was time to explore the festival. The area around the main stage and the markets weren’t open on the first day, but Tornado Town and the Something Else Tea Tent had enough to keep everybody entertained, with the likes of Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs and Dr and the Medics.
We went to see Hobo Jones, a real-life skiffle band who played covers of instantly recognisable songs. They performed to a packed out tent finishing with The Levellers’ One Way. I’ve seen them several times but they never cease to keep me amused. At some point after this we saw a bit of The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican in their very fetching wigs and tank tops. The Something Else Tea Tent is a subsidiary of the popular Something Else in the Dean festival, which this year also held festivals in Essex and Wrexham.
Friday was rather rain-soaked but there wasn’t much time to dwell on this as we headed to watch Leatherat, stalwarts of Bearded Theory, open the main stage. They delivered a set of very danceable folk tunes asking the audience for requests and expressing their happiness at not being opposite Dreadzone this time. In all it was rather enjoyable. From here it was off to the Disco Shed, a garden shed playing a variety of tunes for all tastes and which constantly had a group of people dancing outside it. It emerged that it was up for Channel 4’s Shed of the Year and quite a few of my friends were interviewed for this, which was somewhat bemusing.
We quickly realised we were missing The Membranes so we hurried back to the main stage where Louder Than War’s very own John Robb was doing what he does best (except perhaps writing) spending much of the set off the stage and in the crowd, kissing people’s heads and making peoples’ day. And then it was off to see Dynamite Pussy Club purely because of the name.
I probably should have better explained to my boyfriend how good Dub Pistols were before we decided to see some of the aforementioned band as they were terrible. Just awful. I was very relieved when we eventually made it to Dub Pistols and had a good dance to them as they played all the festival favourites and got the party started, for many marking the beginning of their own Mucky Weekend.
Peter Hook and the Light then took to the stage, entertaining a few Joy Division and New Order fans, although there was mixed reviews, with some a little confused as to why he had a second bassist and others feeling that the vocals weren’t the best. However, it was a decent set and people seemed to like it.
We were drawn into Tornado Town by a band called Juke and the All Drunk Orchestra who were fun to listen to. Unfortunately they were coming to the end of their set so we didn’t get to see a lot, but what we did see was pretty good. Then finally it was time for Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine.
Bearded can be a bit of a 90s revival festival, but it was clear that a lot of people were looking forward to Carter. I was about seven when they split up the first time so it was a whole new world for me and I actually thought they were enjoyable, although my boyfriend found them somewhat depressing. Opinions from those who were a bit older than us were similar; they seem to be a bit Marmite. Undoubtedly though, they haven’t lost what they had in their heyday.
The last act of our night was Gaz Brookfield on Something Else, who plays lovely self-aware folk songs. During his song about buskers the audience threw money on the stage, a whole 30p! He deserved to be higher up the bill and on a bigger stage, and perhaps he will be next year.
Saturday was wet, and it just got wetter. However, 3 Daft Monkeys played a blinding set, getting everyone dancing and even waltzing at one point. I’ve seen 3DM quite a few times but they never get boring; they’re also one of the bands which have played every Bearded since its inception.
A new addition to the festival as a consequence of the site move was Locked Inn the Woods, a beautiful wooded glade with a small stage and more fairy lights than you can shake a stick at. Here we saw The Electric Brains, a futuristic yet 70s-esque band who had the fascinating addition of a theremin as well as some aliens. They were rather good and had a small crowd in the palm of their hands.
Continuing the nineties revival theme were Pop Will Eat Itself, who brought a slice of industrial music to the festival, running around on stage and chest bumping with what seemed like boundless energy. The band are a bit older than they used to be, but they still played a solid set. There seemed to be a number of ex-grebos at the festival and everybody seemed to enjoy themselves, despite the storm which hit in the middle of the set.
Another band we saw for the name were the Lumberjack Cowboy Heartbreak Trucking Company who, as you can imagine, came from the USA. With songs juxtaposing a love of Jesus with a penchant for guns and swearing they were actually very entertaining, with anecdotes about taking four year olds to shooting ranges amongst other things. It was all very American indeed.
Then, finally it was time for the mighty Ferocious Dog, a folk punk band from Nottingham with a healthy following known as “Hell Hounds”. Playing all their best known songs and making the audience alternately smile and cry they had people dancing and moshing all the way through.
Saturday’s headliners were The Stranglers, who played a tight set of their hits, including Peaches and Golden Brown. I always think I know fewer of their songs than I do, but there were a lot I recognised. A lovely festival moment was a cover of The Kinks’ All Day and all of the Night; the whole field seemed to be singing along.
The last big act was Hayseed Dixie (incidentally we only worked out the reasoning behind their name about an hour before we saw them). Standing outside a packed Tornado Town tent with no way of getting in we presumed they were probably pretty good. Unfortunately we couldn’t hear over people’s conversations, but this wasn’t really anybody’s fault besides the fact it was midnight.
After a very, very wet Saturday we were all hoping for a dryer Sunday and fortunately we got one, although the site was quite muddy. It had nothing on the Glastonbury mud, though, and it was still relatively easy to move around although we spotted a couple of mud monsters about. Unfortunately the annual fake beard world record attempt didn’t appear to happen, although it’s possible we just missed it.
The first act of the day was DJ Denzileo, a “funkyclectic” DJ who played a fantastic set of disco tunes and inspired an afro-wigged and 70s dressed flashmob who danced their socks off. We’d also seen Denzileo play the kids’ field disco earlier in the festival, proving that even the most serious DJ is capable of getting adults dancing to Barbie Girl.
As we walked past the main stage we spotted one Duke Special, a Tim Minchin-esque pianist with the most fascinating drummer I’d ever watched. It seemed anything that could make noise was used to provide percussion whilst Duke played funny songs about drinking and death, including an eye-watering Old Man River.
Every year there is a ukulele jam lead by Beardy Keef and the Uke Ellington Orchestra and this year there were some very special guests, including Ken Bonsall from Ferocious Dog, Mark Chadwick from The Levellers and a couple of the Bar-Stewards. Lots of people bought their ukuleles and those of us who aren’t musically talented were given a kazoo. It seems there were quite a few tantrums over the kazoos and I have to say I was included. What a ridiculous instrument. The Uke Jam was fantastic though, with everybody singing along with song sheets to well-known songs. I still have Sweet Caroline stuck in my head.
Being a small festival it was very easy to get between stages and so we managed not to be too late for The Blockheads, who played a bit of a variable set. The song about “having CCTV cameras up your arse” was perhaps not a highlight but the hits were decent enough. Over in the woods we stumbled across The Band from County Hell, who played a sort of celtic-pirate folk. There was lots of dancing and the band revealed they’d recorded six albums, which seems criminal for such a talented yet lesser known band.
By far one of the best bands of the festival were Dreadzone who I, in some bizarre festivalling blip, had managed to never see. Twenty years from their inception they’re still going strong with fantastic new tunes alongside favourites like Iron Shirt and Little Britain. There was a lot of energy in the field, not least from the lead singer who performed from a chair and yet still managed to dance in a mesmerising way.
Venturing into the Magical Sounds tent we saw Celt Islam, who fuse dubstep and drum and bass with world beats to create some real electronic dance music. Their performance was enhanced by a couple of lit up fairies who danced on stage and had the audience entranced.
Last of all was UB40, who experienced something of a mass exodus after Dreadzone, although really this was unfounded. They weren’t the best act of the weekend but they were fun in a nostalgic way and certainly some people thought they were extremely good. Of course all their best songs are covers, but that doesn’t stop you swaying along to Falling in Love with You.
With the strains of Mark Chadwick floating across the campsite and an impromptu set from Doozer McDooze not long after it was time for the festival to end.
I feel that Bearded Theory is very much a “Goldielocks” festival in that it seemed to be “just right.” It isn’t big so you can move around it easily and don’t miss bands because you’re the other side of the site, but it’s also not so small that you have to make your own entertainment. It scored some disproportionately large headliners, and it feels really friendly, perhaps because the organisers have a great on-line presence before the festival. The fairground was also a nice and non-tacky addition, with fun rides that didn’t break the bank and the world’s oldest travelling ferris wheel, which was sufficiently scary.
The only minor gripes would be that the toilets weren’t fantastic and there was some tent thievery about, but all credit should be given to the organisers for immediately apologising about the toilet situation and to the security for catching one of the thieves. These are just things you have to put up with at festivals and fortunately it didn’t take away from our enjoyment of the festival at all. Lockers are provided for hire in the campsite and it’s promised that the old toilet supplier will be used next year, hopefully returning the festival to its “Best Festival Toilet” status.
In all it was great fun, and I will certainly be returning. It’s easy to see why there’s so much hype around it and why it is so loved. It’s the most excellent start to the festival season, just don’t forget your beard.
All words by Nyika Suttie, find her Louder Than War archive here.