Bearded Theory Festival
Catton Hall, Derbyshire
21st-24th May 2015
The eighth Bearded Theory festival closed on Sunday night with a huge firework display; as the night sky was illuminated with phosphorescent hues, down below on the Main Stage James delighted the 10,000 capacity crowd with a blistering set chronicling their 14 album career – not bad for an event that continues to describe itself as a birthday party that went wrong…Bearded Theory remains an entirely independent festival, at no point will you see hoarding advertising a range of products that none of us need – the festival is funded entirely from the ticket sales and related festival merchandise, whilst the key organisers are all volunteers.
This independence is the key to Bearded Theory, and is what has seen the festival reputation grow so that now its sells out months in advance, it’s also what allows the organisers to offer such an eclectic array of performers and related activities, aside from the 3 live stages, there is a Dance Tent, a huge Children’s Village complete with a school offering lessons linked to the National Curriculum, an assortment of food vendors catering from Man Vs Food style meat extravaganza’s to Vegan cuisine, a fun fair and an array of stalls, craft outlets, and on to reiki workshops, and music tuition.
Set within the grounds of Catton Hall, a glorious private estate in Walton-On-Trent spanning some 250 acres of parkland, the stages are carefully arranged, allowing you to wander the site with ease whilst preventing noise leakage from each area…
I arrived on the Thursday; whilst the festival opens that day the majority of the site is closed bar the ‘Something Else Stage’ and accompanying bars, food stalls – this works well, as it allows people to arrive, set up camp and then get a feel for this temporary village; as for musical highlights, well it was all pretty relaxed – The Bar-Steward Sons Of Val Doonican carefully tread that very fine line between out and out comedy and actual working band with a polyester line in light entertainment, the songs being covers of modern classics stretching from The Ramones to Queen, the lyrics being replaced with tales of life ‘oop North’ which fired up the already capacity crowd who remained for the 3 Daft Monkeys whose world tinged acoustic vibes added a level of gravitas to proceedings – though this was later shattered by the mighty Hobo Jones & The Junkyard Dogs, who despite a 6hr journey, their stage slot being switched to accommodate this delivered a performance with more vigour than many a traditional rock outfit could muster…clearly a diet of Scrumpy and chips is beneficial – the crowd, no doubt similarly fuelled respond accordingly; sadly their set was cut short, the licence not allowing live music beyond 11pm.
Despite partaking of the Hobo Jones diet plan I was up and about and ready to catch Glasgow based The Wakes who had the unenviable opening slot of opening the main stage – The Pallet, not seen them previously, but considering the time their mixture of Celtic traditional music infused with punk rock attitude went down well with the surprisingly large crowd. Clearly with any festival you need a plan, well someone with minor OCD’s tendencies needs a plan and mine was stuffed in my pocket, neatly (it’s that OCD again) marked, each mark denoting a must see performer – the first to gain such an award being Captain Hotknives who was to appear in the Woodland Arena; this is essentially behind the Pallet Stage and accessed via soap bubble blown footpath, the stage being set up in a wooded clearing, and constructed entirely of wood, as Hotknives pointed out – it’s was like playing a gig in a Ewok Village. If you’ve not had the pleasure of witnessing Hotknives I suggest you remedy that post haste – his Special Brew fuelled acidic life observations are a joy to behold, though it not all Special Brew – that said he does manage to drink three of them during his 40minute set, the almost mythical tales of ‘I Skanned Me Nana’, and ‘Johny Depp Wi Me Bird’, a bitter sweet revenge tale resulting in Jack Sparrow having to attend his own GUM clinic.
Over on The Pallet Sonic Boom 6 were ripping things up with their hyperactive mash up of just about everything – the collision of ska, punk, rap, metal delivered by duelling vocalists, though to be fair the majority of people were transfixed by Laila Khan; energising the crowd as she pin-balled the stage, a brash riot of colour and movement…not really my thing so I left to explore the now fully open site including the Children’s Village. Bearded Theory rightly prides itself on being family friendly and 2015 took this to a whole new level, in addition the usual mix of children’s activities the festival organisers had actually set up a school staffed by fully qualified teachers delivering festival themed lessons that sat alongside the National Curriculum which in theory means that a parent could take their child out of school without the risk of being fined…
I made it back to The Woodland Stage in time to catch Babajack, another band I had not seen previously; fronted by the whirlwind multi-instrumentalist Becky Tate who pounds out a solid rhythm on the Cajon whilst Trevor Steger’ slide driven cigar box guitar adds colour to their folky blues.
Reverse journey and back to the Pallet Stage to catch Hugh Cornwell – not seen him since he was in The Stranglers, I think I was in the majority as even Hugh joked that yes it was him, “still alive” – having introduced himself he delivered an accomplished set covering his own solo material from the current ‘Totem & Taboo’ to Stranglers material including ‘Skin Deep’ and ‘Dagenham Dave’, whilst Hugh has been absent from The Stranglers for more years that he was a member I particularly enjoyed his rendition of ‘Duchess’ which I previously considered relied upon Dave Greenfields keyboards – how wrong I was, this was a snarling beast of a delivery that Hugh visibly enjoyed demolishing.
I took the opportunity to speak briefly to Mission frontman Wayne Hussey prior to them taking the headline slot on the Pallet Stage, having spoken to him about first seeing him back in 1980 when he was then a member of “when they good” (his words) Dead Or Alive, he spoke of preparing for this gig with a series of secret intimate gigs, the night before being at the 500 capacity Gorilla in Manchester; I tried hard to recall when I last saw The Mission – I do remember when CD’s were first introduced (yes kids, I am that old!!), my local hi-fi dealer would offer a free CD with any player you bought – laughable these days but a CD in 1986 was £15, factor in current inflation and that single disc would set you back £40, anyway having bought a Technics player I ordered the debut Mission CD ‘Children’…still got it somewhere, since then Wayne and Co. through many many splits, walk outs etc. have sold millions of albums across the globe and have earned a devoted following who were en masse for tonight’s gig – a polished performance played out in a blue lit set and enough dry ice to have punched a hole all of its own in the ozone layer, in amongst the rich textural swirl I was pleasantly surprised at just how many songs I recognised, ‘Wasteland’, ‘Severina’, ‘Butterfly On A Wheel’ – must have been all those nights at Planet X, Liverpool.
I agree that ‘polished performance’ could be considered derogatory – it’s not meant as such, The Mission are all fine musicians with a lifetime on the road so they have honed their skills, it’s just that the set seemed to lack urgency; at least up until the point Wayne struggled to remove his microphone from its stand, despite his best efforts it refused to budge – it certainly did when he lifted it aloft and brought it crashing to the stage…a little of the venom that used to drive Wayne all those years ago, I did feel for the stage tech who bounded to the front, repositioned the stand for Wayne to launch it javelin like into the wings, as their most ardent fans stood upon each other’s shoulders arms splayed in reverence.
A sprint back to The Woodland Stage saw me arrive just in time for the herb fuelled vibes courtesy of Jaya The Cat, I was glad I did sprint as with the Pallet Stage now closed Jaya The Cat within minutes were playing to a heaving Woodland crowd eagerly soaking up their what can best be described as pissed up punk reggae, entirely apt for a band who lifted the spirits higher with a vicious rendition of their ‘Twist The Cap’ masterpiece as frontman Geoff Lagadec twisted himself around his guitar, shades firmly affixed prior to launching into ‘Thank You Reggae’ from the current ‘More Late Night Tranmissions’ album; Lagadec name dropping bands like, Operation Ivy, and Bad Brains to demonstrate the source of their sound, ‘Chemical Salvation’ was a highlight, huge clanking riffs before allowing the herb to wash over and dropping back into a groove laden beat nicely settling the crowd as they closed Fridays live events, though if you were able the Magical Sounds tent was banging out an array of psytrance tunes till at least 3am.
Saturday – Thankfully, and despite the forecast of anything from light showers to biblical rains the good weather held, so as the sun shone brightly as the magnificent Bonsall Red Barrows performed in front of The Pallet Stage, now Bearded Theory regulars their daring airborne antics thrilling the huge crowds, before Three Minute Heist kicked off Saturdays musical proceedings with their bourbon drenched blues, nothing wrong with their playing, I just don’t get bands who appear to have had a team meeting about their dress theme (DEVO excluded), next up was Pronghaorn who definitely have never had a ‘presentation meeting’ – a cider soaked maelstrom of washboard cowpunk that had me initially grinning, then surrendering to their vibe and breaking out into a full on skank – all around it was the same, crowds rising up from their sun blankets and appreciating ‘Londis Calling’
Louise Distras took to the Woodland Stage, having been invited back after a few technical difficulties marred her 2014 appearance, I was expecting a full band set, not sure why though, but it was definitely just Louise on stage, her performance is just sublime, measured aggression as she rages against almost everything – I first saw her at Strummercamp some 5/6yrs ago and in that time she has grown into a hugely powerful performer, a simple acoustic guitar accompanying a fire-starter holler with lyrics that recall her troubled youth, sexism and homelessness as gathered on her debut album ‘Dreams From The Factory Floor’
I had hoped to catch British Sea Power, but at some point you have to eat; once revived I caught New Model Army on the Pallet Stage – the band had been on site for most of the day, wandering about, very relaxed…there was nothing relaxed about their fearsome performance, from the off a sea of splayed arms welcomes them to the stage – they rip through their set dipping into the archives and up to current album ‘Between Blood & Wine’, the waves of T-shirt emblazoned NMA fans now clambering onto each other’s shoulders chanting back every word Justin Sullivan hollers; New Model Army are a perfect festival band, a set packed with widescreen songs, heartfelt, at times anguished lyrics but backed by a performance with just the right amount of showmanship – New Model Army are one of those bands that genuinely connect with their audience, their audience has travelled with them to the point that NMA now operate entirely outside of any recognisable music industry standards, this band operate on their own terms and have gained in strength accordingly, its almost self perpetuating – the further away from the mainstream that NMA travel the more committed their fan base becomes as frontman Justin Sullivan takes them on a journey into political strife, his personal issues and beyond; an exhilarating performance.
As with previous years Bearded Theory manage to schedule a headliner that whilst I had heard of I had yet to see, this time round Afro Celt Sound System took that mantle – who would of thought a flute could be so damn rock ‘n’ roll? Watching them perform I had to give a nod of praise to the organisers for positioning Afro Celt as the headliners – a largely instrumental ‘world’ music band who exquisitely fuse elements of modern dance with African tribal patters featuring talking drums and a kora, a huge 21-string lute-bridge-harp that Guinea based N’Faly Kouyate somehow manages to play whilst rapidly traversing the stage emblazoned in a ‘South Africa – Say NO To Homophobia’ sweatshirt; for a band playing essentially ‘world music’…really not keen on that term, but it serves a purpose it was incredible to see just captivating the band were – I’d suggest most attending the festival would have tipped NMA to headline, their rabble rousing measured aggression, the audience participation – but no, Bearded Theory organisers took a gamble, Afro Celt to headline – this is one gamble that paid handsome returns…magical.
Woke reasonably early Sunday morning – to grey cloud covered skies, well it still hadn’t rained so mustn’t grumble! At midday the main arena was cleared for the second performance of the Bonsal Red Barrows, in a similar fashion to HGV Drivers and the tachograph, a barrow pilot’s time in ‘his kite’ is strictly controlled, and sadly their hours were up, so they presented a demonstration of flight training routines etc…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 Mr Motivator who for reasons not explained had chosen not to grow a beard for the occasion; Mr Motivator selected ‘Lego Beard as the winner of the Best Beard competition and he was presented with tickets for the 2016 event, which I guess is formal confirmation that we can look forward to more of this merriment 365 days from now!
I rapid dash to the Woodland Stage for the arrival of Liverpool based Super Fast Girlie Show, 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, which in SFGS terms is at least three songs have grabbed the huge crowd by the scruff of the neck, maybe they were there to see a Super Fast Girlie Show, and not the twin bass and drum assault that they got – either way they appeared to enjoy it hugely, though to remain impartial I will allow others to comment on this.
Come the end of the set much celebrations were had, so much so I entirely missed the set from the might Mad Professor which had been the DON NOT MISS of the entire weekend, my spirits were lifted however by the arrival onto the Pallet Stage of The Beat.
The set is perfectly timed, the sun is beginning to drop in the early evening sky, the vibes are getting loose, arms flail to their punky reggae rhythms – Ranking Roger and son Ranking Junior hurling themselves across the stage, with tracks coming hard and fast from the huge ska hits ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’, ‘Hands Off She’s Mine’, and ‘Stand Down Margret’ to an energised cover of the Clash’ ‘Rock The Casbah’ which perfectly matched Roger’s bondage outfit, at the conclusion of the set he has stripped to the waist, Ranking Junior has thrown off his jacket and the two of them accept the rightful applause.
I caught a short section of Buzzcocks, they were on top form, Shelly stood centre stage whilst to his right Steve Diggle hams it up with a live display of ‘Guitar God Poses Vol 1-10’, which really only left James who had the task of bringing proceedings to a close.
I spent some time wondering how Tim Booth would enter the stage, during regular gigs he has a habit of arriving from any point in the entire venue and then makes his way through the crowd to the stage during the first song – I guess an outdoor festival poses too many logistical problems for such an entrance so he led James onto the Pallet Stage, a vast excited crowd poised, at which point Tim introduced a track “we have let rest for the last year” before the band release ‘Sit Down’, the crowd explode, and for another 90minutes don’t let up, despite the technical difficulties the band are clearly experiencing – it mattered not to us out front for the delivery was perfect as the set swung from the recent ‘Curse Curse’ back to ‘Fred Astaire’ and all points in between…as we approached the 11pm curfew the firework display broke out, the only thing that could come close to upstaging the magnificent ‘Laid’…
So Bearded Theory 2015 came to a close, as with all other years even including 2009 when the tornado took out the Main Stage the festival was a triumph, this remains 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 2016.