Bearded Theory Festival 2016
Catton Hall, Derbyshire
27th – 29th May 2016
The 9th Bearded Theory Festival, and the 9th successive advance sell out took place over the Bank Holiday weekend; Louder Than War had a healthy presence, with both myself and Alan Ewart attending allowing us to cover pretty much what took our fancy, and in this case publish two reviews – I arrived early on the Thursday, the actual gates not opening until the Friday morning; but this early arrival policy allows for tents to be erected, campers parked…and beer to be drunk!
In past years one of the small tented stages has been opened, however as the popularity of the Thursday has grown the festival organisers have taken note – the result being The Woodland stage was opened up with DJ’s entertaining the crowds, whilst the new Maui Waui Stage was opened to host 3 bands, the headliners The Dub Pistols exploded onto stage in a whirl of kinetic energy, their unique brass tinged dub igniting the crowd into a communal celebration – the entire band pinball the stage, and they offer up material from their current ‘Return of the Pistoleros’ album, the snake like bass sounds wrapping round the audience who are now on each other’s shoulders exploding the myth of a quiet Thursday night – the genre mix continues as they delve back to their punk roots with The Stranglers ‘Peaches’ and on to The Specials ‘Gangsters’, the swirling of musical currents pooling into a wave of bass driven sound that has the entire audience dancing as if they were closing not opening the festival!
Roughneck Riot took to the main Pallet Stage on the Saturday lunchtime; this was their debut on the main stage having previously appeared on the fondly recalled Tornado Town stage – despite the time, and the addition of a stand-in drummer courtesy of Liverpool’s Bolshy the Warrington based quintet delivered an aggressive full on set, tight as a drum deliveries of material spanning their three albums – the expanse of the stage did not dent their performance; frontman Matty raging away, the focal point shadowed by Cait and Andy and many miles from their self-deprecating comment “were the Aldi version of The Levellers”
Situated behind the Pallet Stage is The Woodland Stage, in last year’s review I suggested it was like a venue within an Ewok Village…it is perhaps one of the most beautiful stage settings in the country, a clearing within an oak wood, the entire area being covered by a leafy canopy.
Attila The Stockbroker bounded onto the wooden construction stage, itself a thing of beauty – he looked somewhat flustered, then took time to detail a 9hr journey to the festival, arriving just 10mins prior to his appearance time – now this may well of concerned Attila, it certainly fired his well-documented fire and passion! He literally spat his bard poetry out, at times almost like a stream of measured consciousness, the targets of his ire being the current Government, the ruling classes, bankers all of which gained the support of the majority of the audience, one notable exception being a seated middle aged drunk, so drunk he was literally dribbling – this despite the fact he seemed to be in charge of two under teenage years children…this clown’s response being a repeated screaming of “fuck off” until audience members grew tired and suggested he leave.
I had been looking forward to seeing Hagar The Womb, I had seen them some 20+ years previously and was excited by their energy and DIY attitude; sadly time has dented my forgivingness – Hagar were shambolic, their sound being utterly dominated by a joint female fronted high pitched howl; it was certainly passionate, it was DIY, but (sadly) it was hard work to witness, despite the podium dancers either side of the Maui Waui stage – that must have been a first for any Anarcho-punk band!!
A short dash via the central located fun fair and alternative shopping mall saw me back at the Woodland Stage for the mighty Wonk Unit – the band that defy categorization; a perplexingly bizarre mix of anti-pop punk sensibility laced with scally suss and weird time shifts all of which combine to great effect; word had certainly got out, a huge crowd greeted the band as they shuffled onto stage, frontman Alex resembling an estate crack dealer, but with the charm of a spiv.
He greeted the ‘Wonkers’ now pushing the stage front before launching into a journey through the bands entire catalogue, introducing each track with a pre-amble…’Go Easy’ resulting in the weekends first mosh pit though this itself was eclipsed by the sight of the Wonkers Row Boat!! Remember The Gap Band’ ‘Oops Upside Your Head’? that annoying funk track were people bunched up to each other and…well rowed a boat – the Wonk Unit version resembles Jason & his Argonauts trying to hang ten a tsunami – If you are yet to experience the unique experience of a Wonk Unit gig then now is the time to rectify this issue.
An equally expectant crowd was present for Killing Joke’ arrival on the Pallet Stage – I have seen Killing Joke many many times, from their earliest days when a wizard accompanied them onto stage to some of the countries larger traditional venues; however I had never seen them in such an at odds with their sound trackers of the impending apocalypse persona as they found themselves within – a stage nestling in the grounds of the magnificent Catton Hall, the tranquil River Trent meandering some 100yrs from the rear of the stage, not to mention glorious wall to wall sunshine; Jaz stepped out wearing a 2/3 length black flock jacket – looking more like the historic estate owner than many of his previous painted daubed overall outfits; having briefly scanned the audience Jaz declares “what a beautiful evening” before taking us on a darkening journey into the make-up of Killing Jokes grinding industrial soundscapes; reaching back to ‘Turn To Red’, ‘Change’, and the ‘Fall Of Because’ huge slabs of rage raining from the walls of speakers each track interspersed by Jaz’s warnings of “Totalitarianism”
Despite this, to his left Youth looks like the kid who found all the sweets, clearly enjoying himself – Geordie may well of been enjoying himself, he doesn’t show it, his standard bored gaze firmly fixed. The sound is perfect, Joke sound HUGE, as the sun sets they launch into ‘I Am The Virus’ either side of the stage huge gas jets fire flames into the early summer evening; this was a magnificent performance, and (if they needed it) a further claim to the position as the premier post punk band, a band that have always challenged audience conceptions, developed their sound regardless of expected reaction; Killing Joke reign supreme.
“Were av’in it” declared Fareground Accidents frontman Bomar Faery immediately prior to stepping out onto the Woodland Stage – dressed in a maroon felt dress, an ivory satin silk shoulder number, topped with a gold crown fascinator…and parachute boots it was clear he meant what he said!
In one hand he lofted a wooden stake, in the other he cradled a bottle of rose wine; the look on the crowd was glorious – they literally stepped back two paces, which resulted in Bom chiding them and encouraging them to “come to me” before necking a huge glug of wine – then guiding his band through their bizarrely sexual set (yes I am well aware of how odd that sounds), and there is more than just upcycled heroin chic to Fareground Accidents, they ply a monochrome dark deeply twisted pop laced with Smiths like indie riffs as with their early single “We Hate The Same Things” – Bomer is the performance, switching between disjointed dance moves – dance moves crafted in a secure institution to collapses onto the compact stage…you got a love a band who bellow “let’s just fuck wherever we like” before ending their shock to the system set with a cover of Bowie’ ‘Scary Monsters’
In utter contrast, the Cockney Rejects brought their East End street swagger to the Pallet Stage, Sticky Turner shouting “Oi!, Oi!” before rousing the crowd into punch the air moshing, was good to spot the claret and blue of the bands beloved West Ham FC in the centre of the things; I had wondered quite how the bands distinct gritty street style would transfer to the sun drenched stage, credit to the Rejects who after a particularly difficult 6mths carried off the task with aplomb…musically they have never been my thing, but to hear ‘Bad Man’ through a full festival PA was genuinely something to savour.
Getting Public Image Limited was certainly a coup for Bearded Theory, and a clear signifier of the importance of the festival. I know LTW colleague Alan Ewart has written about the contract that PiL insist all photographers are required to sign prior to the importance – I’ve photographed PiL previously and chose not to sign on this occasion. I make mention of all this as the contract threatened to overshadow the bands performance which I consider to have been one of the finest I have ever seen. PiL have gone from being the guides for all to follow to at times an almost irrelevance with some of their later self-indulgent works. I was keen to see just what Lydon and his band would offer up for Bearded Theory – I have seen them perform magnificent hit littered sets to tortuous marathons with 30min versions of ‘Fofdderstompf’; thankfully tonight PiL had chosen to produce a set that both displayed their desire to experiment, to push the sonic boundaries and to actually entertain their audience, who for a protracted time were transfixed with the weight gain Lydon was displaying; PiL this evening were a genuine force to be reckoned with, the current line-up of Lou Edmunds, Bruce Mitchell and Scott Firth allow Lydon to once again realise his aims for PiL – on ‘Religion’ in particular this was with devastating effect, as Lydon begin to chant “turn up the bass” ad infinitum the volume noticeably increases – I was perhaps 4 rows from the front a matter of yards from the bass speakers, as the sound crew followed Lydon’s instruction the sound became almost physical, a thumping in the chest, coming close to bringing people to the floor, this was power generally only experienced at gigs by the likes of Sunn O))) and Earth, the beauty of assault not being lost upon Lydon. I was particularly impressed with the range of his voice, he has never been the greatest singer, but with age and understanding he has most definitely found his best vocal position, switching effortlessly from bark distorted yelps to drawn out wails, the entire set culminating in a devastating delivery of ‘Open Up’ – PiL answered their critics, and were deserved headliners.
Sunday was more restrained, but no less hot – the weather defying all forecasts, though this made for a perfect setting as festival organisers hosted their annual World Record attempt at gathering the most number of people wearing false beards in one setting; congratulations to the Bearded Minions; see you next year with your winning tickets.
Another equally bizarre event was the sight of Mr Motivator cajoling at least a 1000 people into a gentle Zumba routine over on the Woodland stage – yes he still wears the dangerously coloured lycra, but that didn’t put off the crowds who happy ‘turned to the left, now lets jump’
The Pallet Stage hosted Bad Manners on the Sunday evening, the band are currently celebrating their 40th anniversary – that said many of the band looked to be only half this age, though this did not affect their performance; Bad Manners by their own description are a “party band” and as Buster Blood Vessel bounded onto the stage resplendent in an oversized baseball players outfit topped off with a black and white leopard print jacket and declared ‘This is Ska’ before the band explode into a whirl of activity – within minutes Buster has the crowd in his huge hands, a sea of skanking, and in many cases shuffling limbs respond to his intonations to dance. Despite losing much of the weight for which he gained notoriety Buster is clearly affected by his exertions, briefly stepping aside for close friend Max Splodge who delivers a punk karaoke including ‘Swords of A Thousand men’ and Sham 69’s ‘Hurry Up Harry!’ and his own ‘Two Pints Of Lager’ to a forgiving audience.
When Buster returns he guides his band through a medley of hits, clearly over-running their stage time but with such a huge smile on his face you could understand the relaxed approach of the stage crew; as the set came to a close with the obvious, but no les welcome ‘Lip Up Fatty’, an exhausted Buster was clearly emotional declaring “you’ve made an old man very happy” as he retreated to rapturous applause.
I had hoped to see The Dirty Folkers in Maui Waui stage, apologies – I will clarify this, I did see The Dirty Folkers but not the version I was hoping for, I was expecting to witness the charms of Ms Rebecca Bond and her Vice Squad in their acoustic guise which is frankly much more entertaining than their standard metallic punk – what I did get was a folk band, and shamefully I didn’t hang around long enough to notice if they were dirty!
Stiff Little Fingers were the Sunday headliners on the Woodland Stage – the chance to see a band with such history and stature perform on such a compact stage was clearly irresistible; festival organisers being forced to set up an access controlled gate with a one in/one out entry policy; I’m not a huge fan, everything on ‘Inflammable Material’ is superb, but a couple of albums in SLF just seemed to lose me in turgid rock – that said 2014’s ‘No Going Back’ contains some choice gems. I was clearly in the minority as the roar that welcomed Jake Burns and the band onto the stage was phenomenal, beach balls were bouncing across the massed ranks, soon followed by a succession of crowd surfers, I didn’t see all the set, however what I did see was enough to suggest I should perhaps re-evaluate SLF, ‘Wasted Life’ was fantastic but I had to make my way back to the Pallet Stage for Squeeze – originally billed as headliners but generously switching with Asian Dub Foundation who were experiencing worse traffic delays than Attila the day or so previously.
I had never previously seen Squeeze, was clearly familiar with their hits – I think I even have a couple of fantastically coloured 7” buried away in the collection. They played as the sun began to set, perfectly pitched, polite pop genius delving into the current album ‘Cradle To The Grave’ and back to ‘Cool For Cats’ – Squeeze deliver wickedly clever lyrics wrapped up within instantly recognisable pop nuggets, they lack the aggression of many, almost all the bands I would normally go to see live, however there is no denying their ability to connect with an audience, and audience that largely looked at odds with their accountants day off presentation.
Asian Dub Foundation closed the festival with mind blowing performance, a whirl of energy as they blasted through their current ‘More Signal More Noise’ album. A wildly entertaining, attacking set showcasing their unique mix of bhangra, hip-hop, dub and semi industrial guitar squall – they closed the set with ‘Fortress Europe’ as the fireworks erupted overhead bringing the curtain down on another magnificent Bearded Theory; other artists worthy of mention were Capt Hotknives who played twice on the Convoy Cabaret Stage, and the remarkable Black Uhuru who treated the Pallet Stage crowd to some magnificent and evocative reggae vibes
Bearded Theory – I will see you next year for the 10th Anniversary.