Bearded Theory Festival 2017
Catton Hall, Derbyshire
Thursday 25th – Sunday 28th May 2017
From a one-off gig in a pub beer garden back in 2007 Bearded Theory has grown to become one of the finest festivals the UK has to offer…this year saw 10,000 attend to help celebrate the festivals 10th Birthday, and Bearded Theory had laid on all the ingredients for a rather special party!
Bearded Theory is run by the same core team involved in that pub gig, as such they retain the same core values; 100% independent – there is no corporate sponsorship here; the main stage is called The Pallet Stage because that’s what they built the first one out of 10 years back, the aim of this year’s event was to celebrate their achievements but to celebrate with the people there at the start; organisers had made efforts to get every band that played the inaugural event to appear in 2017; bar a few MIA, largely they succeed…
Thursday is traditionally the arrival day, with a couple of the smaller stages open – over the years however as numbers have increased things have had to change; for 2017 pretty much the entire festival was in full swing. Come 2pm legendary gravel voiced compare Freedom stepped out onto the Pallet Stage in glorious sunshine to welcome everyone; he was there in 2007 so looking out across a sea of people, multiple stages, bars, a fun fair and even a school must have been a strange experience; (in)formalities concluded singer songwriter Gail took to the stage, she too played in 2007 and has since gone on to perform with her folk band Ragatti String Band.
Then we welcomed The World’s Oldest & Ugliest Boy Band™ – the irrepressible Hobo Jones & The Junkyard Dogs who with their tea chest bass, washboard, battered pots & pans ignited the crowd with their seriously derailed skiffle-punk heavily laced with bawdy humour and some new words for the youngsters in the crowd!
I was pleased to catch DJ Don Letts over at The Woodland Stage, so named as its, well a clearing in a natural oak woodland! Possibly one of the most beautiful gig locations there could be, a small compact stage crafted entirely from oak facing out onto a clearing that can now accommodate at least 1500 people but due to the careful retention of trees a leaf canopy shades the entire area; I still think Captain Hotknives declaration in 2015 that he was “playing in a fuckin Ewok village” best describes it – it was then time for Dreadzone, firm friends and supporters of Bearded Theory who took to the Pallet stage as the sun was finally setting, offering relief to the already baked revellers; Dreadzone offered up no such relief, immediately launching into an all-encompassing set drawing on material from 1995’s ‘Second Light’ to the current ‘Dread Times’ energetically visiting dub, hip-hop, old style sound system rhythms with declarations of “unity & peace” referencing the Manchester Arena outrage; there was a crowd of thousands skanking in the arena, Mc Spee sat centre stage, his trusty cane being wielded like an acid ravaged orchestra conductor; his regular shouts of “Ahoy” chiding the crowds to bounce, over to his left towering over the front rows an huge Transformer styled robot erupts into life shooting flames from its arms illuminating the darkening sky as the familiar sounds of ‘Little Britain’ roll across the Bearded Theory arena before a cannon of pyrotechnics fills the air with streamers, confetti and smoke, as fireworks arc over the domed stage roof; Dreadzone are the perfect festival band, and the perfect close to Thursday.
Louder Than War signings Faerground Accidents played Bearded Theory 2016, on that occasion they stepped onto the Woodland Stage before a capacity audience, as such organisers invited them back switching them to the Pallet Stage; Faerground Accidents are the weirdest looking bunch of miscreants to take to a stage in a good long while from frontman Bomer’s Robert Smith lipstick scrawl, thrift shop drag coupled with boots any bonehead Skrewdriver fan would be proud of, on the keys we have Henrietta who looks like she stumbled into the group from an Amish retreat, whist both the guitar and bass player look like true burnt out rock n’ roll casualties – I had been concerned that their extravagant rock n’ roll sleaze would quite make the transfer – how wrong I was, the sound was perfect, they benefited from the bigger rig, allowing their darkly twisted psychotic pop to course out over a at times bewildered audience; things not being helped by Bomar who stalked the stage with his customary bottle of rose in hand as he delivered the now (un)traditional songs of sexual desire, deviance and general depravity, utterly incongruent with summer sunshine and all the more delicious for it!
I took the opportunity to wander around the entire festival site, at the far end of the Pallet arena was sited the ‘Rogues Hideout’, an area created for younger teenagers, who at this point were being encouraged to form their own bands for a Battle of The Bands to be held on Saturday evening, further back still was the huge Children’s Village, and within that the Bearded Theory School – a real Ofsted Registered school that this year accommodated 250 kids who were taught a festival themed National School Curriculum; the beauty of this being that you can take your child out of regular school to attend a festival without the prospect of being fined!!
One thing couldn’t be ignored; the huge number of Ferocious Dog T-shirts on display – from the familiar adult designs to the Ferocious Pup designs for everyone from baby-grows to teenage sizes; Ferocious Dog are inextricably linked to Bearded Theory, both festival and band have mirrored each other’s rise – as such it was a given they would be playing the Pallet Stage. Frontman and founder Ken Bonsall complete with a perfect 5-spike mohawk led his band out under the intense sun, before taking a capacity crowd on a pinball ride through the bands entire back catalogue; the crowd – many under the banner of ‘Hell Hounds’ reacted accordingly, people climbed onto shoulders supported from below as the crowd sung the lyric right back at the band; a personal favourite being ‘Slow Motion Suicide’ which I guess could be the bands defining moment, certainly to date – bit like the Bunnymen and ‘Ocean Rain’, within this one track there is every element of Ferocious Dog, the anger and angst of the lyric, the subtle nuances of their sound, and an achingly emotional fiddle solo courtesy of Dan Booth, who as the track concluded was joined on stage by his just walking daughter which brought him to tears.
Slaves were making their Bearded Theory debut, I had seen them before but in a much smaller an intimate setting – this was pre-Virgin signing days so I was keen to see how they had adapted – quite simply, with aplomb! Drummer and vocalist Isaac stepped up to his pared down ruby red kit, with a simple nod to brother Laurie to his left they launched into a genuinely and unforgettably savage performance, molten blasts of pure energy driving lyrics laced with indignant anger that ignites the first proper mosh-pit of the weekend, bent over the barriers younger kids are punching the air, screeching the lyric back, cheering as Isaac dedicates ‘Rich Man’ to “all the tax avoiding, and pig-fucking politicians”.
Laurie steps forward from the stage onto the speaker stacks, Issac responds by stripping to the waist before introducing ‘Cheer Up London’ which this far up North generates a welcome cheer; Isaac clambers down from the stage onto the barrier and recounts a rambling tale about being out in home town Tunbridge Wells, being offered a lift by a girl called Debbie who then offers the lads a lift but manages to lose her car before scrambling back to his kit…the roar accompanying ‘Fuck The Hi-Hat’ was something to behold, and shows that thankfully there is still anger in more mainstream music, the younger members of the audience believe in this band, and are arguably becoming politicised as a result, and for that we should be thankful which led us in a booming ‘Do Something’ – Slaves are invigorating, you can feel the sparks coursing through you.
I caught the Skunk Anansie headline set, judging by the size of the crowd I think everyone caught the set; Skin prowling every inch of the stage, and beyond; within two tracks she had climbed the barrier and was walking across the supporting arms beneath, pausing to face the stage then falling in a reverse crucifix pose to be caught and lifted by the audience; musically it’s not really my thing, but as a visual spectacle this was stunning.
DIY punks Eastfield took to the Pallet Stage on Saturday afternoon as replacements for locally based Anti-Pasti, having graciously accepted the slot the DIY 3-chord punk 4pc set about justifying their selection; barrelling through about 20 tracks spanning their entire repertoire; all the favourites ‘Burt Reynolds’, ‘Gods Plastic Railway’, and ‘What’s My Number?’ plus a couple of new tracks from a forthcoming album – yes they sound the same, but that’s the point of ‘Another Boring Eastfield Song’…marvellous!
I recall seeing the announcement of African Head Charge to the line-up and being particularly excited, I regard ‘Hymn’ from the 1990 ‘Songs Of Praise’ album as one of the finest tracks ever to have been graced by the hand of Adrian Sherwood; sadly, today things were different; a ridiculously prolonged build up before Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah stepped out onto the stage did little to win over the bemused crowd, as did a set which whilst riddled with sturdy bass lines seemed to hark back to the dense and dark soundscapes reminiscent of the bands ‘My Life In A Hole In The Ground’ era, the sound was clear but the carefully constructed layers of sound just blurred into one…
Alabama 3 have now been plying their righteous sick blues for approaching 21yrs, there have been casualties – many of them, just check out the ‘Dedicated To’ list on each of their album releases! The weather had taken a turn, ominous clouds gathered, the wind had picked up to such an extent the lighting rigs rattled overhead, the festival crew having to remove sections of the backdrop to prevent damage to the stage housing…the perfect setting for the Alabama 3 who tonight consisted of 4 frontmen, all of which could compete with Faerground Accidents in the weirdness stakes;
Larry Love – rail thin, heroin pallor, Jake Black, a camp office clerk no doubt with an interesting hard drive at his elderly mother’s house – kids cross the road to avoid this guy; behind them some seriously dangerous gospel vibes are being mustered, vocals are traded, bursts of rap splutter forth and we get two singing nuns…albeit nuns in suffocating tight black PVC habits, whilst a wicked bass snakes around – don’t forget the band themselves describe their sound as “punk rock, blues and country techno situationist crypto-Marxist-Leninist electro…” – if you haven’t seen them – make a point of doing so whilst they still maintain their liberty.
I quick dash to the Woodland Stage to catch The Fall, making a welcome return to Bearded Theory – putting this lot on this stage was a master stroke, I would have loved to see Mark E Smith reaction as he fell from the tour bus into this setting; I knew none of his band – judging by the state of him, I’d guess he didn’t either, clearly he is unwell – not as poorly as the BBC suggested when they prematurely announced his death in March mind. He has a large abscess on the right side of his mouth that disfigures his face, and distorts his voice, a large cyst/lump on his forehead looks particularly ominous, he is also drunk – very drunk; his band deliver a riff heavy repetitive psych-rock, Smith with two mic’s hollers unintelligibly, he puts the mics to a monitor generating squalls of feedback, all the while turning the noise up, stumbling into his band, he turns off his backline monitor, possibly by mistake before jabbing the mic back into it disgruntled by the lack of response; the entire set is an assault, it’s impossible to know which tracks are being played bar ‘Wolf’ and ‘Dedication’ – even the band are struggling as Smith interferes with keyboards, the guitar amps and even the drums…it was a car crash moment, but in a macabre way, entirely engaging; sadly I don’t think Mark E Smith will be performing for much longer, he himself to join the legions of ex-Fall members.
Clearly, I can’t really write anything about Goldblade, I am linked to the band and was involved in this very booking – the only gig of 2017; that said as it was the sole UK gig of the year there was a huge feeling of anticipation circling on the Sunday afternoon; Goldblade have a long association with Bearded Theory, we played on in 2009 despite the stage having been demolished by a tornado! John Robb led the band through a greatest hits style set, from ‘Fighting In The Dancehall’ to ‘Strictly Hardcore’ and ‘Out Of Control’; John Robb clambering across the barriers for much of the set, pausing only gaffa tape bass player Keef to his guitar before concluding with a whirlwind ‘Do You Believe’… judging by the roar there were plenty of believers present today.
John Robb was the guest compere for the now annual Best Beard Completion, ahead of which John reminded people of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack only 6 days previously, he then led the crowd into 22 seconds of silence followed by a full minute of cheering as a mark of respect and unity for those killed while enjoying another artists music. The mood was then lifted with the Beard Competition, John entering into proceedings wearing an illuminated floral effort, congratulations going to 7yr old Poppy with her Mobster / Lobster outfit…you had to be there!
Glasvegas were (sadly) disappointing, I was instantly taken by their 2008 self titled debut, and was yet to see them live. Bar guitarist Rab Allen I’ve not seen a band with less desire to perform – the sound was fine, they just lacked energy, delivering a lumpen, maudlin set which I abandoned in favour of Dub Trees who were churning out some seriously heavy bass lines in the Magical Sounds dance tent. Dub Trees are fronted by Jah Wobble who was sat in an easy chair to the left his bass cradle in his arms, Killing Joke’s Youth, making his second appearance of the weekend prowled the stage weaving between a couple of violin players, wind instrumentalists and semi-masked female vocalist who offered up Elizabeth Fraser style vocalisations as opposed to lyrics which glided over the largely on cuff improvisations, a rich, psychedelic journey into mysticism, pinned by some of the heaviest bass to be heard all weekend.
I had hoped to catch One Eyed God in the Convoy Cabaret, but it was clear the Pallet Arena was already filling for festival closers Madness, a smattering of trilbies and comedy red fez hats on display; not my usual band of choice but in this setting it seemed perfect.
The nation’s favourite Nutty Boys released their 11th studio album ‘Can’t Touch Us Now’ back in October 2016, so delivered a hugely entertaining set that pulled material from the burgeoning greatest hits to bang up to date; from the reggae infused skank of ‘One Step Beyond’, via ‘Our House’ to the poignant Amy Winehouse inspired ‘Blackbird’ – for a band reknowned for their tomfoolery their set was delivered with a level of solemnity, perhaps tinged by events in Manchester – that said Lee Thompson perfectly played the maturing class clown, at times matched by Suggs who took to wearing a drag queen wig; Suggs has never been to strongest vocalist, but where Madness excel is crafting material that plays to their strengths, when Suggs cant quite reach a higher pitch, the brass section step in to add colour; tracks including ‘The Sun & The Rain’, ‘Wings of a Dove’, and ‘My Girl’ all had the audience singing along for 90minutes forgetting the pressures of world; a flotilla of beach balls was launched into the crowd as the set built to its peak, across the back of the blue colour washed stage the huge illuminated backdrop proclaimed Madness before an arsenal of confetti, streamers and ice were launched skywards from cannons stage front, as they fluttered to the ground the night sly being illuminated by a huge firework display – a fitting end to Madness’ set and the conclusion to the Bearded Theory birthday bash!
Happy Birthday Bearded Theory, congratulations for 10 wonderful years, from a pub beer garden, via tornado’s, flooding, even The Cheeky Girls an on to Madness, you have presented us with a hugely entertaining history, here’s to another 10years!