Beautiful Days Festival
20-22 August 2021
John Robb has already done his brilliant review of Beautiful Days Festival 2021 here but as another attendee to the festival and a fellow LTW kin, David Edwards gives his take on a remarkable and triumphant festival – one which reminds you of the power of live music and festivals to cleanse the soul of sadness…
It’s been 721 days since I walked out of Moovin’ Festival saying “can’t wait for next year”, assuming a normal world to come, till I’m finally stepping foot into a festival again. I’m in a new decade of life – older, more reflective, slightly more scared – and as a cohort of humanity, we have experienced sorrow across the globe in the timespan since the innocent, sun-kissed days of the end of August 2019. I have always been a huge advocate of festivals and live music to balance our souls. We have been deprived of this for so long, and even in returning there are still brooding clouds just over the perimeter fences that line our playing fields.
So, to be finally making the return at Beautiful Days Festival – the festival organised and run by The Levellers as an antidote to the commercialisation and commodification of mainstream festivals back in 2003 – is something that could have held trepidation and disappointment, especially when the heavens open, and the mud grows on the Saturday afternoon. But instead, what we get is a reminder of the honest, cathartic, communal joy that such events can bring, brought to life by a festival with a genuine sense of its own soul, a crowd of friendly and similarly passionate people and a musical bill with depth, conviction, and an eccentrically joyous collection of acts.
The long journey from Manchester on Friday means that unfortunately we miss The Levellers opening acoustic set, but we are ready for Turin Brakes and their finely aged dreamy psychedelic acoustic tones. Twenty years on from The Optimist LP, they sound far more advanced and intricate than they sounded back at the turn of the century, and the songs still resonate with longing and a genuine heart. Next up on the Main Stage are Alabama 3, whose space-blues are exactly what is needed to take things up a notch and get a groove into the legs and the soul. Obviously, everyone knows Woke Up This Morning but their whole set is a groove-inflected, low-key joy.
New Model Army are obviously not in the business of anything laid-back and their Main Stage show is an absolute thunderstorm of intent and tightly-coiled fury. Starting with the roll of White Light, they consistently deliver a set that teeters on the edge of chaos but is firmly locked at the centre. The hardcore fans are going for it at the front, but even from a way back they convey power and intent. Closer I Love the World carries a huge contradiction within its lyrical content, but for now we just hang onto the title refrain as a reminder of where we are, and how happy we are to be back in the fields right now.
And so, onto Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls – a man and a band who mean so much right now in terms of our social, ecological, and political climate. He is the epitome of fighting with your back to the wall, and every moment of his set is just that – bare-knuckled, holding on to one’s core principles and kicking against the pricks. The band are just the right level of taut and tight without losing the core sound of a local band who made it huge by virtue of being brilliant. The rain holds off and we just take so much joy in a consummate and passionate performance. As he sings I Still Believe, the words “Who’d have thought?/That after all?/Something as simple as rock and roll could save us all” mean so much to all of us – people are in tears all around me. Yet that isn’t all – he comes back on to do an encore of Four Simple Words before we all head back to our tents. Smiling, joyous, satisfied, and energised. Festivals are back.
That said, the Saturday reminds us so much of the reality of how UK festivals can be. The rain does not spare Beautiful Days its fury, and there are two colossal downpours in the morning and afternoon that turn the site into a slick, mud-rink. There are also some problems with the toilets and getting trucks to clean them through the mud, though the team do their absolute best to resolve the situation. But we are all used to this in the UK, and nothing is going to stop our enjoyment. First up, we find ourselves at The Entertainingly Wild Show at the Circus tent surrounded by beaming, excited kids watching snakes, reptiles and a comically surreal Major General (who appears to have wandered in from a colonially inflected acid trip the night before but still gets a bunch of laughs, albeit of the bawdy kind). It is a reminder that the best festivals make provision for people of all ages, and the sight of so many kids enjoying the reptiles (and the festival overall) is a wonderful thing to behold. Next, we get food and end up with a cider at The Big Top watching a lovely piano performance by Georgie, who is clearly humbled at the crowd that have stayed to see her and does a delightful, sensitive set before leaving to huge applause, telling us all that we deserve the festival. Her songs are simple, well-constructed and sweet, and she has the sort of wide-eyed joy that mid-afternoon festival sets are made of. From there we head to the Main Stage where The Skints play one of the best shows of the weekend, their perfectly-balanced reggae fusing elements of dub, punks, ska, and reggae into a continually building set of tight grooves and beats. They benefit from the sun coming out, but they play this perfectly to their advantage as they attract a huge crowd, and the entirety of the set is consistently excellent. The day needs a kick-start and they absolutely deliver on that goal. Superb.
Gentlemen’s Dub Club are similarly perfect for the occasion – soulful and mellow without being too soft; forceful and urgent without being too aggressive. Their set is similarly taut and well-received, but they are unfortunate to be playing during the torrential downpour that hits just after 6pm, meaning that the last part of their set is delivered to a somewhat panicked crowd. Despite that they continue in good humour and their set delivers despite the odds.
Though The Selecter is a huge temptation, the sad loss of Sean Lock this week leads us back to The Circus Tent where Robin Ince is on typically magnificent form. Moving swiftly and abstractly through politics, culture wars, science, festivals and obviously his late friend, he is (as ever) a force of nature in terms of his brilliant and incisive wit. The genius of the best comedians is to sound like they have the commonality of a man down the pub, but with wit and intelligence to set themselves truly apart. He is one of a kind, and we need his type so much right now.
The clouds have cleared, and Gary Numan is here. As ever with Gary Numan (who does clearly have a picture in an attic somewhere – there is no excuse for looking so young) you get the hits. Cars is delivered relatively early on and he closes with a terrific Are Friends Electric?. But there is so much to appreciate within his overall set and the tracks from his newest album Intruder hold up brilliantly live – specifically the title track and an outstanding version of The Gift. He is more muted on stage than normal – only sporadically speaking to the crowd – but the music speaks for itself and the set is a reminder of a true survivor who keeps on developing and keeps on turning out outstanding electronic pop music.
I love James, but I have rarely been impressed with them live. This may be down to a couple of occasions when they have seemed indifferent to the crowd, times when they have had to face a group of lairy drunks as a support act to a mainstream guitar act, and the opening set at Glastonbury 2016 – right after the Brexit result – when they seemed as miserable as most of the crowd were. But tonight, they are sensational. From the start, Tim Booth is extolling the crowd, his voice sounding better than it has in years. And the set is an absolute triumph. From the opening Walk Like You to a fierce Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) they are energised, focused and the crowd respond to them with open and honest appreciation. The first set closes with a magnificent one-two-punch of Sit Down and Laid, but it is a soaring Sometimes that truly steals the show before the Madchester grooves of Come Home leaves people dancing for delight in the mud. There is something beautiful about seeing a band you love finally come together live, and tonight was that night. A set of pure joy.
Sunday is fancy dress day and with the theme being superheroes, it is impressive to see so many of the crowd oblige and make the site a sea of colourful characters (I counted Duffman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn as the three most popular). Caped and terrifying the world in my lycra, I head over to watch Pulled Apart by Horses see in the day on the Main Stage, having lost nothing of their power and force over the past decade. We then find our way to Dreadzone who are just the sort of thing you need on a Sunday – breezy and resonant dub and reggae tracks that ease the bones and bring us back round to the festival vibe. Thankfully, the weather has turned in our favour and the whole day brings blue skies and baking sun. The mud quickly dries and we are back to staring at the sun – smiling and happy.
Next, there is a difficult choice to be made. The logical choice (as evidenced by many of the t-shirts worn by those not partaking in fancy dress) is to go see Ferocious Dog at The Big Top. But as a huge fan of The Jam, and having as much chance of seeing them play together again as seeing Newcastle United win back-to-back Champions League titles, I decide to go see From the Jam on the Main Stage. It is obviously a shame that Rick Buckler no longer plays with the band, and there are occasions where your mind wanders to how much better it would have been with the original line-up. But there are two things you cannot argue against; the first is how utterly brilliant each and every one of the songs sounds – ahead of their time both then and now, brimming with wit, intelligence and poetry, and leaping genres with utter grace and simplicity; and second, just how much of an outstanding bass player Bruce Foxton is. By the end of the set I am standing in front of him and his brilliance and creativity on the instrument just makes my heart sing. Yes, it isn’t The Jam. But if this is the best we can get, I am more than happy. The songs speak for themselves.
By the way, my friend reports that Ferocious Dog were brilliant and that I’m an idiot. I imagine both of those statements are entirely correct and factual…
Skindread are magnificent. One of the acts of the weekend. They are an absolute force of nature and the power and craft in their performance is blinding. With huge riffs, crashing drums, breakbeats and samples – all on top of thick, fluid bass grooves and lead singer Benji Webbe grabbing up every single square foot of the stage, they send an electric shock through the crowd and anyone flagging is immediately back in the zone. The sheer energy of the performance is breath-taking, the songs are brilliant and the performance is another level entirely. Genuinely not to be missed and if you haven’t seen them before, please take the next opportunity to see them as soon as you can.
We sadly miss Imelda May due to the need to take stuff back to the car, but we return in time for the final act. Since first putting the festival on in 2003, the Sunday night slot has always belonged to the creators, curators and guardians of Beautiful Days – The Levellers. And as such, what we get is a celebration of everything that the band and the festival mean. There is no point in distinguishing between the two and tonight the band give their all. It is a genuine greatest hits set throughout – a couple of people around me grumble about the lack of a couple of tracks but when the twenty song set consists of Fifteen Years, Belaruse, Hope Street, Carry Me, One Way and so many other true classics, it is almost churlish to complain. Highlights include an achingly beautiful Julie and the aforementioned One Way, which is greeted with a roar and a release that sounds as if people are pulling back their personality from deep inside and remembering what it feels to be alive. And just to ram that point home, they finish with a soaring and triumphant Beautiful Day.
As the fireworks go off, people are standing there with tears running down their faces, I struggle to keep them back myself. The communal spirit and clear delight of people in being back in a place they call home and returning to the festival fields after so long away (at one point I thought it would never happen again, I truly did) reminds you of the power of live music and the way that getting scruffy and muddy in a field can somehow wash your miseries away and leave you clean and ready to take on the inevitable rocks and arrows that life flings your way. I needed this. We needed this. And Beautiful Days has given back to us in so many ways. From the outstanding music, to the bonhomie of the crowd. From the excellent food and drink to the excellent layout and sound stage (not a single sound bleed all weekend). Beautiful Days really is a festival that has things down right, with an ethos and vision entirely of its own and in its own image.
One more thing. There needs to be a huge compliment given to each and every person involved in setting up Beautiful Days. The lack of festivals over the last two years has left us as fans and punters bereft but has also drawn stark attention to the thousands of ridiculously determined and hard-working folks who sweat night and day (and stay long after we are back in the comfort of our own warm beds) to make a festival happen. And how their lives have been more uncertain than many during the darkness of the last year and a half. Speaking to a few people across the weekend, I learned that it typically takes three months to erect the infrastructure and arrange the contracts for physically making Beautiful Days happen. This year, because of the uncertainty, they had four measly weeks to put it together. For the festival to go ahead, in oft-inclement weather, in these troubled times, is a huge testament to everyone involved in running and organising the festival and those who have run themselves ragged to put everything together at such short notice. We could not have our fun without their sweat and sacrifice and it is only right that, as things return to some level of normalcy, we give our heartfelt thanks to them all. You are bloody heroes and as we move on as a festival-going public, we all need to be more aware of this. We can’t do without festivals; and festivals cannot do without those behind the curtain. Beautiful Days – I salute you all…
All words by David Edwards
All images courtesy of Beautiful Days Festival and their photography team and copyright belongs to them. All Rights Reserved