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Beautiful Days 2019 Festival
August 2019

So here we are at the 17th Beautiful Days festival – the Devon-based fest that is run by the Levellers and reflects that special spirit that is the genuine heart of festival culture. 

That idealism and music first policy that saw the first high decibel pop-culture return to the land in the late sixties, taking the urban blues back to the very soil of England. A soil that the Levellers, with their unique folk twist, know is full of its own unique vibrations and melody that the band celebrate in this great event.

Of course, sometimes, this soil threatens to be washed away in the grotty weather that only the British elements can throw at us. Friday is ten hours of rain that reaches its climax when the Stranglers deliver a flawless version of their classic Always The Sun. It’s an iconic and drenched moment that has the whole field singing along somehow celebrating the endless drench to a song that, from its reception, feels like a huge hit but was somehow confined to the lower end of the top 40 at the time. It’s rush to the topper most of the poppermost somehow stymied by the mainstream’s eternal war against great pop culture and attempts to shove these much-loved bands to the side.

The Levellers have had their fair share of this over the years but they have defiantly remained hugely popular and tonight’s set is a reminder of their ribald, thrilling music and their anthemic songs that embrace the huge audience on their traditional Sunday night headline set in a celebration of their own unique culture. 

There feels like a sense of urgency to the Levellers this year – maybe it’s because a more clear-headed band takes the stage or maybe it’s the gradual creeping knowledge that time is running out as we all get older. 

Older and bolder.

Mark Chadwick’s Telecaster sounds razor-sharp, slashing and cutting through the late summer weather murk and the songs are anthemic and celebratory. The ever jiggled set is full of band standards and rarely played obscurities with each one welcomed with a love and enthusiasm. The band have the songs to defy fashion and the understanding of the eternity of this music and culture to hold the baton for the now which they spread across a whole festival. 

There is something quite wonderful about the festival – its embrace of a deeper mystical English folk culture that infuses everything here from punk to hip hop and the myriad of musical journeys on display in these green fields. 

The Levellers mix the up and coming with bands they grew up with like The Stranglers who have remoulded themselves as a jukebox band. This summer they have been a blast at every festival I have seen them at. A genius catalogue of some of the greatest rock music produced by a British band played with a swagger that has been given an added impetus of energy by Jet Black’s apprentice Jim McCauley who has made the grandmasters drum stool his own. JJ Burnel is still the greatest bass player of them all casually throwing around those classic bass lines and Baz Warne owns the frontman role and the band are as gloriously off-kilter and glowering as ever.

One of JJ’s proteges was Peter Hook who once took a camera to a 1978 Stranglers gig at Stafford Bingly hall to take a photo of the bass amp to take to Manchester music stores to buy one! Decades later Hooky is delivering his honed down brilliant versions of Joy Division and New Order classics with, perhaps, the best live stage sound of any band I’ve ever seen.

It’s perfect and precise. Every instrument is in its place – with that kind of icy grandeur and sense of perfection that was always key to the much-loved songs from Joy Division and New Order. I’ve seen Hooky deliver this set so many times but tonight was the best. These are classic songs and you just can’t fuck with them but the respect they pay to them and the way they deliver them with a genuine passion is captivating. 

After Peter Hook, it would seem like a tough call for Ash but they have the charm and the hits to remind the huge crowd that they were once riding high in the Britpop years. Far closer to there grunge end of things than the Brit flag-wavers, the three-piece still have that Nirvana DNA embedded somewhere in their music but tempered with a highly melodic and very British understanding of the form. Bass player Mark Hamilton pulls imposable lanky shapes whilst Tim Wheeler still knows his way around a great melody and dynamic. The last time I bumped into them was 18 years ago in Havana when the band who I also once nearly produced were filming a video in a rough part of the downtown. I can’t believe that many years have flown by and yet the band look unscathed out aged by the cruel processes of showbiz and their music sounds as youthful as ever.

Sleaford Mods are running amok…they must have one of the greatest stage set up ever seen – a mic stand, a flight case and a laptop. It’s minimalism at its best and when the duo walk on with the minimum of fuss it’s to a great welcome. Swiftly that minimum of fuss is turned on its head by their stunning barrage of lyrics and beats – they are a brilliant live band who somehow combine the direct power of Big Black with hip hop, industrial music with anarcho-punk, the kind of surreal brilliant British love of wonky poetry with an innate and frustrated anger.

They have really turned the English music scene on its head in the past few years and Jason’s fast, claustrophobic and angry delivery is a wiry account of the nasty, dark heart of not so great Britain – the grey streets and the smouldering anger and confusion but spiced with an acidic and thrilling humour which he delivers with an increasingly entertaining and captivatingly camp dance moves, 

Skunk Anansie headline the Friday with an impressibly big rock show. The band may have been lower profile since their massive breakthrough but they still command the huge audience and Skin is an even more impressively charismatic future than before with a huge voice that fills every nook and crevice of the site. 

NOFX and Less Than Jake are bringing a very American frat boy teenager, pulling daft face in the name of punk rock belching rock to the fest. They both come under the very wide embrace of punk but it would make more sense to term them something else surely. Of course, they have all the hallmarks of the ancient movement but by the time it got to mid-nineties USA it seems to have morphed into ‘people wearing shorts on stage’ beery snigger which just cannot be allowed in punk rock! 

Less Than Jake create a big party vibe with their ska infused eternal teenage strop rock whilst the following NOFX are a decisive band for the festival.

There are many who are not comfortable with the band’s belching honour which is in the grand tradition of gurning punk aimed to annoy everyone. 

A lot of comments see NOFX being branded as racist and amateurish but this is a deliberate tongue in cheek self-destruction about the band that has got them into trouble in the past. They are also impressively tight to a level that even their fuck-ups sound pre-planned. Singer Fat Mike does the drunk fool thing to perfection and is still hilarious in a gonzoid bad taste way as the band deliver their fast and furious guitar rushes with perfect harmonies that go down a storm. 

Middle-order bands like The Black Seeds are not the glowering dose of post-punk melancholia that we were expecting but a dose of Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros world music party with an emphasis on dub that justifies their long trip from New Zealand. 

Newcomers The Blinders are one of the hits of the festival. Their incendiary set is wild, explosive and yet full of imagination and space. They are very much part of the current vibrant explosion of young band like IDLES, Fontaines DC, Murder Capital etc but they have their own thing going on and the glowering twanging and moody shapes of the songs is a nod at the Nick Cave funereal pomp. A dark storm that could be an avenue they will explore in the near future as they start work on their second album. 

Post gig I wander there field and they are the talk of the many faces that come up to me out of the Devon air. Within twelve months The Blinders will have the chance to become one the key dark genius bands in that huge history of bands from the Velvets to the aforementioned Cave. 

Ferocious Dog are the festival heirs in waiting and their mid-afternoon set has one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen for the slot. The rapturous reaction sees the band surfing on a wave of righteous adulation for their mix of folk and rock that nods at the Levellers but very much has their own thing going on. The band deliver great songs but with a heartfelt message. It may be old fashioned with the modern media but their tales of life in middle England and the broken towns are brimming full of passion and intensity and curl around great melodies that are wildly received. 

Cast are delivering those mystical Scouse anthems that have served them well for decades. John Power has the waif-like charisma that makes this stuff look so easy and that natural Liverpool talent for great tunes whilst  Cabbage are as gloriously off-kilter as ever and yet still knocking on the door of the mainstream with a devilish pop nous. Get Cape Wear Cape Fly deliver succulent and succinct messages over an indie wonk funk workout whilst She Drew The Gun underline just why they are one of the fast-rising bands of the moment with an atmospheric and smouldering indie-pop that is full of dark chords and a grey sky melancholy and beauty.

There is so much to batter the senses with and as the festival draws to a close exhaustion is mixed with a warm glow and an empowering positive fuzz to take the ongoing music led belief in the power of a counter-culture into the rest of the year despite the increasingly Trump-like world were all have to live in. 

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.



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