an almost-perfect Bearded Theory

Bearded Theory 2018 review

published: Fri 1st Jun 2018

Bearded Record Attempt

Thursday 24th to Sunday 27th May 2018
Catton Hall, Walton upon Trent, Derbyshire, DE12 8LN, England MAP
£115 for the weekend - SOLD OUT
daily capacity: 9999
last updated: Wed 9th May 2018

So, here we are, out in the English countryside. The sun is shining and it's festival season again. We've been waiting for this all winter.

This festival has been going for ten years or so, and it seems to get bigger, better, and better-organised each year. Cars are parked, and then there’s a queue of half an hour or so for wristbands before you can pitch your tent and crack open your first cider. The camping fields are an easy stroll from the parking fields. There are people selling programmes as you enter the site, and the programmes are well produced, well set out, informative, and good value for money at £5. By having them for sale, rather than giving them away as part of the ticket price, they don’t become litter. The camping areas are not crowded.

Unlike many festivals these days, security is minimal, and you can take as much of your own food and booze as you like onto all parts of the site. The organisers deserve great credit for keeping it that way.

But just because you're allowed to take in your own stuff, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn't patronise the bars and catering establishments. There is every kind of festival food you can think of, and a few you couldn't. The Campsite Cafe does very popular breakfasts, good pies and even roast Sunday lunches, at decent prices. And they serve their food on crockery plates with metal cutlery. Also highly recommended are the wood-fired pizzas and the Caribbean patties in the arena area.

Next door to the Campsite Cafe is the Corner Shop Festival and Camping Supplies. If you buy a camping chair because you stupidly forgot to bring your own, and the new chair collapses on first use, they'll change it for you, no questions asked.

There are dozens of bars, a couple of them are in giant marquees, but there are also tiny ones scattered all round the site, including in the camping areas, operating out of trailers and one out of a horse box. The big tents are operated by the Thornbridge Brewery, and they have six real ales and nine ciders. Prices are very reasonable – around the £4 mark, and half pints are half the price, which is becoming rarer. Also, they provide electrical sockets for people to help themselves to charge phones, which, at a festival, is a damn fine bit of customer care.

This is a four day festival, starting on Thursday and finishing on Sunday before the Bank Holiday Monday, so there’s no worry about rushing back to work as soon as it ends, and everyone can enjoy the full experience right to the end.

There have been a couple of traffic accidents on roads nearby, and this has caused some delays with arrivals, both for the punters and for some of the acts.

King Kong Company apologise for the delay. They tell us it’s their job to get us ready for the great acts to come, and it's a job that they take very seriously. Their drummer plays trombone and their singer plays trumpet. She also does dances with a variety of cardboard boxes on her head. Their sound is big, bassy and brassy, and they play on the off-beat. This is dance reggae, a whole new musical genre, and with the theatre to go with it. It’s a great start.

It's the next band on, The Whip, that make the sacrifice for the delays, they only get three songs, but they go down really well. The crowd respond to the driving rhythms with some early dancing.

This is on the main stage, for some reason called The Pallet. It's set in a natural grassy amphitheatre, so there are good views all round, and the sound is good. There are signs around the periphery saying "No Camping Chairs beyond This Point", which is a decent attempt to avoid a menace of many outdoor festivals, but as the weekend progresses non-compliance becomes an increasing problem.

On Thursday there are just two stages operating. The other, appropriately, is called The Woodland. It's set in a plantation of oaks that are adorned with bunting and fairy lights, and there’s a large pond at the side (behind temporary fencing). It's a lovely setting for a stage, and it gets quite magical when the sun goes down. It’s even a nice place to be when the rain comes down later in the weekend. On Thursday it’s just DJs, and Don Letts does a nice set of accessible tunes. There is late-night comedy on Friday and Saturday.

For the rest of the festival there are six stages. The Magical Sounds tent does a lot of dance music, the Maui Waui tent does a lot of more experimental music, the Convoy Caberet [sic] does a lot of activist and political stuff, and the Showcase showcases new acts. Notwithstanding, there is absolutely no rigidity about musical genres. This festival is about as musically diverse as you can get. There are also lots of smaller stages scattered around the site, and Busk Stops. One of the smaller stages is in the Something Else tent, where they have a sign saying ‘No Racism, No Sexism, No Homophobia, No Arseholes’. Beardy Keef plays his ukulele here and Kate sings, wearing her wedding dress.

The Mushroom Project play the Magical Sounds tent early on Sunday. They are on stage for an hour and a quarter, during which time they play three numbers. They are a seven-piece, with keyboards, flute and violin, and they are joined by two dancers and singers for the last song (although the view is spoiled by the road-crew bloke, standing at the front and doing his techy stuff). The flute is high-flying and trilling. It could be Ian Anderson or Thijs van Leer; the violin could be Darryl Way. This is beautiful prog folk, but with more emphasis on the prog than the folk. It is a project worthy of Daevid Allen. And there are two female band members, four if you count the dancers. The audience is quite sparse, but engrossed. The music is difficult, but worth the effort. It’s mostly minor keys, and each number goes on a winding path, with no obvious destination, but it’s a great trip.

In stark contrast are Pizzatramp, who play the Woodland stage on Friday. They’re a young thrash-punk trio from Wales. The front-man singer-guitarist has a bottle of bourbon by his side, and he drinks most of it during the show. The band play one-minute songs, and then 15 second songs, some of them several times over. There’s a song they dedicate to everyone who’s not at the Woodland Stage, called I Hope You Fucking Die, and one they dedicate to everyone who is at the Woodland Stage, called I’m Glad You Didn’t Die. The singer dedicates another song to his granddad, who he tells us gave him lots of drugs before he came on stage. “We’re not a comedy punk band,” he says, “We do social commentary. This one’s called My Fucking Back’s Fucked”. This is brilliant. And they are proper good songs. One of the many highlights of the weekend.

On Thursday night there begins the familiar patter of raindrops on the tent, and by the end of the festival there have been some serious and prolonged thunderstorms. Sandals have been exchanged for boots, but there is surprisingly little mud. The drainage is a mysterious miracle of hydrology.

The site is in the grounds of a stately home, and it’s a lovely place, with trees and woodland, pasture, and the River Trent marking one of its boundaries. It’s compact, so there is very little time wasted in moving from one stage to another, but there is very little sound leakage between stages. As well as the catering and merch markets there is a funfair and a children’s village. The funfair is popular and busy through the whole weekend, with a Ferris wheel, flying chairs, carousel, bucking broncos, hook-a-duck and a coconut shy (which doesn’t get many customers). There is a sign on the Crazy Bulls bucking broncos saying “Safety Notice. This ride is not suitable for wimps or sissies.” Children are very well catered for, there is a Children’s Village area with its own Village Hall Tent, Village Green, Story Tent, Craft Tent, Festival School and a performance area. There are plenty of kids at the festival, and they all seem to be having a good time. Ten year old Matthew plays his electric guitar at one of the Busk Stops. He has his hat out and there were quite a few pound coins in it.

The festival also prides itself on its provisions for people with disabilities.

On Saturday morning (or, at least, it feels like morning) Circus Insane is on at the Convoy Caberet tent. The Circus is just one bloke, with his beautiful assistant, Looby Loo, and a mate who helps out from time to time. He opens his act by stapling a ten pound note to his forehead, and things go downhill from there. He puts his hand in a gin trap, eats a light bulb, sticks safety pins in his arms and then swings weights from them, and does scary stuff with a sword and a chain saw. He swallows a coat-hanger, and when he retrieves it after being hit on the head with a frying pan, he is bleeding quite profusely from his nose and mouth. He finishes the set by pushing his head into a bucket of glass. (“No glass allowed on site!” shouts an audience member.) One small criticism of this venue – the stage is set at the top of the slope instead of the bottom, so the view is quite restricted for those not at the front when there is a reasonable-sized crowd.

Inside the Convoy Caberet tent is a lorry with a mixing desk on it and a caravan with a hairdresser’s in it. Before the Circus starts the screens beside the stage show a series of black and white photographs of the New Age Traveller Convoy to Stonehenge in the 1980s. And following the Circus there is a talk by the Stonehenge Festival Campaign. There was appalling police brutality against the travellers, most notably in the Battle of the Beanfield in June 1985. The Campaign wants to remember the victims and re-establish free festivals for the community around the stones. The gathering of the tribes. Revenge for the Henge. Make a stand – and dance!

NFA support the Campaign, and they play in the Caberet later. They’re pure punk, with politics and tartan bondage trousers. It’s not clear what NFA stands for, but it’s not No Further Action.

Reverend and the Makers are also political. They play the Pallet stage on Thursday night. John Mc Clure says he’s here to make us bounce. They play Shine the Light and he says we don’t look like the kind of people who play FIFA. They play The Heavyweight Champion of the World and he does boxing moves. There are pictures of Sheffield’s steel works and the Park Hill Flats on the screen. They step it up. They get anthemic, with gutsy bass and brass sounds. We bounce.

The Everly Pregnant Brothers are also from Sheffield, and they play the Pallet stage on Sunday afternoon. They sing songs about Sheffield life to the tune of classic songs. They are a six-piece, with three ukuleles, double-bass, drums and vocals, and they have a good crowd for so early in the day. They begin with Sheffield Calling, after which Park Life becomes Pork Pie, and Love Cats becomes Fat Twat. We have Me Chip Pan’s on Fire, Stuck in Lidl with You, and a great singalong to No Oven No Pie, a moving song about a malfunction of his Nan’s pilot light just when the meat and potatoes and pastry are ready. There’s also the song that starts, Reggie Sprayed Me Car. They’re a hoot. At the end off the set, as everyone is falling about laughing, Sean the front-man gives a serious and poignant message about mental health and the importance of looking after each other and listening to each other. Top class.

Toilets are important. They’re kept nice and clean, the gents’ urinals have running water and the chemical toilets have hand sanitizer. There are plenty of them, so the uncomfortable queuing is minimised, and they don’t run out of toilet paper for the whole weekend. There are showers, too, and they don’t have queues, either. And neither do the bars run out of beer, as they do at some festivals – all types are still available on Sunday night.

The Membranes are an interesting band, fronted by John Robb, who’s possibly better known as a music journalist than a singer and bass player. They are on the main stage early on Friday. They are a five-piece, with double drums, double guitars and bass, but they also have a six-piece backing choir, the pieces being five girls and a boy. The band play a kind of space punk that is more space than punk, and the choir bring a kind of heavenly, ethereal sound. But they don’t take themselves seriously – this is part Hawkwind, part The Enid, and part the Bonzos. Show of Hands are watching from the wings; they’re on next. Phil Beer is taking photographs.

Another band with double drummers are Pins. They are an all-girl band and they play the Woodland stage in the rain on Friday. They have girl-power attitude and sing girl-power songs to a Glitter Band beat.

The Jesus and Mary Chain are on the main stage on Friday as a grey day is starting to turn a shade darker. They play a confident, assured set of intelligent and pained guitar and drum music, which builds up and grows through the set.

There are some people here who think that one Jesus just isn’t enough, and for them Jesus Jones play the Woodland stage straight afterwards. The arena is packed, and somehow it’s much bigger than it looks in the daytime. Intelligent lyrics – the louder you shout the better you’re heard, the meek shall inherit the earth: that’s absurd. (That’ll be another Jesus, then.)  They have heart-thumping drums, brass, and all sorts of keyboard effects. They’re exciting. They’re rocking. We’re dancing.

In the Walton Woods camping field is a wooden shack with a chimney and a log fire in the middle. On the fire there are kettles, and sitting around on benches there are people, some with guitars and some with hand-drums. There’s a permanent sing-song going on, and this place goes on 24 hours a day. It’s called The Magic Teapot. You can get any kind of tea you want, but no milk, only soya-milk or almond-milk. There’s no charge for the tea but they ask for a donation, and they don’t mind if you prefer to take your beer in instead. It’s a warm and cheerful place to hang out.

On Sunday it’s Beard Day, and proceedings on the main stage are opened by Sheafs, yet another band from Sheffield. They play heavy guitar music, Kasabian-style stadium rock, and it’s only 12 o’clock. The front-man is a real showman, with proper confidence and ambition. On only their second song he’s at the barrier singing in the faces of the audience, and a bit later he’s jumped over it and he’s in the crowd singing and dancing and shaking his tambourine, and people gather round him, taking selfies. The crowd increases through the set; and you can’t argue with that.

Not long afterwards the stage is taken over by a fancy dress competition compered and judged by Michael, one of the festival organisers, and a Bar Steward Son of Val Doonican, in full knitwear. It’s like a village fete.

It’s nothing like a village fete when the Sleaford Mods are on the stage, it’s all sweary, shouty working class rage. Except it isn’t all that, and the sweariness and shoutiness is not the point of it. Jason stands sideways on the stage, with his head-flicking, hand wafting mannerisms, like an East Midlands David Byrne. They’re angry, but they’re in control, and they’re a team. You sometimes forget how good the rhythms and the tunes are, but you do remember how good the lyrics are. This is for us. This is our culture; our art. “Bearded Theory,” he says, “I ain’t got a beard. Or a theory. But it don’t matter.” And it don’t.

Sleaford Mods played in the sunshine, on Saturday. Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band play in the rain on Sunday. They’re on the Woodland Stage. Eliza has blue hair, and the whole band have blue paint on their faces. And it’s a big band – they have double percussionists, guitar, trombone, trumpet, cello, keyboard, piano-accordion, button-accordion and three fiddles. She plays gypsy songs, seafarers songs, there’s a song about marrying an ugly woman for her money that has the refrain, Oh Mr Walker, I’ve come to see your daughter, and there’s dancing for the mud fairies. Mum and dad, and all the other members of the family, would be proud.

The guitarist of Crazyhead wears a shiny helmet and steampunk goggles. They are a good time rock band, who have a bit of ZZ Top about them and they’re another band who don’t take themselves too seriously. They play simple songs with great riffs, delivered with guts and with no poncing around. This is beer-drinking music. The singer has a powerful, throaty voice, and a strong presence. They finish with a really good version of Bang Bang, and a bit of punk. They’re from Leicester.

Dubioza Kolektiv are from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia. An eight-piece, all dressed in yellow, they play good-time, fast-tempo world music and they have good patter. This is a festival band. Boom Shaka Laka. Everyone is dancing. Part way through their set giant party poppers go off, launching huge paper streamers into the crowd.

In what appears to be a change to the schedule on the programme, Klonk play the Maui Waui stage on Saturday night. They are an eight-piece, with stand-up bass, sax, trombone, fiddle, accordion and bouzouki. They’re from Huddersfield, but their drummer is Australian, and they play rocking Klezmer. It’s a relatively small tent, and they’re up against Robert Plant, but the band are having a great time, and so are the audience, and by the time they finish the whole place is rocking.

Soon after Idles take the Pallet Stage on Saturday, there’s a spillage. A member of the crew comes to mop it up, and Joe dedicates the next song to her, Caroline. By the end of the set we also have two young boys on the stage, eight-year-old Isaac and his unnamed mate, who dance and smile, and look a bit unsure. Joe tells us what an honour it is to be supporting Sleaford Mods, who he says are the best band in the world. But Idles aren’t bad, either. “Do not read The Sun”, he tells us, “it will give you cancer”. He likes dedications – he dedicates a song to the NHS, another to women who have to put up with bullshit, and another to anyone who feels comfortable with being vulnerable to their partner (what does that mean?). Unfortunately, he also likes spitting. Not nice, Joe. Stop it. But he gives us great rock music, political and entertaining. He’s kissed a boy and he liked it. It’s proper, thoughtful left-wing music, not fashion. It’s not Oh Jeremy Corbyn!  He does do a bit of crowd-surfing, though.

Next up are Fun Lovin’ Criminals. They’re not political. Huey dedicates Smoke ‘Em to Travis Bickle. But we get the hits, and he’s a charmer – King of New York.

Kimwei is on the Showcase Stage, with an acoustic guitar and a red hat. She is a teacher at the Academy of Music and Sound, and she has some interesting songs with quirky lyrics. Miracles are ordinary; we are miracles, we are ordinary.

The Quincies play the same stage. They are an indie trio and they make the tent sweaty even though it’s pretty cold outside.

The festival is wrapped up by the wonderful Jimmy Cliff. He seems to have dozens of musicians on stage with him, and he has a sweet voice. You can just feel the good vibes going out to him from the big crowd. He talks about aggression in Syria, and in Vietnam. The Harder They Come, Wild World, You Can Get It If You Really Want. Fireworks go off behind the stage to mark the end of the festival, possibly prematurely, while he’s still singing. This has been a brilliant festival, attended by lovely people. We have such a warm glow. By the time he’s singing Wonderful World Beautiful People we can only think – It is! We are!

This festival is better than Glastonbury. It’s got all the good things – top bands, diversity of acts and experiences, social responsibility, availability of everything you need, beautiful countryside; and none of the bad things, like vast distances between stages, hordes of posh kids, knee-deep rubbish, overcrowding, mud. Bearded Theory festival is better than Glastonbury festival – there’s no higher compliment.


review by: Paul Champion

Thursday 24th to Sunday 27th May 2018
Catton Hall, Walton upon Trent, Derbyshire, DE12 8LN, England MAP
£115 for the weekend - SOLD OUT
daily capacity: 9999
last updated: Wed 9th May 2018


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