Some people have been getting very excited about this festival. Some people have been talking about it as if it marks an epochal turning point, an era-defining moment in the history of humankind. The end of the plague years and the beginning of a new age of milk and honey, music and sunshine.
Well, we’re here now, and the sun is shining.
Entering the site is straightforward, aided by good signage and speedy wrist-band exchange. If you’re having a bit of trouble putting up your tent in the wind, a stranger will help you. So that’s a good start, and there’s a very good chance you’ll have good neighbours, who are friendly and knowledgeable about music. Once pitched, you need to get back to your car to get your other stuff, but the car is much further away from the camping ground than in previous years. The festival is getting bigger and the camper vans are taking over. Minor gripe.
The toilets are clean and well provided with toilet paper. The queues can be long at busy times, but the provision of urinals for those of the male persuasion helps. On Friday morning at 10.30 you can have a hot shower without queuing, but later in the weekend it becomes a bit more difficult.
Bearded Theory has been going for many years now and it has its own traditions. Almost as important as the Sunday morning fancy dress competition is the Thursday afternoon gin competition, held in the Something Else tea tent. Competitors submit their home-flavoured gins to the judgement of their peers and of the panel of esteemed judges. This year the theme was for savoury flavours, which meant that one of the most delicious, gingerbread flavour, was disqualified. The winner was cucumber and mint, which could be considered a somewhat conservative choice. Other contenders included Marmite, pizza Margarita with chilli, and smoked peanut.
Musical accompaniment to the gin tasting was provided by Sam Tucker, a folk singer from Sheffield wearing a dress. He had a song about holidays called Ain’t Going to Blackpool No More, It’s Skeggy from Now On, and two break up songs featuring the line, Now we’re just static, when once we were charged. Sam is a good singer, with good songs and good banter. He deserves a better slot than in a small tent with people talking about gin. Let’s hope he gets it next year.
The main stage at Bearded Theory is called the Pallet Stage, for reasons lost in the mists of time. First up on Thursday are Cottons, a group of young lads who play cheery guitar music to a small but growing crowd. “Thank you for coming so early to see us, whoever we are.” The vocalist tells us the site is only 20 minutes from his parents’ house.
Cottons are followed on stage by the Pierce Brothers, who’ve travelled a bit further. They’ve come here from Melbourne, and that’s Melbourne, Australia, not Melbourne, Derbyshire. And they only arrived yesterday. They play acoustic guitar and drums and sing an easy but precise two part harmony. They have a west coast sound, but when they bring in a mandolin and go up-tempo they sound Irish. Siblings do harmony so well.
It’s way past beer time.
This festival is both rare and glorious in that it has no restrictions on bringing and drinking your own booze. But there are plenty of bars with a wide range of real ales at reasonable prices (£4.50 to £5) served by efficient and friendly bar staff, so it would be a shame not to patronise them. An up-front charge of £1.50 for a sturdy plastic glass to last you the whole weekend, and you’re away. The special festival beer, Bearded Theory Ale is as cloudy as milk, but tastes ok.
As the sun goes down the temperature drops. No, as the sun goes down the temperature plummets. It’s early in the year, we’ve been warned by the organisers to layer up, we’ve been here before, we know it gets cold at night. But this year. Really. Each night more layers, never enough.
Another duo that share a name are John. They comprise John on guitar and John on drums, and they play the Pallet Stage early on Saturday. They play punky thrash metal to a polite morning crowd mostly sitting on folding chairs. John the drummer and vocalist is shit hot. This duo is really a drummer with a backing guitarist. And it works. Like so many acts in this festival, they’re too good for the slot they’ve been given. What this festival needs is more rubbish acts...
Which brings us on to the Convoy Cabaret tent (the spelling of which has been corrected this year). If ever there was a place for rubbish acts this is it. But no. It’s been an absolute joy. On Friday evening we had Rites of Hadda, a four-piece with vocals, guitar, drums and sax. The front man started the set wearing a frilly gown, which he soon removed to reveal a red dress. The songs started fast and punky, and the sax gave a flavour of X-Ray Spex. The sound in the Convoy Cabaret is not the best (unlike all the other stages, where it is excellent) so it was quite difficult to work out the lyrics for the faster numbers, but you could tell they were sincerely meant. You could tell it when he sang you used me and I love you, and particularly when he sang ACAB. But he put on a great show. He took off his dress and left himself in tight little pants, then applied panto make up and put on a blonde wig and a latex mini-dress. The slower numbers featuring up-front sax sounded like prog. This festival showcases brand new genres of music. This is pink prog punk. There’s another wardrobe change, all on stage. Now he puts on a purple wig and a Rick Wakeman style wing cloak and sings something about a goat god. This is dodgy panto with a message in a messy, intimate venue. Superb.
On the same stage on Sunday is Pastor Disaster who DJs behind a group of dancing nuns. Towards the end of the set the nuns carry out a blessing of selected members of the audience with holy cider.
The Pastor and the nuns were followed by T Bitch. There were drums, frocks, drums, a person dressed as a shrimp (they’re from Southend), drums, inflatables, and lots more drums. The front man, who is the drummer, says he’s nervous, but he doesn’t look it and he doesn’t sound it. One of the songs is called I just want to be pretty. The unicorn is dangerous, but imaginary. You should be here. It’s amazing.
As well as beer, a festival-goer needs food. There’s plenty to choose from, and they literally cater for literally all tastes. Prices have gone up a bit since last time, unsurprisingly. The pie shop does good pies. If you tell them you’re from the north they’ll give you more gravy. The motto of Toastie is “what happens in a field stays in a field”. They are on the approach to the Woodland area, so you can enjoy your breakfast cheese and bacon toasted sandwich with lots of brown sauce and chilli sauce sitting on a hay bale at the bar next door. At the pizza stall near the fairground a ten inch margarita with anchovies and chilli flakes is a reasonable £8.50. At the Sri Lankan street food stall you can get four crispy lentil dal vadas with sauce and salad for £4. The sausages in the sandwiches at the all day breakfast butty bar are disappointing, but the fish and chips from the van near the Pallet Stage are really good – crispy batter, moist, tasty fish, decent chips and tartar sauce.
The fairground has everything a good fairground should have, from the scariest thrill-seeker rides to the hook-a-duck stall. And there’s more merch than you can shake a skull-headed stick at. (A fake fur coat from Oxfam could be a very wise purchase.)
Bearded Theory likes a bit of reggae music. On Thursday we have the Dub Pistols, who are possibly more ska than dub. They give us fast, lively, energetic, crowd pleasing beats in the evening sunshine. It’s a lovely atmosphere and the festival togetherness is here already. Respect!
Following the Dub Pistols on the Pallet are Dreadzone. They start at a much slower tempo, but build up and get into their stride with echoes and effects and samples. This builds up, so that in the middle of the set they start to sound almost like the Alabama 3 and it makes you wonder if we have discovered acid house reggae music. But then they revert to more generic reggae, and there’s a tribute to Toots Hibbert, who died of Covid in 2020. It’s both a sadness and a reminder.
The second stage at the festival is less originally called the Woodland Stage. It’s a small stage at the foot of a natural amphitheatre on a hillside covered by tall oak trees. It’s a lovely setting, sheltered from the cold wind, it feels intimate, and somehow the trees don’t get in the way of the view. Playing the Woodland Stage on Saturday afternoon are Echo Machine. Their front man wears a suit. He moves around the stage like Morrissey, talks like Alan Cumming and sings like Martin Fry. He has confidence and stage presence and a good band behind him. Their music is kind of retro, but in an up to date way. They would be perfect to do a soundtrack for a film set in the 1980s.
Walt Disco play the same stage on Saturday afternoon. They also have an 80s vibe, but their singer goes with the flow and wears a dress. His vocals are something like The Associates and something like Sparks. He dances like Dead or Alive, and throws himself to the ground like Jack Grealish. Like so many acts at this festival, the band make a great connection with the audience, so we can all have a great time. Phenomenal.
Echo Machine and Walt Disco are very good bands, but they’re not exactly big names. If you want to see anybody who anybody’s heard of at the Woodland Stage you’re going to have problems. Twenty minutes before Working Men’s Club were due to go on stage at nine o’clock on Saturday the queue to get into the area was huge. Ten minutes later it stretched as far as the main arena, and people were joining the queue to see Peter Hook, who wasn’t due on until quarter to eleven. Crazy. Think you’re going to see Neville Staple? Think again. Wilko Johnson? Forget it. You couldn’t get in to see Craig Charles even if you wanted to.
This needs to be sorted out.
In the light of that, it is something of a miracle to be able to see the Fat White Family on the Woodland Stage on Friday night as the sun is going down. They’re about ten minutes late on stage and the tension is building. They have hard-core fans in the crowd. The feeling of menace cranks up as the music starts, a mesmeric rhythm with drums, keyboard, bass and bass sax, and vocals that sound like Aboriginal throat music. They cast a spell – this is auditory hypnotism. Lias Saoudi, the vocalist, wears a white suit. He’s soon out in the crowd and being worshiped like a god. The tempo goes up and they explode into a mosh. The energy is manic, the feeling is transcendent. Stomach-churning, life-enhancing nihilism, this might not be the future of music but it’s the present. They play a slow ballad, country music in waltz time, percussion on a beer keg. The timing isn’t perfect but the mistakes make it better. This kind of music changes people. Fucking brilliant.
To the headliners.
Placebo play the Pallet on Friday night. Tight, sensitive guitar rock, slightly anthemic but with twiddly bits, great musicianship and a superb voice. Their loyal fans lap it up. They do a good version of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, but they don’t do Nancy Boy. It makes you wonder if the song has fallen to the Language Police, in the same way as Bob Dylan’s Hurricane and Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army, and British Sea Power and Slow Readers Club.
On Saturday it’s Patti Smith. She and the band are all in black and her hair is all in white. Her voice is as powerful yet fragile as ever and her commitment to her songs as strong. Her son Jackson plays guitar, and he’s good – a spare style with a Country twang. Patti reads a poem by Allen Ginsberg, which would have probably sounded better in the 60s. But she stands by where she comes from. She’s sincere.
The Flaming Lips close the show on Sunday. Wayne appears in a giant bubble and sings the words that are projected, one by one, on the screen behind him. This is the first gig they’ve done since the pandemic, and they don’t disappoint. There is something of a hiatus when the band stops playing because there’s an injury to someone in the crowd, but it seems to be sorted out ok. We enjoy the giant pink robot and the fireworks.
Now back to the smaller stages.
There’s comedy at the Knockerdown Variety Club. Ignacio Lopez is there on Saturday afternoon. He’s funny. He’s Spanish and he makes his living taking the piss out of British ‘culture’, particularly the many and varied aspects of it that involve drinking. Everything he says is true. The compere for the afternoon is Susan Murray she takes delight in the prospect of teaching nine year old audience member Ollie really good new swear words so that he can impress his school friends.
In the Maui Waui tent on Saturday, the Horse Puppets are: Helen on keyboards, Paul on guitar, Tommy on upright bass and Lizzie on fiddle. Paul and Helen are married; it’s Lizzie’s first gig; and Tommy is studying in Switzerland and has flown here just for this. They play understated folk with three part harmony. It’s perfect for getting your breath back after a bit too much punk.
At the same venue on Sunday are GU-RU, billed as a unique expression of psychedelic eclecticism. Their front man doesn’t wear a dress or a suit. He wears gold loon-pants, a tie-dye T shirt, beads, a long robe and blue lipstick, but no shoes. He plays keyboard. Also on stage are a female flute player in a glittery cape, a drummer, and a seven year old boy, who doesn’t contribute but looks cool. The keyboard and flute combo means they start off quite Focus, and some of the flute playing is on one leg, but they soon go their own way. They play fast and complicated, slow and introverted, 2:4 dance, discord jazz. They have a song called Gimme a Sign Lord, or it might be Gimme Asylum. There’s room for this trippy music at this festival. It’s a big tent.
Baka Beyond are in the Magical Sounds tent on Sunday. We’re told that Ellie, one of their singers, is ill and can’t make it, but they do a fine job without her. They play African rhythms with drums, drums, bass and guitar, feeding off each other expertly and joyfully. Someone said something about criss-cross rhythms that explode with happiness. That’s about it. Get well soon Ellie.
Boom Boom Racoon are a three piece acoustic band with a trumpet on Thursday night at the Something Else tent. Good fun – both the band and the venue.
First thing on Friday morning The Now play the Pallet Stage. They’re Welsh, and they play good old fashioned up-tempo stuff with choruses and guitar breaks, sometimes Manic Street Preachers and sometimes Lou Reed.
Saturday starts with The Kubricks. They play tight, brassy ska, and we get a ska version of Tainted Love. They’ve enjoyed themselves enough to take a selfie at the end of the set.
More reggae later in the day from Misty In Roots. These old guys know how to do it. They’ve had plenty of time to practice. Give thanks and praise. A black and blue damselfly flutters around the crowd in the afternoon sunshine.
Dubioza Kolektiv, Pallet, Friday afternoon, just bonkers.
It’s always great to see, and hear, The Hives. It’s Sunday, and it’s Pelle’s birthday, he tells us. Such a showman, he sounds more like a black American preacher than a Swedish rocker. He dedicates a song to you. And you, and you, and you. The rest of you can fuck off. Powerful, heavy music, full of energy. They give us a false encore, coming back on stage only because they won’t get paid if they don’t.
Well, we’ve seen lots of bands and had lots of fun, but with the Flaming Lips’ fireworks it’s all over.
This is a good festival; a working class festival. People here have a sense of community and look out for each other, they’re not privileged twats who think the rules don’t apply to them. Have you seen the amount of litter and rubbish at Glastonbury? Here there’s almost none. (And thanks to the people who go round picking it up.) From the first day, when people were helping to carry strangers’ luggage, to the last day when we’re getting cheery goodbyes from the security people, it feels like this is how the world should be.
Every festival has its highs and lows. For this festival the lows were the freezing cold nights and the crazy queues for the Woodland Stage. The highs were everything else.
Leaving the site is straightforward, aided by well-organised marshals and courteous drivers.
This could be the dawning of a new era. Bring on the future.
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