Bearded Theory Festival 2023 Review

By David Vass | Published: Fri 2nd Jun 2023

Gary Numan

Thursday 25th to Sunday 28th May 2023
Catton Hall, Walton upon Trent, Derbyshire, DE12 8LN, England MAP
currently £175 for the weekend
Daily capacity: 9,999
Last updated: Fri 2nd Jun 2023

After the Covid enforced break that Bearded Theory (and everyone else) took, the return of the festival last year should have been the start of a new chapter. Yet the event was marred by a low level discontent amongst the punters that I spoke to. It was certainly crowded, the loos weren’t always up to scratch, the campervans were inconveniently parked and – worst of all – you couldn’t get to see the Woodland stage without turning up an hour before your chosen performance. I have to say these are gripes reported, rather than experienced by me. I took the view it was busy, but not oppressively so. I didn’t use the loos in the arena much, I don’t have a campervan and as for the Woodlands – it was hard to get into because it is a finite space and there were some very good acts on. The acquisition of Bearded Theory Festival by the DHP family naturally fuelled the rumour mill, but the owner of the Rock City in Nottingham surely came too late to the party to influence last year’s Spring Gathering. Nevertheless, it fed into feverish speculation about this year’s festival, one which will surely prove key in determining the event’s direction and durability.

Bearded Theory Festival Crowd 2023

First impressions were comfortably familiar. Same car park, same campsite, same friendly and welcoming folk at the gate. The Spring Gathering moniker appeared to have been dispensed with and – of course – people had already paid considerably more for the ticket, but so far, so good. The programme was more a booklet than a magazine, there’s a lanyard thrown in, and both come at a price that’s a little steep. The big change, however, were the punters coming through the gate - as Billy Bragg (more about him later) asked “Where have all the Crusties gone?” I’m not sure you should say Crustie anymore, however affectionately meant, but he did so I guess I can. Whatever the collective term for counter culture folk, there were less of them and more people that looked like me. The cost of the tickets must surely be a factor, but a shift in the music on offer probably also had an effect. You can’t, I suppose, expect New Model Army, Dreadzone and Ferocious Dog to turn up every year, but Public Service Broadcasting, Snapped Ankle and Hot 8 Brass Band were among some surprising alternatives.

Hot 8 Brass Band - Bearded Theory Festival 2023

The latter of those bands headlined on Thursday, and you have to say the festival really looks after campers turning up the day before (which was – let’s face it – everyone) with a full evening on both the main stage and in the Woodland. 3 Daft Monkeys were up first and did what they do best – get the crowd going. They set things up nicely for Oh My God, It’s the Church, so it’s a pity some of energy then dissipated. The Reverend Whatnot is backed up an excellent band, and has a fair voice himself, but my does he like to talk. Do we really need to know that the British don’t spell Leicester phonetically? “Just play another bloody tune” said a despairing bloke behind me after the diatribe has gone on and on, and quite right too. The aforementioned Hot 8 Brass Band closed the main stage with their fusion of funk, hip-hop and rap, but somehow didn’t lift an audience that slowly drifted towards the Woodland area to hear The Orielles. They struggled to settle in, but ultimately deliver a heartfelt set.

The Orielles - Bearded Theory Festival 2023

First thing on Friday, Bearded Theory started the festival as it meant to go on, with Panic Attack belting it out with a set that was as raucous as it was funny. Packing out the main stage field at midday (which is early morning in festival time) they had the crowd on their feet and dancing to, among others, a break up song based on the crime of putting the milk in before tea. The Go! Team followed with a nostalgia tinged set, but it was Déja Vega that offered up the first hair raising moment with an outstanding check list of anthemic songs. They performed on the new Meadow stage, the big change at this year’s festival. And make no mistake, it is a big change, and a big tent. We’ve had tents before at Bearded – as recently as my first year in 2015 there was one – but the Meadow stage hosted acts that wouldn’t shame the main stage. To that extent, the Woodland stage has effectively been demoted. There was a small queue to get in on Thursday, but thereafter it was back to the bucolic delight I remember from years back. The bands were still good, they just weren’t famous, playing in a haven from the hubbub of the main festival.

The Go! Team - Bearded Theory Festival 2023

It could be a noisy haven, however, not least when Opus Kink took to the stage. A six piece of guitar/vox, keys, bass, drums, sax and trumpet, they mashed up funk, 2Tone, jazz, mariachi and post-punk to create a sound that felt like Fat White Family jamming Specials songs. Back in the Woodland, Dea Matrona reminded me, in a good way, of ZZ Top, while the mordant wit of Nicola Kearey only added to the magical sound of Stick in the Wheel. Less successful were Snapped Ankles, who I greatly admire and have seen do better. Deprived of their natural habitat of dingy clubs and out in the unforgiving sun they looked less like mythical creatures and more like men with mops on their heads. It was time to venture beyond the main stages.  

Who, after all, could sensibly resist seeing 2000 Demented Slags? As it turned out only ten turned up, and one of those was a wee tot playing the triangle, but the noise they played was pleasingly chaotic. They appeared in the Convoy Cabaret, a venue that offered up a strong and varied line up this year. Although it feels like old school Bearded, it’s only been an option for a few years, yet it provides a welcome sorbet from the musical mainstream offered elsewhere, and showcases by far the best band names going. When stuck for somewhere to go, both Pete Bentham and the Dinner Ladieswith his gender fluid dancers doing unspeakable things with mops, proved irresistible.

 Bearded Theory Festival Crowd 2023

Back in the Woodland, William the Conqueror excelled. They are a band I’ve seen before and been previously unconvinced, but were the highlight of the day for all of half an hour when I saw Dead Anyway in the truly marvellous Tea Tent. With a programme of events you only get to see on the day, on a blackboard, the venue really is old school Bearded. Dead Already completely captured my attention. This collaboration between Kate Arnold on voice and Marc Symonds on drums produced a truly mesmerising sound that I couldn’t pull away from.

Mesmerising is not a word I would use to describe Grace Petrie - she’s too busy trying to wake you up politically to do that. Ferocious in her indignation at injustice, she is clever, funny, personable and, just like any voice of good conscience, a tiny bit annoying. I can think of no better way to end the day than in her company.

Saturday saw local Tamworth duo Your Dirty Blue deliver a stripped down set of muddy blues. Quickly filling the tent even this early, they ably demonstrated the problem with the Maui Waui tent. In its first year at Bearded it was twice the size and largely empty, but it was poorly placed – I do wish the festival had held its nerve. It’s now too small and stuck it at a crossroads. Granted, its now always full, but so would a phone box be  – somehow it always feels like a passing fancy rather than a destination, and too much trouble to elbow your way into, especially when there is always something else going on - which brings me to a note of caution. 

It’s too easy to flit between stages, and the temptation to do so is seductive. The prospect of seeing Alt Blk Era (excellent harmonies and infectious rap), Coach Party (in my view overhyped), Witch Fever (joyously cacophonous racket), and then She Drew the Gun (passionate and intriguing) one after the other because it could, technically, be done, was exhausting. Instead I gave myself a good talking to and sat down to some comedy in the Knockabout tent. Seasoned pro Alistair Barrie proved a solid headline act, but I chuckled louder with Patrick Draper and his eccentric wall charts. Imagine Dave Gorman before the invention of PowerPoint and you’ll get the idea. A special nod also to poor Sean Haydon, whose card tricks seem to go horribly wrong, without anyone really minding. 

She Drew The Gun - Bearded Theory Festival 2023

I can’t have been the only one who turned up to Elvana out of curiosity, but that only goes some way to explaining what must have been the biggest crowd of the weekend. Elvis singing Nivana sounds a neat conceit, but to my mind they sounded like neither, so I made my excuses until Billy Bragg. He was on top form, belting out classics from his songbook, with occasional backing from his pals. He does like talk, though, which steered dangerously close to preaching on occasion. He’s such a personable fellow, though, and such genuinely good company, that no one seemed to mind being lectured to. He was followed on the Main Stage by an apocalyptic stage show from Gary Numan that teetered close to theatre. As smoke billowed forth and movie clips of the weirdness appeared behind him, Numan commanded the stage in a way that was either magnificent or absurd, depending on your inclination probably a bit of both. The heritage hits still got the biggest cheer, but he certainly puts on a show.

Gary Numan - Bearded Theory Festival 2023

A shame the same can’t be said of Interpol. A strange choice of headliner to begin with, they won over few floating voters with their rumbling relentless drone. They have their fans, of course, who loved them, but as the crowd thinned out there seemed little prospect of them winning new ones. In the end, I followed the herd, and together we waited for the Bunnymen. A tent that had seemed so large and soulless during the day was already packed. They should have been on the main stage, either instead of before, Interpol, although the haze-filled cavernous Meadow stage was singularly fitting for this timeless band.

Interpol - Bearded Theory Festival 2023

To my mind, the Magical Sounds line up was disappointing this year, with only  Oood and Banco de Gaia peeking my interest. It was certainly disappointing to learn one of my must-sees, the extraordinary Scalping was coming on way past my bedtime. I get the tent likes to keep the party going – I made the effort for System 7 last year – but wouldn’t be more sensible to finish on a DJ? Those of us less inclined to Dad dance self-consciously faced not only staying up late, but having little else to see and do while we waited. In fairness, I had to get up early on Sunday anyway. For once, the Tea Tent had forsaken the Archers – something far more interesting had been programmed.

Up indecently early, I was in the Tea Tent for a morning showing of I Get Knocked Down, Sophie Robinson’s film about Dunstan Bruce’s brush with fab. What do you do, the film asked, after you’ve been a one hit wonder? The film was a masterfully constructed potted history of Chumbawumba and was followed by a Q&A by the pair, both of who were as lovely as they were self-deprecating. 

Perhaps it was a master plan to get everyone out of their tents, but The Undertones were surprisingly low down the bill. Granted they are Sharkeyless but otherwise pretty intact. New boy Paul McLoone has a fine voice, well suited to their back catalogue, and if you ignored the weird hip swivelling dance he kept doing, has a droll stage presence. Sadly, not something I can say about the Lovely Eggs. Perhaps I'd just grown tired of being shouted out, but it just seemed an incoherent racket to me. By way of contrast, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs were a coherent racket, with Matthew Baty in fine deform, bouncing around the stage like a fun sized Danni Devito. 

Pigsx7 - Bearded Theory Festival 2023

Without the dancing mushrooms I thought Henge a disappointment, despite the huge crowd they attracted, and Warmduscher left me decidedly cool, so I was wary when it came to the Mysterines. I'd seen them in a pub eighteen months ago and predicted greatest, which is usually the kiss of death, but for once I got it right. The raw edges seemed to have been smoothed off and even some of the swagger, but they proved to be consummate performers, very well appreciated by the crowd who, along with me, missed the start of The Pretenders to see their whole set.  Chrissie Hynde was in great form, with only the absence of Brass in Pocket - causing rumbles of discontent. “That's my Dad's favourite,” declaimed one punter despairingly. “I was going to record it.”

The Pretenders - Bearded Theory Festival 2023

On the home stretch now, I was conscious I had yet to visit the Woodland, so tentatively checked out Grove, despite jungle and bass not really being my thing. I was completely won over, however, by this talented pair, renewing my faith in the way festivals can confound expectations. A lesson learned in the importance of wandering off the path you are comfortable with. That said, I wasn't going to miss the band I wanted to see all weekend, which Bearded had kindly scheduled as the closing. Musically, visually and emotionally Public Service Broadcasting were outstanding. What a treat that the best thing I'd seen all weekend was also the last. 

So - to the big question. Has the new regime pulled it off? To a large extent, I think they have. The Meadow Stage is much more than an add on - it eclipsed all the others, including the main stage at times. The Woodland has returned to the haven it once was. The crowds seemed better dispersed, the camp site roomier and the late night Karaoke hilarious. There was so much to do I forgot all about the silent disco, but I'm sure it was a hoot. Apart from the urinals, which weren't for the shy and were, by close of play, really grim, the toilets seemed fine this year. The bars were utilitarian but functional; the food stalls varied and well placed. All in all, Bearded Theory remains a lovely festival, blessed with friendly people and unseasonably glorious sunshine. Some will mind that it has changed. Some will moan about it. I don't exactly miss the synchronised wheelbarrows or the beard wearing world record attempts, but their absence does signal a festival that has outgrown its roots and moved on. In these straightened times, I dare say it had to -  it remains to be seen if its gained more than it’s lost.

Beardy Man - Bearded Theory Festival 2023

review by: David Vass

photos by: Phil Bull

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