So, it goes without saying that arriving at the Beardy Folk Festival 2020 is a different experience than it recently might have been. Initially though, it’s a bit more slick than normal. In order to reduce COVID-19 infection risk, the wristbands have already been mailed out, so you just attach your own, wave it at the steward in the normal way and you’re on the site. Once you’ve driven in you’ll notice with trepidation that the festival is operating at 20% of its licensed capacity. That’s about 700 - 750 people, plus an extra 200 for artists, stallholders and stewards. The tiny silver lining in this dark cloud is that there’s plenty of room to park and there’s no problem finding a flat camping spot. It’s feeling is significantly tempered though, with the hope that they can make enough money to at least break even and allow future events of this kind to take place. Not for the first time this weekend, I think huge kudos are due to the organisers for putting this festival on with so much at stake.
When you get to the main stage, you’ll notice that a lot of circles and squares have been drawn on the ground. The squares hold 2 people and the circles hold a few more. You have to pick one and stay in it. Some people leave their chairs in the spaces to reserve them for later, a bit like that Stan Boardman joke about Germans and towels. It results in a lot of empty spots in prime locations, which is a shame, but if that’s the culture here, then so be it. The designed effect of this is to spread the audience out to reduce transmission, but the side effect is that all of the space is used, giving perhaps the illusion of the full festival fields of days gone by.
The second venue is a walled garden. Again you pick a circle or a square, settle into it and listen. In that respect, Beardy Folk Festival 2020 is more mainstream in attitude than a typical folk festival. There aren’t any workshops or singarounds, no ceilidhs or Morris Dancing. There is however, some quality kids entertainment in the shape of crafts, circus skills and forest skills with Jitterbug Circus, who come highly recommended by the kids.
Interestingly, for a folk festival, singing along is discouraged this year, for public health reasons. The crowd comply with this as they do with all of the other public health measures in place. It’s a good reason to be optimistic that festivals can return and endure. If folkies can stop singing for the sake of the music, then anything is possible.
When I arrive on Friday afternoon, I’m enticed to the main stage by some Debussy-esque tones on a piano. It’s Daria Kulesh and Marina Osman and on closer inspection there’s an eastern European theme too, with songs of heroism, villains, mad monks and triumphs over evil.
Granny’s Attic, who are on the main stage on Saturday, are probably my festival favourites up to that point. It’s a controversial opinion though. Everyone is raving about Ranagri , who played earlier, and I take their point. But Granny’s Attic are pulling off the neat trick of releasing an album, Wheels of the World, to celebrate 10 years of being together, despite none of them yet reaching their mid 20s. They’ve got their trad chops down as well as any, and they have that musicality that young acts acquire by virtue of having been playing the music since they were teeny tiny.
After Granny’s Attic, it’s over to the second stage for Oka Vanga, and it is now that a particularly nifty trick of Beardy becomes apparent. The stages alternate, so no one misses a thing. You simply move from one area to the other and when one act finishes, it’s time for the other to begin. It’s a class lineup too. There’s always someone worth seeing and there really is no incentive to stay put and wait.
When Inlay play the walled garden stage late on Saturday, the music and the measures combine to create a surreal environment. The music is mesmerising and the audience stands, entranced by the show, each contained inside their own little shape. The effect is as much one of being at an art installation at the Tate Modern, as it is of being in a field at a folk festival.
Incidentally, if mesmerising is your thing, if you’re thrilled by the unknown direction an improvised tune might take or if you believe that much of music is the space between the notes, then there is more for you at Beardy 2020. Ciderhouse Rebellion, play the walled garden on Saturday, and the India Electric Company play the main stage on Sunday. They are well worth checking out.
It passes almost unnoticed that there’s an organised queuing system at the bar, perhaps because we are so used to it in everyday life now. It is the usual thing: wait at a 2 metre distance from the person in front until you are called. There’s no lingering for a chat with anyone but you do get your beers in quickly and efficiently so no moaning about that.
Next to the bar you’ve got the vegan food stall, and I could have spent the entire festival living off their pakoras. I’m sure the rest of their stuff is equally lush but I never got past the pakoras and neither did anyone else I met. There’s also pancakes, fish n’chips, pierogi, pizza and a coffee stall. Again, and I’m going to say this a lot in this review, kudos to the organisers. A walk around the campsite reveals that the crowd here are mostly in camper-vans and caravans. At some festivals with a similar clientele, there can be a depressing absence of food stalls, the audience preferring to self-cater. I went to a festival once where you had to go off site to even get a coffee. But there is a well curated selection here being widely enjoyed.
And on the subject of curation, if there was a folk award for the best curated lineup at a folk festival, and if it wasn’t a fix, and if there was actually some competition, Beardy would be a shoe-in. The festival was originally scheduled for mid-June but now it’s September, the days are sunny, but at night the wind demands plenty of layers in order to keep warm. It might be tempting to skulk off to a warm camper-van in such conditions but there’s no sign of that at Beardy, due in no small part I’m sure, to the calibre of the acts performing here.
Particular credit goes to the headliners, who battle the wind and cold for the last gig of the day. It’s Sam Kelly & the Lost Boys, on Friday; Calan, on a particularly cold and windy Saturday, and Sheelanagig, on the final night. Each produces the goods to keep the crowd in the elements until the very end.
And it’s worth remembering that it’s only cold at night here. By day, the late summer sun warms the bones. The Gigspanner Big Band plays the main stage Sunday afternoon. Their performance is such that the crowd leaps to their feet in appreciation at the end. They wouldn’t have done that the night before.
On the Sunday after Calan’s headline performance, the celtic feel continues, first with Mair Thomas in the walled garden, then with Susie Dobson later. Complete with a mountain dulcimer and a geography degree, Susie has that knack of performing modern and traditional songs side by side, in such a way as you don’t really see the joins, and I guess that’s how songs get to be folk songs.
Throughout the festival, in addition to expressing gratitude to the organisers for enabling it to go ahead at all, many folks say how lucky they feel to have bought tickets for Beardy Folk Festival 2020. We’re all grateful for our one and only outdoor music event this year. In normal times, you’d get your money’s worth here in the form of a beautiful location, a friendly and well-run festival and a well curated line-up of consistently top-notch acts. This year though, with more at stake, Beardy Folk Festival is proof that audiences and organisers are able to comply with public health guidelines to enable more of these events to go ahead. Perhaps music is the medicine we really need.
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