Maggie Thatcher is pinned to a dartboard and there’s an Elvis Presley impersonator on the stage. Elvis, resplendent in a glittering, studded white suit, is flirting with young women who are flocking to his feet. He high-fives people that hold out their hands as he gives us a tour through his back catalogue. People are laughing and happy, loving and tender. We could only be in one place. The Beat-Herder & District Working Mens Social Club has caught us in it’s very special and unique trap. Here, the special offer highlighted on a sign at the side of the bar is that, you ‘buy two drinks and pay for them both’. It’s a derivative and yet strangely appealing moment. Beat-Herder 2014 is hitting the heights. Tonight, we’re going to party like it’s 1973.
As it happens, ‘buying two drinks and paying for them both’ is less of a concern to the wallet than it has been at other festivals this summer. Notably, in a number of venues across the site (including the BH&DWMSC), there’s a fine and evolving range of ales, with names such as Headteacher and Detention, selling at £3 a pint to keep us very happy. Somebody mentions that this constitutes a price drop from the £3.50 per pint of ale at last year’s Beat-Herder. If this is true then the organisers need congratulating for the downward trend. Strong ciders are also available at £3.50 a pint. If ale is not your thing, there’s still the option of buying two cans of cold Red Stripe for a fiver.
I mention the price of beer so early in this review for two reasons. Firstly (and those I met over the course of the Beat-Herder weekend will testify to this), I like beer but secondly (and more importantly), this ethos of not wanting to rip any of their punters off, of offering remarkable value for money (tickets sell in tiers priced between £95 and £120 and the excellent programme is just £2), runs through the very core of Beat-Herder. Fifteen varied stages, all with top quality entertainment, programmed to run deep into the night and all displaying the finest attention to detail. If there’s a festival that offers better £ on £ value in the UK then I’ve yet to find it.
Much of my time this weekend is spent at the main Beat-Herder stage. Here we get a mix of local, national and international acts; some of the acts are newbies to the festival circuit whilst others are veterans. The pirate based, Seas of Mirth open the stage on the Friday night with a short set that still finds time to engage the audience with giant red sea crabs and tugs of war. Klangkarussell Live have passed me by to date but I’ll definitely be looking to get down to their dance beats again after an impressive set as Friday nights sun dropped. Jagwar Ma almost seemed unhappy to be in Beat-Herdershire but let their tunes do the talking before Friday nights headliners, the brothers Dewaele, known worldwide as 2manydjs, show why there is so much reverence paid to their funky mash-up mixes. This is a fun set of mighty proportions. All around me people dance and grin. Oh, What a night!
Saturday on the main stage hits similar heights. Some argue that Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy brings the mood down on the Saturday afternoon with his acoustic melancholia but I delight in hearing tunes from albums long forgotten and yet to be released. Following him, the Lumberjack Cowboy Heartbreak Trucking Co bring the mood right back up again with their Americana fuelled Country hoe-down all the way from Leeds. We all laugh together in the field as they indulge us with tales of Jesus, pornography and love. ABC, a late addition to the Beat-Herder bill, have perhaps never sounded this good as they shoot poison arrows through our hearts. This festival has the look of love. The La Rochelle Band, playing their first ever UK festival, provide evidence that those who programme for Beat-Herder look far and wide to find their talent. This Austrian trio do a disco swing thing and get the audience bouncing as a result. For the second night in a row, a quality DJ headlines. Vitalic sends the crowd wild with an array of styles and sounds that, I think, invokes a Daft Punk sort of feel.
I spend less time at the main stage on the Sunday (Elvis has stolen my soul) but, when I am there, the quality remains strong. Boney M are not everybody’s cup of tea but there’s a certain novelty about singing about ‘Happy Holidays’. The rain from earlier in the weekend has stopped so fortunately we’re not singing about rivers of Babylonian proportion. The Orb and Dub Pistols do their thing and show their quality in the sun. It’s all left for the Happy Mondays to bring proceedings to a close. Shaun Ryder and the gang are traversing the country this summer twisting our melons with their cleaned-up act. They let nobody down tonight as a happy Sunday and a fine mainstage festival draws to a close.
But, hanging around the mainstage, only scratches the surface of this fantastic festival. Dipping into Le Maison D'Etre tent, you've got every chance of seeing a new band predicted 'to be' massive by this time next year. On our first trip inside, we see The Pylons. They look ridiculously young, probably haven't chosen their GCSE's yet but display precocious folk-based talent. They might need to find their own sound and lose the obvious Mumford comparisons but once they do, there's every indication that the world will be their oyster. The Sunshine Underground skirted with that oyster a few years back but then seemed to lose momentum. Evidence from the new material they play suggests that they might soon be warming our cockles again with their shiny shimmer. The Family Rain are a name that have played a few festivals I've been to this summer but I've yet to see them. Obvious tunes surface but dig beneath and there's some epic musicianship bubbling. The tent packs out when much hyped Wolf Alice take to the stage but I've headed back to the social club to try and catch a bit of Goldie Lookin' Chain.
I have entered Pratty’s Ring. This is a new Beat-Herder venue, a sacred dance space that draws upon the legend of John Pratt, a man of these parts who stood 8ft tall and had the strength of ten men. Like many of the stages here, it’s a permanent structure, piles of earthy mud standing at least three metres tall covered with fledgling grass seed shaped into an amphitheatre. We’re encouraged to keep off the grass banks as the seed has yet to settle but this grand design impresses all who enter through the quarried stone support in the entrance. Sound reverberates and hardly leaks within this moulded mound. For some, it’s too loud on the ears and too hard on the years but these are mostly hardcore ravers in here and the bass doesn’t bother them. Hosted by Bombstrikes Records, the Utah Saints (we can’t get in when they play their set) and Sugarbeat over the course of the festival, it’s a space that captures and delights. We dance to the sounds laid down by Toni Jarvis on the Saturday evening as a group of grown men carry a lifeboat into the ring. It seems completely out of place when the Brett Domino Trio take to the stage just after Toni to play their awkward Justin Timberlake covers. Brett and musical partner, Steven Peavis, are a comedy duo, internet sensations and Britain’s Got Talent veterans. But Beat-Herder is a festival not afraid to mix with your senses and to challenge your expectations. By the end of their set, the dance hungry crowd are shouting for more.
Pratty's Ring is one of a few dance based venues on site. Those less inclined to dance joke that the Fortress, rebuilt again like a corrugated iron jigsaw puzzle after last year's success, is a great space in which to lock the muscle hounds and the unfriendly. "Keep them in there so that the rest of us can have trouble and aggression free fun", says one punter. I go in the Fortress twice and whilst there's a whiff of testosterone (in truth, I don't really know how that smells), the reality is a much more pleasant experience than anticipated. Like elsewhere on the site, this is a space that encourages partying and one in which people get on with each other.
Yes, this is the true beauty of Beat-Herder. Chatting with strangers, getting on like a house on fire with people you've met only a strike of a match ago. Here is a shire where nobody looks at you oddly if you spark up a conversation. I'm sure that for most it doesn't matter who the headliners are or what DJ you're dancing to. It's all about the quality of the chatter.
The space set aside for such conviviality is considerable. I spend less time up in the Toiltrees this year, a woodland space where DJ's such as Timo Maas, Mr Scruff, and The 2 Bears perform. But, when I am here, dancing is almost a secondary thought. Our primary purpose is to chat nonsense to our new best friends we met but minutes ago. Ditto The Street, a series of fixed buildings. Here we can book ourselves an appointment with a barber or tattooist, repent from our sins whilst we dance in the church or check ourselves into the Hotel California. I spectacularly fail to find the new addition to the street, the swimming pool, that you're able to hire out for pool party pandemonium. I hear this is no paddling pool though but a full-on, no half measure, effort. I do spend a fair portion of Friday night, Saturday morning before the thunder and lightning threatens, sat around Beat-Herder's very own stone circle and campfire. We indulge in stories and laugh at jokes.
This is a review that could run and run. Seeing Two Man Ting do their thing Saturday lunchtime in one of the more chilled out venues, The Perfumed Garden is another highlight. We marvel at the decor of this space, woollen tassels hanging from the roof that have clearly taken hours to prepare (this is known because we are camped near to the designer of this stage). There's venues I find little time to nip into; the Stumblefunk tent repositioned next to the Fortress and offering bass-heavy sounds throughout; the Trailer Trash venue provides us with a gamut of DJ's and bands; in Smokey tentacles, we can chill out with a shisha and a cup of Chai whilst listening to more up and coming world based folk offerings. Food stalls, priced reasonably, in line with the ethos of Beat-Herder, offering recipes from around the world. Toilets maintained with paper and soap. Around every corner, down every secret woodland path, surprises, attention to detail and people full of joie de vivre.
Sitting outside my tent on the Monday morning, I watch as people pack up and head back into the real world. I am sad to be leaving. I suspect that another few days amidst this quirky quality would neither dampen my fervour nor allow me to see everything the site has to offer. Tired from overdoing it, I'm close to shedding a tear. It's a sign of how great this festival is. In the words of Elvis, “A well I bless my soul, What's wrong with me?, I'm itching like a man on a fuzzy tree, My friends say I'm actin' wild as a bug, I'm in love, I'm all shook up, Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!” In other words, Beat-Herder, how great thou art.
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