I make no secret of the fact that Beat-Herder is one of my favourite festivals of the summer. There's something about this; perhaps it's the particularly peculiar and unique Northern humour that covers the quirky canvas of the site? The sense that you might be auditioning for a bit part in a new sit-com that's part Phoenix Nights and part Shameless? Possibly, it's the chance of discovering something new around every nook and cranny? You think you know what to expect and then your expectations are blown out of the water by a different stage or an act that you've never heard of before. The truth is (I think) that it's all of this and more. And the glue that brings it all together are the people; the colourful bunch of chatty and friendly festival goers who are up for a three day party and will let little get in the way of their hedonistic rambles.
"This is a dance festival and so we've decided to play our dance tunes". That's the way that Tim Booth, lead singer of James, explains their upbeat, distinct and exuberant set list choice on Friday night. A pretty late minute replacement as headliner for the unfortunate Primal Scream, none of those standing around me seem to mind. "I was disappointed when Bobby had to cancel but over the moon with James", said one smiling punter. "My favourite band of all time", said another. Even the light drizzle, that had been with us for much of Friday, and turned into more of a downpour overnight, couldn't get in the way of our enjoyment.
Mud - it's been a common factor in our 2016 festival experiences and Beat-Herder doesn't escape. Friday's rain meant that Saturday was pretty slidey and sticky across the site. At pinch-points, it got quite treacherous and there were quite a few bums sporting brown patches by the end of the day. But, the sunshine on the Saturday that turned into blissful blue skies on the Sunday eventually sorted things out. By the time that Chronixx treated us to their engaged reggae beats on Sunday afternoon, we could lie down on the battered, blemished main stage turf and escape into our own thoughts.
Maybe it was because outside sitting options were more challenging that I found myself spending a bit more time in tents for the weekend. There's such a massive range of stages (I make it at least 14 now) within quite a compact site at Beat-Herder that you're rarely at a loss to discover something new. Tim Booth might have marked this festival down as a dance festival (and mostly it is) but to do so overlooks some of fine new acts that appear across the site and, in particular, in the Maison D'Etre tent. For the most part criminally under-attended, this is the stage where expert bookers try to give us the next big thing. Indeed, I'm reminded that it wasn't many years ago that I saw Wolf Alice and George Ezra in here in relative solitude. One act that really catch the eye on Saturday afternoon are Leeds based funksters, Happy Daggers. They put their all into this and lead singer, Sinclair Belle, demonstrates the stage power to captivate thousands rather than the few who do choose to watch. Ditto Yonaka who have travelled all the way from Brighton for this performance. I knew what to expect from these having seen them supporting Drenge a few months back but they've clearly tightened their sound and upped their game since then. In Theresa Jarvis, part Kate Bush and part Florence Welch but with a rockier presence, Yonaka have a lead singer who can reach the heights. Louis Berry, Meadowlark, The Amazons, and Clean Cut Kid also put in fine sets in the Maison D'Etre. In truth, this was a definite place to be.
Saturday is dressing up day at Beat-Herder. The concept is simple but the designs that punters pull out of the bag are far from. Each year, the next letter from the word 'Beat-Herder' is used. So, whereas last year, we had Elvis, elderly, Edna Everage and Eddie Stobart, this year we have rollercoasters, ravens, ravers (that mightn't have been fancy dress) and Rabbi's. It's a very live subject of conversation amongst punters over what the fancy dress theme might be next year, now that the letters have run out. One chap that I chat with is adamant this is the last year of Beat-Herder in its current non-commercial guise, that next year we'll get sponsored stages and a more corporate festival. I hope this is nothing more than campsite conjecture because it would be a shame if the wonderful world that's been organically created here was in some way threatened.
New areas and refinements do seem to get added each year and this year is no different. Next to the Fortress that bangs out hardcore tunes, you can cross a little bridge to find yourself entering an underground tunnel. The tunnel has different spaces coming off it on from all angles which you're free to explore. The Sunrise area is here, a space dedicated to Psytrance. We spend a little while stomping in the mud whilst smiling at strangers. Dig deeper into the catacomb and you'll stumble across 'The Illustrious Society', a venue that you can only enter if dressed in a suit or steam punk gear. A quick flash of my press pass and I'm into this secret club. I dance for a while and enjoy myself but ultimately want to get back onto more common ground.
Sunday afternoon and I'm sat in the Beat-Herder and District Working Men's Social Club (BHDWMSC). For the uninitiated, this is a venue at the very core of Beat-Herder and one of my favourites on the whole festival circuit. Lampooning a traditional working men's social club, this is the place to be if you like corny cabaret, cheesy tunes, bingo and karaoke. It's a throwback to a time when entertainment was simpler; when we all sat around a crackling TV picture to watch Hilda Ogden lose her rag and found hours of amusement in the arcades with one armed bandits. This year, on the walls, there are shrine-like tributes to Mrs Merton, Victoria Wood and David Bowie. None look out of place.
The reason I'm here on Sunday is for Squinty McGuinty's Comedy Cabaret. It's a hilarious way to spend a couple of hours with a wide array of off-the-wall, slightly bizarre acts taking to the stage. 'Squinty' comperes from the confines of a strait-jacket for much of the time. In an effort to rediscover the lost art of escapology, he outlandishly claims he can undo the harnesses within 45 seconds. Comedy poses prevail and yet 45 minutes later he's still well and truly stuck. It shouldn't work as comedy but simply does. Mysti Valentine, a glamorous drag act, takes to the stage for a general singalong. To the tune of Mari Wilson's 'Just what we've always wanted', she admonishes the work of Brexiteers for giving us the horrendous aftermath that has ensued ('Just what we never wanted'). Little Johnny Cash covers George Formby on a ukelele before moaning that his friend, Wee Willie Nelson (who joins him on stage) has stolen his wheelbarrow. The Moaning Lisa, a gruff Northern man stood behind the Da Vinci work of art we're all familiar with, grumbles about the way of the world, sings tunes and indulges in brilliant put-downs of hecklers. ("Christ love, Picasso must have spent at least half an hour on you.") Surreal, madcap brilliance that's interspersed with can-can dancers and gymnastic acrobatics.
I was also in the BHDWMSC late on Saturday evening/Sunday morning. Grabbing a space towards the front of the tent, I found myself singing along with reckless abandon to ABBA:Arrival, an Abba tribute band. Maybe it's overexposure to the Eurovision Song Contest in recent years, being forced to watch Mamma Mia by OTT friends or simply being a tad too drunk but I found myself thoroughly enjoying this set. Through blurry eyes, the four in the band looked the part as they blasted through Abba classics from yesteryear. Yes, it was nostalgic but it was also an incredible amount of fun. My jaw ached from smiling too much after that show and I managed to miss the fireworks (again) that impressed others so much who were outside at this time.
Beer and food - it's a pretty important component of the festival experience for me. As with everything else about this fine festival, Beat-Herder doesn't let you down on this front. For one, it's one of those few festivals still standing that doesn't employ over-zealous security guards to search you for cans and liquor when you enter the main arenas. The organisers suggest that you bring no more than 4 cans with you on each visit but don't limit you from going back to your tent to collect more if you so wish. The result of such a trusting, open approach (I think) is that the many bars on site do a decent trade all weekend. I drink the 4% Bleat-Gurgler golden ale for much of the weekend at £3.00 a pint. A stronger cider is available at £3.50 a pint or you can buy cans of red-stripe. All of your possible food needs are catered for and you can find a portion of whatever festival fodder you want - perhaps little has varied here in recent years but the traders know how reliable the festival is and vice-versa.
The bulk of these food traders are positioned around the edges of the main stage arena. A natural amphitheatre, this has always been the place to come and watch reliable festival acts who you know will entertain. But, this year, perhaps because of the mud, crowds seem to pick and choose more. We get the ridiculous situation where a band such as Formation put on a show with epic pop posturing to a very select crowd (they were ace - well worth watching even though you could sense their disappointment about crowd size). Regular punter pleasers such as Gentleman's Dub Club, Beans on Toast, and Dub Pistols fared better. You could see the sense in booking Donovan (something for everyone) but quite frankly this was a car crash. More than competent when playing solo with an acoustic guitar for the first six sings or so, it all goes horribly wrong when a band join him on stage. "That's Brian Jones' son you know", somebody tells me whilst pointing to a guitar player. I don't stay around to find out much more. A cacophony of 'fingers down the blackboard' sound mixed in with the noise of somebody politely being sick. I can only hope that it got better.
Photographer Phil and I are sat up in the Smoky Tentacles Shisha Lounge on the Saurday morning. This is a tent with live, more folky and world based music, where people come to smoke on shishas and drink tea. It's part of an area that might best be described as Beat-Herder's healing field. It's in this field that you get a mini stone circle, tents offering state of the art, pinpoint massage techniques and vendors selling you glitter and eyelash extensions.
We come to sit out of the mud and catch the set by Lewis Garland. Immediately dismissing him as a pleasant-enough, singer-songwriter who's hardly breaking boundaries, he surprises over the set and draws me in. His rich, solid voice sings unrequited love songs about living in Coventry and it's not half bad. Later, I talk to Lewis when I bump into him in Trash Manor. "It was my first gig for pretty much three years", he confesses. This is something you'd never have guessed, such was his relaxed confidence on stage.
Trash Manor, the updated version of the Trailer Trash stage, had already given me one of the best 'You've Been Framed' belly-laugh moments of the weekend. A stage that mixes live acts with punky attitudes and DJs who refuse to be pigeon-holed, it's also a great place to sit and watch the world go by. Unfortunately, for some the sitting proved too challenging. Those who know Photographer Phil well will know he likes his motorbikes. Old, foam filled, bike seats perched on oil drums made up some of the seating in here and we sat on them in a circle - except Phil didn't. Leaning a bit too far back, he crumbled into a delicate heap, straight into a muddy hole, as the chair gave way. Being the decent friend that I am, I found a wet wipe in my bag and laughed riotously for hours. I guess you had to be there. Sunday evening for me was also spent in Trash Manor. The brilliant Greg Wilson was doing a DJ set, as proceedings across the rest of the site drew to a close. Polite arguments about the pros and cons of Brexit with businessmen from Burnley give way to the fine mixes and clever callbacks which Wilson litters throughout his set.
Not far from Trash Manor is the woodland area. Here you can walk down a street where there's a church, barbers shop, hotel, swimming pool and garage. Outside the church, we pause as a walkabout theatre group dressed as vicars encourage sinners to lie on a plank whilst their sins are cleansed. I pay a pound to enter a WI like Tombola in aid of the church restoration fund. The prizes are mostly naff but I win a coffee frother. Happy Northern days.
The street gives way to a clearing in the trees. From all around us, a deep and life affirming beat hits. This is the Toil Trees area. I spend a fair bit of time sat on a bench up here, watching people as they stagger through the mud of the site. The music I hear is mostly of the deep house variety. Classic sets from Marshall Jefferson, Sunday afternoon breezes from Mr Scruff. A fine place to rest, dance and summon the energy for a little bit more. From the vantage point of this bench, Photographer Phil spots an underground venue called Angies Den. He heads off and I assume he's going to explore this den. But, I'm wrong. Instead, he places an apostrophe made of mud onto the sign to correct what he perceives to be the apparent grammatical error. It is now Angie's Den. We never go there. There simply isn't time to do it all.
We're walking back across the site on Sunday afternoon from a Bowie tribute that has been playing in the Stumble Funk tent (a very linear journey through his hits which sparks a 'guess the next tune' game) when we're approached by a wandering magician. He proceeds to blow our minds with a mind-reading card trick and an imaginary pack of cards that seem to materialise out of thin air. It's not as if our minds aren't already blown away by the brilliance that surrounds. Just another tale of the unexpected from Beat-Herder. And my tales only scratch the surface of the many stories that have been created this weekend. From the new to the established, the random to the planned, the obvious to the oblivious, the people of Beat-Herder shire have experienced another magical time in the Ribble Valley.
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