It is with slight apprehension that I head up the A1 to meander across to the Ribble Valley and the Beat-Herder festival. This is a place that I have loved in years gone by but so much has now changed; the pandemic, the cost of living crisis, other returning festivals not quite cutting the mustard and the rumour that the kids of today aren’t interested in creating shared, fun spaces but are rather just isolating in their unfriendly bubbles of choice - all factors that contribute to that sense of trepidation as I pull into the already remarkably full car park on Friday afternoon.
I need not have worried. As the weekend passes, my fears dissipate. Find me a friendlier, better-organised, creative and sparkly festival in 2022 and I will bite your hand off to be there (I probably won’t actually but I will eat your hat). All of the elements of what makes for a great festival are mixed together in a giant melting pot - a good measure of sunshine is thrown on in and the result is absolute bliss. The Wailers, headliners on the Sunday, sum the experience up quite succinctly; “We’re all about peace, love and unity”, they might say before adding “that’s what you find at Beat-Herder”.
It’s Saturday and the afternoon glow is just fading into evening. The paint fight has been and gone and we’re all dusting ourselves down from that sprinkling of rainbow colours. This is peak dressing up time. Every year, Beat-Herder picks a letter from its moniker that people can then go to town with. I scan the horizon around the main stage and see butterflies, a number of Boris’s, the big bad wolf, Bjorn Borg, bugs and cardboard boxes. I tell everyone that’ll listen that I’ve dressed as ‘boring’. I’m only half-joking. The thought and artistic creativity that goes into these costumes by so many punters is second to none. In the very best way, people show-off their wildness for our collective enjoyment. It’s that friendly.
There’s a story doing the rounds on t’internet. A punter, lost and in no fit state on the Saturday night, was looked after by a random stranger. The stranger helped the punter back to their campsite and their friends and likely missed out on what they were planning by doing so. But this is the essence of Beat-Herder - a million smiles, thousands of random (and totally impromptu) acts of kindness.
The tested and trusted stages and tents of Beat-Herder remain. Larger, outdoor, open spaces such as the main stage and the Toil Trees clearing compete with smaller micro-venues for our attention. There’s so much to see and do (the excellent programme lists 21 venues but there are likely even more than that). It’s such quality programming across the site that (magically) nowhere feels too crowded or too sparse. You don’t have to fight through crushes here or waste time in queues (I notice some at the popular fortress stage) and that’s down to top-notch planning by the festival organisers. They know how to throw a party.
The Beat-Herder and District Working Mens Social Club (BHDWMSC for short) has always been one of my favourite venues on site. I don’t mind confessing that I’ve missed the wonky cabaret, the Northern, 70’s-inspired stream of entertainment that goes on within. I see some simply superb sets from there this weekend. Polly Amour, the distant country music drag cousin of Mysti Valentine, joyously entertains with their crude, excessive and blatant swearing over a lo-fi mix before Masters Of The Scene, a duo from around these parts, tell tales about how Jason Statham was once part of their band and how they dread talking to over-zealous fans post gig. I have a chat to spite them. I manage to miss Paul Chuckle do half a catchphrase in the BHDWSC on Saturday evening but do catch the wonderful Mik Artistik rocking and knocking one out on Sunday evening. The thought that one of us might die before the festival comes to an end has never been so playfully and charmingly presented. Truth be told, you can pop your head into the social club at any point of the weekend and likely be entertained. Chorna Roza play souped-up Ukrainian folk music on the Sunday afternoon that we can all get down to. The Bug Club travel from the South West on Friday evening to show why certain 6 music presenters are foaming at the mouth about them. They get me giddily excited - and I mark them down as ones to listen out for when I get home. Yep, this really is a stage that has it all.
Except it doesn’t. A minor Beat-Herder complaint here - a needle in the haystack of praise - but there is no real ale on site. One of the many treats from festivals past was to have a well-priced ale or two from the social club or from the main arena bar. It would appear that sponsorship deals have been done and now the closest thing to an ale is a pint of fizzy craft from Vocation brewery. At a fiver a pop, this is no disaster but it’s a shame to see fewer options and perhaps it’s something to rectify for next year? Lager drinkers can get cans of Madri for £4.50 a go. Prices have increased across all festivals this year. In my opinion, the pricing at Beat-Herder still sits on the right side of acceptable.
That’s true of the food offerings as well. There’s enough options dotted around for you to be able to eat pretty well on a modest budget. I enjoy foods from the five continents but remain grateful that I can access the excellent crew cafe to get their great fodder when my belly demands.
It’s 2AM on Saturday night/Sunday morning and here I am dancing at the side of the perfumed garden tent. Somebody mentions that the soothing ambient house sounds coming from within are attributable to Alex Paterson and The Orb and they might well be right. I know that it’s exactly what I want right now as I gently sway from side to side, clutching my can of cider close. This is a happy time; those in direct proximity are all smiles. And I’m willing to bet that it’s like this all across the site right now; different drums, alternative states, mindful exuberance. Earlier in the day, at this very spot, I’d looked to the fields beyond and seen a range of enormous fish-kites take to the sky. Even for somebody who has been to Beat-Herder quite a bit before, this is still a festival that can surprise with that new thing (in this case, the kites) around every corner.
It’s a similar surprise when I spy the Beat-Herder waterfall, a person-made construction on the edge of the Toil-Trees. I’m told that it’s not a new addition to the festival but I’ve not been here for five years and it’s new to me. Signs tell all not to climb on the rocks and it’s an instruction that seems pretty well obeyed when I’m up there. With a coffee van in the corner of the clearing, here’s a chill-out area that you can access away from the frantic activity taking place on Beat-Herder’s very own street. I spend less time than I ever have before on the street - no time for visits to the chapel, the hotel, the barber shop or the ‘secret’ swimming pool. There’s too much to see in one weekend.
It’s great to see that the ‘Beyond’ area of Beat-Herder has become much more established since my last visit. Down beside the fortress, a maze of covered pathways lead you into themed spaces. We stop for a while and stomp to psytrance before being hypnotised by the happy house in another room. A neat and sheltered bar area by the side of the launderette stage opens up this whole area. It’s been said before that you could have a bloody great festival experience by simply hanging out in Beyond all weekend. I wouldn’t argue with that though I criminally neglected it myself.
Unlike at some of the larger festivals, it is Beat-Herder’s main stage that has most of the pull on my time over the weekend. It’s so easy to watch the range of bands put on - often you can find a spare bench at the side on which to perch. And then sit back and enjoy the sunshine and the tunes. Each of the headliners glow in the knowledge that they’re part of something special. Nile Rodgers and Chic have been here before - and I dare say that their set list has barely changed - but it matters not a jot as they get the Friday funk party moving with their solid stream of hits; Hot Chip play less that’s familiar and seem to split the crowd but I’ve always been a sucker for their clever dance-pop and thoroughly enjoy their Saturday evening majesty; I’ve already mentioned The Wailers on Sunday evening but it’s worth re-emphasising that they are simply divine on reggae-Sunday; there are grown adults weeping like babies when we raise our collective arms as they play ‘No Woman, No Cry’. Never has living in the moment and reflecting upon the past seemed so pertinent.
There are other highlights at the main arena; Public Service Broadcasting are as solid as ever; their public service announcements over a fully rounded sound a pertinent reminder of great human endeavours from years gone by. Ibibio Sound Machine are a perfect warm-up for Chic on the Friday - their recent ‘hits’ getting the crowd up and dancing. Warmduscher entertain with their sleazy, debauched rock ‘n’ roll whilst The Dub Pistols declare again that Beat-Herder is something of a spiritual homecoming for them. Cassia sound weak by comparison but both Kanda Bongo Man and K.O.G bring their A game as we delight in the Afro-beat sounds that they offer.
I don’t really want to wait a year to head back to the Ribble Valley. Beat-Herder is one of those festivals that you feel mightily sad to leave when Monday morning comes around. You realise that you had no time to even visit Trash Manor or the Stone Circle area. You barely danced at the StumbleFunk tent and only caught glimpses of the comedy and tribute bands in the Factory. Beautifully friendly, stunningly creative and pretty much faultless, I wish that every festival could have returned so triumphantly in 2022. The programme informs us all that Beat-Herder is opening on Thursday in 2023 (they trialled an early opening this year for some punters). To have more time to explore this thrilling landscape would absolutely not be a problem in these quarters. Herd ‘em up until next year.
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