You know how sometimes festivals invigorate, despite the excesses of strange food and drink, the extra exertion of dancing, and the constant visual stimulus bashing your eyeballs you come away feeling more alive? Well last weekend's Levellers organised event in Devon did just that for me.
Now in it's 11th edition Beautiful Days continues to quietly sell out year on year, with no media splash or advertising, and it does that by keeping it's customers firmly in mind. With no sponsorship or branding the Levellers' own event is the complete antithesis of those twin V Festivals which also happen on the same weekend.
You won't find acts walking on stage 20 minutes late at 'Beaut Daze' as Beyonce did at V, or masses of delaying costume changes (although the Lancashire Hotpots do have two - a pirate quick change, and the donning of safety attire). You also won't find acts walking off stage because the crowds aren't up for it as Plan B did at V. Nope, here the acts are all crowd pleasers, there's just so many of them that there are the occasional clashes like rising local groove machine Melosa, and the hilarious The Lancashire Hotpots, or Monster Ceilidh Band, and Babylon Circus. However of the line-ups of acts on the stages are staggered so you can watch at least one and a half sets usually if there are clashes.
There's no sponsorship here, and no over priced drinks, no it's a sensible £3.50 a pint for lager, a choice of 4 Otter Ales, and an even bigger choice of real ciders including the holy trinity of Suicider, Tricky, and Devon Mist, - plus you could even bring in your own booze should you wish, which makes this festival seem much more accessible to all, even those who had to scrimp and save for the £120 ticket. Food too is priced at around a resonable £7 mark, and the fact 'Beaut Daze' can do this makes all those other festivals that charge the earth for food and drink look bad, bad, bad!
The Beautiful Days crowds were back at their best this year, gone were last year's 'festival tourists', they probably headed for V Festival or the beach. Instead there was a fantastic animal (the Sunday fancy dress theme) flavoured vibe created by a colourful crowd that wouldn't look out of place in one of Pete Loveday's comics. It wasn't all about looks and labels in Devon last weekend, it was about the wild, wacky, and imaginative.
There's also loads of kids, of the under 12s variety, rather than the passed out on the ground or being prattish youths variety. There's a wealth of things for them to do, from playing against the Levs at football, to performing in shows, to making things including rockets that really are fired off into space, there's loads to keep them occupied. There are also food stalls that are obviously selected with them in mind, and the occasional kids stall too. None of it feels separated from the main event. In fact everyone can walk through the kids area to get between the two main stages. There's also lots for them to watch from waking up shows, to going to bed stories, and no hint of the commercial names or TV stars, this really is a festival for kids at heart.
Thousands of us had flocked to the picturesque grounds of Escot House over the weekend and it seemed a great number of those were there with families and these spent the daytime exploring the family fun before listening to the quality live music offerings at night. Well apart from Beige Colour Scene, who incidentally were also off to play V Festival for the weekend, I'll say no more but they were much like the giant inflatable stars adorning the main stage at the time - a bit of a let down.
But it's not just about the music and a wealth of stuff for kids to do, the festival has over the last few years added a host of other additions with a strong strand of theatre, poetry, comedy, site artists, and more also adding to the depth of entertainment. Plus for night owls the silent disco raged on until 5am, though I never had enough energy left to make it there this year. Although all the campsites are fairly easy to get to and not too far from the site, the campervan fields like at most festivals are the furthest away, and it was a bit of a trek home after a day's tankard waving.
For Levellers fans it's a must attend event, not only do they open the show with a great acoustic performance but they also close the weekend with one of the best performance I've ever seen in all of the festival's 11 year history. Really rocking out, they may have surprised a few of the younger family members with their explosive noisy arrival, but it was ballsy and vital and concluded with a jaw dropping fireworks display. Then, whilst the moon shone down we also had to have the obligatory light mist fall after the finale but that only came as a refreshing cool off after all that dancing. The only slight surpriise was how messy our fellow festivalgoers were as the child buggies trundled away - the clean up crews over the weekend must have had to do a Herculean effort as the rubbish mounted up at times. Shame really there were plenty of recycling bins (okay not all that visible in the crowds) to put the waste in. All this and flaming lampposts what more could you ask for?
Well, as someone points out to me over the weekend perhaps a bit of politics? A tiny amount, there's bone marrow stalls, and RSPB stands, but none of the activism the Levs are so famous for supporting. In fact there's no frakking mention of anything 'right on'. Seems a bit of a wasted opportunity, even if it is in the majority preaching to the converted. Certainly the sentiment in their songs is as strong as ever. (and I still can't believe the tie dyed T-shirts on the merchandise stall sold out before I got one!)
Anyway, back to the festival. The site itself is far enough off the road to not cause congestion, although at gates opening the rush to get there did result in familiar queues, a reduced police presence, and happy Oxfam stewards meant there was a fostered good vibe from the off. don't get me wrong the police were there but as usual they appeared to be enjoying the music and fun as much as the rest of us, I bet it wasn't the same at V.
Okay, there are a few scumbags - as is also unfortunately common at festivals, the first night saw a rash of tent thefts, but most people are wise enough to know it's likely to happen, and make provisions for it. We were camped near an Oxfam tower and encountered no trouble whatsoever all weekend, well apart from a rogue badger getting a bit overexcited with a tiger and snapping a tent guy line. But that was more foolish boisterous fun than aggravated. The laid back site policing, and quick response medical services (one of the kids in our party was stung by a wasp) really added to the 'safe' festival vibe.
So, back to the music the big hitters were Primal Scream, Ocean Colour Scene, Sinead O' Connor, and Arrested Development, but it was only the latter who truly caught the crowd, well perhaps Sinead too, but she's not my cuppa. Primal Scream disappointingly just went through the motions although we did get a lot of their latest longplayer. Instead it was Headmix (back on stage after such a long break their young kids had never seen them play) who truly proved the biggest highlight on the Saturday night, and surprisingly fellow Big Top headliners Clannad proved my personal highlight of the whole weekend.
There were so many other great performances, and it was a real cracking line-up of great musicians even on the smaller stages that made it a memorable musical odyssey. Even though it was off the beaten track The Bimble Inn hosted an embarrassment riches in Neck, Dan Donnelly, Rodney Branigan, Mad Dog Mcrea, Ruarri Joseph, Hobo Jones & The Junkyard Dogs, and many more.
Even when we do get a bit of weather there was no sea of brollies to hide the view. John Robb of Goldblade was far too expressive for us to even notice. On the whole the elements were kind to those camping out, and there was still grass to sit about on come Sunday. The wind on only added to the elemental element of 65daysofstatic who delivered a tremendously good set.
There were also big hitters in the Dance Tent with Andy C, and Krafty Kuts pulling in the crowds. Elsewhere Gaz Brookfield, Subgiant, Melosa, Moulettes, Merry Hell, The Correspondents, Imelda May and comedian Robin Ince all impressed those who watched them. Though, all told you could pretty much stick a pin in the programme anywhere and find an act that delivered. I can't remember the last time I've seen such a strong line-up across the four music stages, and whilst I must admit to not spending a lot of time at the Theatre Tent (which always had a long queue outside waiting to be seated), or the Band Stand, I suspect their offerings were of equally high standard.
Parody bands are starting to prove so popular it's only a matter of time until Parody Fest is created, from this line-up with fastival favourites Hobo Jones & The Junkyard Dogs, The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican, and The Lancashire Hotpots all draw big crowds who leave with smiles on their faces.
Village Disco too made a return and apparently they very nearly weren't there! Considering how entertaining they are I do wonder who would replace them, certainly pretenders to their crown Monoscope just didn't draw the same crowds. I thought they had become part of the festival's fabric like the colourful mushroom tent, the Nineties tinged rave centred Leviticus tent, the Tiny Tea Tent, and the clean and well stocked AndyLoos.
There were a few site changes this year. Whilst one bar had rocketed away leaving a bit of a void around the Little Big Top, it's cocktail bar (their Dark & Stormy was a big hit) is now integrated into the main 'Hope Tavern' with Glastonbury's wooden Avalon bar transplanted to the Redwoods area. however back above the Hope Tavern looked in daylight pretty sparse, but at night it was home to a blizzard of bubbles, whilst projectors festooned nearby trees with fireworks. Even so there's a ripe space there for the festival organisers to bend their creativity into creating something new. I also missed all the wooden mushrooms and the like that were beside the Big Top of last year, and those big critters that used to welcome us on the bridge from the family camping across the river into the main site.
The only other slight adjustment was the slight lack of site art this year, compared to previous years, although the piano in the family area proved an early highlight with a late night Thursday performance by a trio of keyboard players.
The festival also offers much more, there were some genuinely interesting stalls this year even for the hardened festival goer to want to peruse. Artists are also housed on site, my personal highlight being the aforementioned Pete Loveday who not only creates an original double page of artwork in the programme, but also brought with him cards, and a new Russell comic I just had to read right away.
The festival seems to slowly grow each year, not in numbers but in adding to the entertainment and activities and spreading them across the entire site, encouraging us to explore rather than just sit in chairs in the main arena. Don't get me wrong there's still a contingent who put down roots there, but at least they tend to sit in their chairs, or take them with them. Most of those families setting up for the day take blankets and sit up on the flanks of the natural amphitheatre.
It was such a terrific menagerie of fun and sights on offer that I recommend you get your tickets as soon as they go on sale, or face disappointment. Surely next year everyone and their mates are going to want to go? My only slight niggle was despite working long hours voluntarily to cover the event, the photographers had to pay a Red Squirrel tax this year. But that's it, from the moment we were wristbanded to the roadside stewards waving us off as we left, I couldn't find a single thing to moan about, well apart from a slight grumble about the lack of wall to wall sunshine we got earlier in the year.
But, anyway what a refreshing weekend, and a big thanks goes out to all those that make it possible, from the production people to the bar staff, you all deserve a pat on the back. Thanks to the Levellers for coming up with such a fantastic laid back annual event that I look forward to each year. Thanks especially to those that organise it all and make it work, and of course thanks to all the little creatures who came along this year, and shared it with me, see you all next year!
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