Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Bearded Theory 2015

Odd name - great festival.

Wow! That could have been the shortest review ever. Or it could yet be the longest. There's so much to say about this event it's going to be hard leaving stuff out.

First impressions weren't that good. Organisation of arrivals left quite a bit to be desired. Many tent campers were having to make huge treks over awkward ground and we were sat queuing to park up in the campervan field for far longer than was necessary due to some poor marshalling.

The festival started on the Thursday with just the Something Else Big Top stage operating but what an outstanding lineup it was on that stage. It would have been better to take the afternoon off but work commitments are a fact of life and combined with the parking issues we had to listen to The Bar-steward Sons of Val Doonican and Mark Chadwick while waiting outside the arena - very frustrating. From the cheers it sounded like they went down a storm.

We were sorted in time for 3 Daft Monkeys though. One of the best festivals acts around and they did not disappoint. It's always a dancy experience but not sure anyone was prepared for the lively mosh that ensued - not sure the band had ever seen it before even. Children and others at risk from flying bodies were thoughtfully and quickly moved stage side of the security barriers and a great time was had by all.

The rest of the weekend went by in a blur. The festival has a really great vibe, a complete range of ages represented and a very friendly atmosphere everywhere. The arena area broke down roughly into three areas. The hub, closest to the camping, was centred around a funfair surrounded by food outlets, bars, the Disco Shed and three under-cover music venues. I won't comment on the funfair and food as I didn't really use them but this clearly provided a very family friendly area and focal point for the festival.

This was home to the Something Else Big Top stage and its little sister, the Tea Tent both hosting great music throughout. The fixed line-up on the Big Top was complemented by sets on the small, mainly acoustic stage in the tea tent that were filled dynamically throughout the weekend. The final music tent was Magical Sounds which mainly pumped out dance music but also hosted a few live acts. This is the first time I've come across this sort of dual use and I think it's a mistake. It's too easy for live music lovers to write off the venue and miss good acts.

Beyond this area two 'streets' of shops selling mainly terrific festival clothing but also other natty stuff and some more food led to the area of the main Pallet Stage. Enough room for a few thousand people with a raised area set well back for wheelchair users and similar. More food stalls and a bar peppered the perimeter.

The final zone had the Woodland Stage at its heart. This was a simply joyous place to be. The stage itself was a beautifully lit wooden construction with a great sound. Catering by Nana's Kitchen and a bar completed the picture (although we didn't use it we heard great things about the pre-booked Sunday roast from Nana's Kitchen). The woodland area was colourfully decorated and lit and even when no bands were on people were choosing to hang out there. If it had been wet I can see this and the approach path would get a bit muddy (last year's festival at the same location was extremely muddy across the whole site).

The way to the Woodland Stage had more stalls and, near the entrance to the main arena, a last minute addition to the attractions, the rather lovely Floating Lotus Stage. We'd seen some great acts on this last year at Boomtown and sure enough, despite having to fill their slots with suitable artists from those at the festival at short notice, this was once again entertaining. There's a relaxed, hippy feel to the venue and a selection of hot drinks and cakes made it a favourite place for many to chill.

There was far too much music to be able to comment on all of it and with 6 stages you inevitably miss a lot. So I'll just mention a few highlights which tended to be away from the main Pallet Stage.

Star Botherers
First up on the Woodland Stage I give you the Star Botherers. Probably mentioned them before but a great pair of lads and I love the catchy songs. "You charge too much for your jams and preserves" goes the song "My National Trust" decrying the idea of paying to walk around someone else's house and "I Wanna Be A Bad Guy" is a work of genius,

Blind Fever Band
Dave Drury (on the bass 'uke' for Star Botherers) also featured in the act that followed them with his son Brad on drums (both formerly in Ferocious Dog). The Blind Fever Band are also from Nottinghamshire and play a great set in a Bluegrass, hillbilly, skiffle kind of way.

Sweetchunks Band
After a quick nip over to the Something Else Tea Tent to see Pete Bailey of Leatherat do a solo turn we found ourselves at the main stage watching a good high energy, hip-hop laced set from Sonic Boom Six. Then it was back to the Big Top for The Sweetchunks Band. The Southampton-based blues/folk group inject their music with more than a splash of humour and covers and originals strong on the theme of drinking. The usual steampunk look was not as obvious as frontman Stuart had lost his hat, replaced by Keith the chicken - a hugely popular addition to the band with the audience as it turned out. Beneath the humour this is a skillful outfit with great guitar, banjo and cajon work.

OK, time to get back to the Woodland Stage. BabaJack are an established band that I've not seen before and one hell of an act. The music itself is a very engaging fusion of blues, roots, folk, funk and tribal rhythms executed with enormous skill. Becky Tate's vocals and cajon carry the performance along with a curious blend of the sensual and the frenetic. This was one of the performances of the festival for me.

So one of the great things about festivals like this is the impromptu events that can pop up out of nowhere so when we bumped into Scott Doonican and he said he was on the way to busk we naturally tagged along. What followed was a brilliant jam involving The Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican, Sweetchunks Band, Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs and the odd audience member. Wino Tyrone's ad breaks promoting random items from the jerky and dried fruit stall next door were bloody brilliant. Everyone was singing, dancing and clapping along and the hat that someone thoughtfully passed around suitably bulging. Magic!

Gaz Brookfield feat. Ben Wain
Still Friday! So much good music. Another dip into the Tea Tent for Maelor Hughes - brilliant - and then we're starting to work up the bill on the main stages. All 3 main live stages had top acts in their final three but we chose to stick with the Big Top for Gaz Brookfield followed by John Player Specials. I'll go on about Gaz at any opportunity but this is getting too long already. Suffice to say he had an overflowing venue eating out of his hand. Most were singing along to every song showing what a following he now has. I love it when he plays with Ben Wain and this was an outstanding set.

John Player Specials
I first saw John Player Specials last year at Something Else A Bit North festival and loved the fast, punky, ska-based full sound. They suffered a few sound system glitches but nevertheless delivered the same again to an increasingly lively crowd.

Jaya The Cat

To finish off the second day we were back at the Woodland Stage for some reggae from The Netherlands. This was a great opportunity to catch Jaya The Cat in the UK as they are mainly touring Germany for the rest of the year. Another first for me and I liked the relatively laid-back, mildly punky ska performance. A good way to round off an amazing day of fun and music.

We kicked off Saturday with some uncharacteristic Pallet stage action. First off was Neck. I managed to miss them on tour earlier this year so this was a treat. I'm a bit bit biased as this sort of celtic folk-punk is right up my alley but this really deserved a higher billing. However despite the relatively early hour there was a good crowd and the band nailed it. Just love the whistle.

Skinny Lister

Another act that could well have been a headliner followed. Skinny Lister are an amazing festival band with some original gimmicks. The huge stoneware flagon of rum went down very well and a crowd-surfing double-bassist playing on his back is not an everyday sight. Not that we got to enjoy that as we left the set slightly early to get back to The Woodland as rumour had it The Leylines were going to be on early due to a prior act pulling out.

The Leylines
As it turned out they more or less started on schedule and did not disappoint. At the folkier end of the folk-punk spectrum this is a superb act.

The Leylines have one of the great festival anthems and what's more are raising money for charity with it so why not - buy it here.

Another peek at the main stage revealed The Mahones then we were back in the Something Else Tea Tent for one of the funniest things I've ever seen. The Bar-steward Sons of Val Doonican are funny enough anyway but with sign language interpreter Sarah involved as well it was side-splitting. Check out this video of "Zipper Caught Me Balls" (to the tune of Winner Takes It All by Abba) and I'm sure you'll agree. The rest of the set was also hilarious.

I've talked about KilnAboy before so I'll just say I had a great time at their Woodland stage gig and particularly enjoyed Joe Yorke's involvement.

with Joe Yorke
Ushti Baba
Next came an absolute highlight and probably my favourite gig of the whole festival. We first encountered Bristol-based gypsy-folk rioters Ushti Baba at Boomtown festival last year and were instantly hooked. Ursula Billington is simply amazing on the violin. I'd seen they were playing on the Floating Lotus stage, which wasn't listed in the festival guide, so I'd been telling anyone who'd listen that they needed to go and see them. So it was a relief when they put on an excellent show that went down brilliantly with a packed tent. Word got around afterwards and when they played again on the Magical Sounds stage at around midday they had a much bigger crowd than you'd have expected for that time of day.

Inner Terrestrials feat. Joe Yorke
The day finished off with a massive mosh-off in the Big Top to one of my favourite bands. Inner Terrestrials are hard-core, full-on dub/ska-punk and I bloody love it. Once again there were a few sound issues but the crowd couldn't care less and with another welcome inclusion of Joe Yorke playing whistle on Free The Land this was an fabulous, exhausting end to the day's music.
Please Y Self Skiffle Band

Sunday. A day of sore heads and slow starts and we both had bad colds by now. We made the effort for Ushti Baba but the rest of the day was taken very carefully. The Please Y Self Skiffle Band were good (Woodland Stage again) but nothing was really grabbing us until the late evening. Big acts like The Beat, Misty In Roots, The Buzzcocks, Quercus Burlesque, Skewwhiff passed by while hanging out with friends and checking out the shops.

JB Conspiracy
So the last couple of acts I'll mention both played on what really became home for the weekend, the Woodland Stage. It was interesting to wander in there while huge acts like Buzzcocks and James were on the main stage and find all our mates there. This was where the best atmosphere was and many of the best bands played.

The Neville Staple Band
 The JB Conspiracy were another great ska/reggae act. Similar enough to John Player Specials but from London rather than Manchester. Then it was a short wait in good company for the final act. We could hear James behind the wood on the main stage but it really isn't my sort of thing. The Neville Staple Band however really finished things off beautifully. In the best setting, the original rude boy and the relatively gentle ska beats took us through some familiar two tone classics. A perfect end to a near perfect festival.

The Neville Staple Band

So the overall verdict is of an outstanding festival - with what everyone said were the best festival loos any of us had ever encountered. Such a range of top music and a relatively intimate feel considering it was at its 10,000 capacity. Only criticisms are over the management of the parking and the rather nasty plastic wristbands - could we have some nice fabric ones next year please. Looking forward to next year already.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Surplus Spring Gathering 2015

Another weekend, another micro-festival. This time a bit further afield in South Wales. The 350 person Surplus Spring Gathering is in its first year at a new site at Rhoose near Cardiff and an interesting site it is too. The field is surrounded by a ring ditch and double bank and was a large defended iron age fort known as the Bulwarks. Now the field is home to a weekly car boot sale. How times change! It also sits right at the end of Cardiff Airport runway with approach lights actually in the field. So part of the 'entertainment' was point blank views of planes coming in from Greece and other warmer climes. And as if this wasn't enough Roose Point is just a short walk away - and that's the southern-most point in mainland Wales you know! Exciting eh?!

On paper this festival had a lot going for it: good lineup, only £30 a head for 3 nights with camping, workshops, fire shows, recycling, great food. So did it live up to the hype? Well not quite. It did deliver loads of good food options (perhaps a few too many for the needs of the small, largely self-sufficient crowd), good kids entertainment, a big firepit and a fireshow but I didn't see much in the way of workshops or recycling. The bar only sold a limited selection of cans and bottles plus a few spirits and mixers. Perhaps I've been spoiled at other festivals but to have no real ales or ciders on tap was a disappointment.

Johnny Cage and the Voodoo Groove
However the main feature of any festival is the music and this was pretty good. Spread over two stages with one setting up while the other plays, a model that works very well. Funke and the Two Tone Baby is either stalking us or is literally playing every festival in the country this year. I suspect the latter as he was dashing straight back to Kent for another gig. Not his best performance by any means but once again won over new fans judging by what I heard people saying afterwards. Local Cardiff outfit Afro Cluster picked up the pace with some brassy funk and Johnny Cage and the Voodoo Groove finished off the night with lively rock and roll.

Live music curfew at this site was 11pm all three nights so things soon moved on to the firepit. A fair few instruments about meant it got a bit freeform but I was lucky to end up close to KilnAboy who were running through a few tunes including a new one they were to perform later the next day. Jamming along with them was one of the highlights of the weekend for me.

Lost Tuesday Society
I picked up Saturday's lineup again late afternoon with Lost Tuesday Society, or at least the 50% of the band that included guitars, vocals and flute. There was more than a hint of Ian Anderson about the flautist and when he slipped into Bouree during a tuning break my suspicions were confirmed - another Jethro Tull devotee.

Turna Phrase
Turna Phrase is a remarkable young rapper with a real talent who engaged an audience that might not be normally at home with the genre but the main interest was always going to be the last 3 acts on Saturday.

After a good show last week, it was good to see KilnAboy on their home turf. A storming performance to a bouncy crowd keen for a good mosh. The sound was amazing and new traditional-style material went down very well. Old favourites like Lanigan's Ball had the whole place in uproar, Can't wait to see these guys again at Bearded Theory next week.

Another repeat from the previous week in Oxfordshire was Tarantism. Slightly different lineup and we were treated to Mel's trademark double whistle work this time. The crowd were still up from KilnAboy and this was the roughest Tarantism set I can remember. Several people ended up on the little Levitation stage and Mel had her glasses knocked off by her mic at one point. Great fun,

Dub The Earth
I'm not a massive fan of the headliners, Dub The Earth, but I'm always happy to skank away to a bit of dub/ska especially with a riotous crowd like this and things were pretty lively when the early curfew hit all too soon. A cold drizzle awaited outside and I opted for an early night rather than subject the guitar or me to a chilly soaking around the fire.

Effa Supertramp
So on to Sunday and a very strong lineup on the Levitation Stage. This kicked off with the punky presence of Effa Supertramp. Strong activist lyrics (even if I couldn't understand the Welsh songs!) and a strong stage presence made this young singer-songwriter a great act for me, although I appreciate not everyone's cup of tea,

Joe Yorke and friends
Like many I expect, I first came across the next performer Joe Yorke as a guest playing whistle on Free The Land with Inner Terrestrials. Alone or with friends Joe is a cracking act, here playing with Phillipa from KilnAboy on fiddle and another fella on Cajon. Tracks like Babylon and Feed Me come across with skill and passion. Only problem was the set was a bit short. More please Joe!

Two Man Ting
Still on Levitation were Two Man Ting, another cross-over from Something Else. Jon's guitar is superb and fills the sound beautifully with subtle use of the loop pedal while Jah-man's vocals and Djembe carry you into the enticing world of his West African roots.

Iron Eye

A quick sprint over to the Solar Stage revealed the twin saxophones of Iron Eye with some good instrumental grooves. The same musicians then appeared later on the Levitation Stage with Belleville Gypsy Jazz, which did pretty much what it said on the tin. In between we were treated to a little more from the KilnAboy gang as they filled in for an absent Flat Stanley.

Firepit Collective feat Joe Yorke
We'd missed Firepit Collective's early set the previous week so, as one of our favourite bands, we were keenly anticipating them closing the festival on the Levitation Stage. A few sound issues on the stage made for a slightly disjointed start but things soon got going and we were singing along to Jay and Chez's brilliant folk arrangements. As usual guests were pulled on stage to sing or play with some numbers and the whole thing had a very intimate feel.

Lullaby Leesa
Overall this is a good festival but it is very small (day tickets were being sold to car boot visitors on the Sunday for a fiver so even the 350 weekend tickets had not sold in advance). In it's favour it is very cheap, totally local and authentic and low impact. There was stuff for kids and some interesting side shows - ferret racing anyone?! It is what it says, a gathering. A gathering of like minds and musicians and a platform for local acts. I'd have liked some more choice at the bar and a few more loos or more frequent servicing. It also seemed to lack something of the friendly, anything-goes feeling of most other festivals I've been to but perhaps that was just us on this occasion.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Something Else Somewhere Else 2015

When the end-of-season Something Else In The Dean festivals got too popular, rather than make that bigger, the organisers opted to run two other small festivals; one at the beginning of the season and another near the middle. Something Else Somewhere Else was launched in May last year in Essex and was our first experience of the Something Else way of life. We fell in love immediately and have been to all the others since, so this year's repeat was always going to be special.

The idea was for the Something Else event to move about the country and this year a lovely field in Oxfordshire was the venue. Spring Farm was an excellent choice; a gently sloping field with a barn, old farm gear and straw bales. Two stages were set up at the top of the slope, another was in the barn, which was also home to the well stocked bar, and the camping was close by at the bottom. A smattering of independent food and clothing stalls, a couple of kids entertainment areas and tents to chill in completed the scene. The pizza joint deserves a special mention. A trailer mounted wood oven turning out the best tasting pizzas that had loads of us addicted.

No mains power, water or other services meant this was totally off-grid with three solar rigs providing power and water coming from the spring that gives the farm its name. The loos were also great: there were plenty of them and they stayed clean, stocked and serviced throughout the three days. All a credit to the brilliant organisation.

Douglas (with Helen and Neil)
One of the (many) nice things about small festivals like this is you can hear and even see the stages from your tent or van and in this case we had a direct sight line to the main stage from ours - nice! The two main stages run alternately with one changing over while the other plays. So the music is uninterrupted and you've no worries about missing any of the main acts.

3 Daft Monkeys
Friday evening's frivolities were well under way by the time we'd arrived and started the long round of hugs and chats with friends from previous festivals. We'd missed one of our favourites, Firepit Collective, but were in good time for 3 Daft Monkeys, Inner Terrestrials and Gaz Brookfield. I've talked about Gaz and 3DM before but this was the first Inner Terrestrials show we'd seen this year and it was a great one. I'll not deny these are one of my favourite bands. I love the raw energy, I love the musical skill, I love the lyrics and most of all I love the other fans. This is a full-on, anarchistic, folk/punk/ska fusion with plenty of friendly aggression in the mosh pit.

Gaz took us all singing along blissfully up to the midnight curfew on the new solar stage after which we retired to the bar in the barn for a few songs, the odd drink and a lot of convivial chat. It was here I first encountered Gee of Small & Gold and formed plans to get together again with more than just our voices. The night that followed was a wild one with the wind getting up, tents flapping noisily and the odd gazebo taking a trip across the field but things were relatively intact by the morning.

I won't go over all the acts of the weekend; I didn't see them all and with three stages over three days it would take up too much space. Personal Saturdays highlights were Pyrates!, Devil's Prefects, Ratbag, KilnAboyThe BootHill Allstars and Funke and the Two Tone Baby. Pyrates! do a great fun show of mainly covers like Irish Rover, Haul Away Joe and the ultimate earworm, Chicken On A Raft with frontman Dave Gallows getting amongst the audience for a bit of dancing.

Devil's Prefects
Devil's Prefects are also a mainly covers band but setting 'alternative' lyrics to country and western classics which have the crowd falling about.

Ratbag were new to me and I was very impressed by Vita's individual vocals and accordion; I've no idea how she manages to sing so fast. Original material and an original sound.


KilnAboy are a Welsh folk/punk outfit with their own powerful anarchic songs played to dance and sing along to. Another personal favourite, they are veterans of many a protest and the songs speak powerfully to the anti-establishment cause. Their new bassist made a convincing call for support for a project helping displaced people isolated in northern Morocco (not sure the exact project but perhaps No Borders Morocco).

Boot Hill Allstars
The Boot Hill Allstars are another fun act hailing from Somerset and rocking the place with a fast country psychobilly madness. The audience have little choice but to get involved as the front-women chase around with feather dusters and spark limbo dancing and more. Funke I've talked about before and he had another crowd eating out of his hand at this one as he delivered his exhausting, high energy, pedal-looping, multi-instrument, one-man orchestra alternative blues routine.

Hattie Hatstar
I didn't see many of the acts from the Baarn stage during the day but did head in there for a jam session organised by the guys from Pyrates! Gee was there again, this time with her banjo and me with my guitar and it proved another incentive to meet up around the fire later on that night. With poet and songwriter Hattie Hatstar's funny, entertaining one-woman show closing official proceedings folk started gathering around the firepit and we were soon taking turns to entertain with popular and obscure covers and a few original tunes. Gee's original solo turns were nothing short of beautiful and I thoroughly recommend looking out for Small & Gold if you can. We were still going 5 hours later as the sun came up before I was beaten by a severe shortage of material and insufficient clothing to cope with the increasing cold, so retired to the van to cries of 'lightweight' - really!!

Folk The System
The firepit hardcore were still there when I headed back up to the stages around midday Sunday for the final day's staged music. There were a few treats waiting in store, the first being on the Baarn stage where Folk The System had the unenviable job of playing mid-afternoon to a still hung-over crowd in what had been up until then the least popular venue. Well they soon changed all that. As word got around of a great act going on, more and more folk poured into the barn to hear the quality fast punky folk and the place was soon packed. I've seen this reformed 90s band a couple of times recently and this was by far the best they'd sounded. Despite the hour quite a few of us were dancing and I heard several people after the gig remarking on the 'new' band they'd heard. With their new album Unrest In The Wolds ready just in time for the festival they sold loads of copies on the day and I can thoroughly recommend it. Get it here!

Cable Street Collective
The next great act of the day was Cable Street Collective. By now a strong and very cold wind was blasting the main stage and most of us were wrapped up in several layers, so it was impressive to see the lead singer in the skimpiest of summer dresses to match the band's sunny-sounding, carnival happy beats. The perfect antidote to iffy festival weather.

The Majestic
By now the crowds had started to dwindle as the real world of Monday morning drew inexorably closer. The reggae rhythms of The Majestic and the Sierra Leonean sounds of Two Man Ting drifted pleasantly over the late afternoon field fitting perfectly with the more relaxed vibe of the day as the remaining core of party-heads saved themselves for one last thrash later on.

Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs
First more sing-along fun with Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs. Skiffle gone mad and always a huge crowd-pleaser.

Then RDF provided the marmite in the sandwich between these and the last couple of acts. They attracted a good audience but I still don't quite see the appeal and when they seemed to overrun rather on a night with an 11pm curfew it pretty much put me off them for good.

A short while later we were all up again and tearing it up one last time to Leatherat. A relatively short set so they only had time for a few favourites and were missing guitarist James this time but were bloody superb. A brilliant moshy mess to finish off was followed by more singing around the fire with Skeg and a few others. A brilliant end to another brilliant Something Else experience that has us looking forward to the two more to come this year.

It's a testament to how much these events are loved by those of us who've experience them that before I could get this blog written all the early bird ticket and many full price tickets had already been sold for next year's Something Else Somewhere Else. Get 'em while you can!

For more (and better photos) see these from:
Pete Connor
Alan Ewart
Alan again