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.

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