Beautiful Days is a festival organised by the Levellers down in dear old Devon. It’s an unashamed hippy / counterculture festival with a strong family vibe. I’ve been going to Bearded Theory in Derbyshire for years, and this is cut from the same cloth. It’s bigger (17k cap, I believe), and older – this is the fifteenth , but the first I’ve been to. It’s always been on the radar, but the stars have never aligned for me until this year. The entire Dynamite family attended, which made it an unusual festival experience for me (less cider, more facepainting). I will spare you the detail of craft tents and childrens’ theatre performances, but alongside the music offerings they were more than enough to keep my little(ish) one entranced for the weekend. There are loads of interesting food stalls around, with far more than the standard burgers on offer, and us hippy herbivores are really well catered for. No Gandhi’s Flip Flop, unfortunately, but you can’t have everything. Unlike the big corporate festivals you’re allowed to bring your own food and drink into the arena, but despite that the bars are rammed all weekend. They’re all run by the local Otter Brewery, with several ales and ciders, coming in at a very reasonable four quid a pint. A much more agreeable arrangement than being forced to drink expensive lukewarm Carling, I think we can all agree.
The music kicks off on Friday with the Levellers putting in an acoustic performance in the Big Top (the second stage). This could have been a chance to explore some of the less played corners of the catalogue, but it’s mostly pretty safe stuff. Some unusual arrangements, a guest string section and backing vocals from Bristol’s own She Makes War make it worthwhile though. Next up was Rev Hammer, a longstanding favourite of mine, here playing with Nick Harper. Nothing new about the format, two middle aged blokes playing acoustic guitars, but the songs are strong, and they’re likeable performers. After them, it’s Gaz Brookfield & The Company Of Thieves. Gaz is another Bristol musician, who has been building a name for himself on the festival scene. He’s great, simple direct songs belted out with passion and skill. He is on home turf here, with a full tent loving every minute, and his West Country flavoured songs go down a storm. The first trip to the main stage comes courtesy of Stiff Little Fingers. No surprises here (you’ll never guess what the final two songs were!), but really entertaining, and I enjoyed them a lot (although in the interests of balance I should point out that the Dynamitette described them as ‘terrible’.) I want to see Songhoy Blues but they haven’t shown up, so we caught a couple of songs each from Damien Dempsey (whose band is augmented by Eliza Carthy (who seems to pop up everywhere all weekend), and covers A Rainy Night In Soho, which is, like, my favourite song evs) and The Waterboys. From what I see, Mike Scott’s crew are playing it safe, not a lot from the upcoming thirty track hiphop album, but a few off Fisherman’s Blues and the inevitable The Whole Of The Moon. Decent, but nothing I haven’t seen several times before. And so to bed.
First band for us on Saturday is the Australian quartet All Our Exes Live In Texas. The name might make you think there’s going to be a lot of country here, but they are much more rooted in folk, ploughing a similar furrow to the Be Good Tanyas with their acoustic instruments and harmonies. A little bit more twang wouldn’t go amiss to be honest, but they are good regardless, with some top quality between song chat adding to the fun. Would see again. Over to the main stage for a strong late afternoon / early evening run, kicking off with Ferocious Dog. Okay, not that strong. I don’t really get FD, although the amount of T-shirts on display all weekend put me firmly in the minority there. They seem like nice guys, and they can make a decent racket, but they don’t have an original idea in their heads, and they just don’t have the songwriting chops (yet) to cash the cheques their fanbase are writing. Next up are LA ska act Hepcat, who I am frankly amazed are still going. I bought an album of theirs in 1997, and have heard nothing of them since until the festival line up was announced. I wasn’t even sure that they wouldn’t turn out to be another act with the same name, but here they are skanking around on stage. Smooth vocals, good frontmen and a mellow vibe (definitely more Kingston 1962 than Coventry 1979) make for a pleasant hour in the sun. Following them are New Model Army. I am hopelessly biased of course, but they are excellent. Justin Sullivan belies his 61 years with the power and passion of his performance, while bassist Ceri often foregoes his instrument to attack a second drumkit at the side of the stage, making for a thrilling percussive assault. The Sisters Of Mercy are next. I wanted them to be brilliant, I was expecting them to be terrible, and I got something in between. Eldritch’s voice is basically shot, the guitarists are a little bit too cock-rock, and the setlist is all over the place (opening with four songs from Vision Thing is a …brave move) but Doktor Avalanche is thudding away lovely, and the lighting is spectacular. If they’d been like this thirty years ago I’d never have fallen in love with them like I did, but it’s not the total shambles I was dreading. My friend’s eight year old will later say they were the best band of the weekend. Go figure. Frank Turner is headlining, but tonight’s the night I draw the short straw and get to take two tired children back to the tent. Apparently he’s brilliant. Not to worry, there’s another day to go…
…which dawns grey and wet. The delights of festivals in England. Never mind, we are dab hands at this and all kitted out, so it barely spoils the vibe at all.
We kick off the day with Beoga who my daughter really wants to see because they’re the musicians who provide the Irish music on the new Ed Sheeran album. Assuming one can ignore this crime, they’re fun. Very lively and bright with a good rapport with the audience, and they make an interesting contrast with Lankum, who we see later in the day. Lankum are just as trad, but a fair bit darker. Their droning pipes and rougher harmonies add that little bit of grit you (I) need to keep things interesting. After I’ve wandered up to the dance tent on my own for a quick blast of Don Letts‘ DJ set, Bosnia’s Dubioza Kolectiv play a high energy blend of Balkan, ska, punk and hiphop in the soggy main arena. It is terrific fun live, but I’m not sure I could listen to it at home for any length of time without going mad. They certainly put in a shift though. I don’t think any one of them stopped running around for the hour they’re onstage. It’s endless frantic mayhem, exactly the right band to get a wet and muddy audience pumped. What better to follow that than a set of young fogeys who look like university lecturers performing songs about the decline of coal mining in South Wales? Public Service Broadcasting, for it is they, are up next. I don’t suppose there’s an Afterworder who doesn’t know their schtick already, but if you’re going to the upcoming tour rest assured the new songs fit well, and the visuals are as strong as ever. And then the weekend ends where it began, with Levellers taking the main stage for their closing set. At this point, I think it’s fair to say they are creatively spent, with barely a song written after 1993 played. But they are always a powerful live act, this is their home crowd, and ninety minutes of non stop bouncing ensues, capped off with fireworks and lasers. Plus I get to dance with my daughter to songs that were branded into my consciousness a decade and more before she was born, which is a) really nice, b) a bit weird, and c) doesn’t help convince me that I am still young.
And that’s the end. A good time was had by all. Lots of good music seen (and lots missed, which is the mark of a good festival – wish I’d made it to Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mad Professor, Lau, Therapy?….) It was bit of a risk taking the little one, but she had an absolute whale of a time, and is already talking about going back next year. I reckon we probably will.
all ages, mostly vaguely hippy / punk / reformed crusties, some questionable fashion decisions
It made me think..
I don’t want to go home