Catton Hall, Derbyshire
This is my sixth Bearded Theory festival. It’s grown from a friendly farmer’s field to this 10,000 capacity event in the grounds of a stately home, but along the way it has always kept a brilliant chilled (sometimes downright cold – it is mid May in Derbyshire) family friendly vibe. It’s an unashamedly hippy festival – if you are allergic to Levellers T shirts this is not the place for you – that my friends and I love.
We drive up from Gloucestershire and get to the Hall just after gates open. The usual slog carrying tents and essential supplies (booze) from the car park, but once it’s done time for a can of cider and some music. There’s a few bands on in one of the tents for the early arrivals, so we get to enjoy Zombie Met Girl. I’ve always had a soft spot for ZMG, not least because they obviously own the same Dead Kennedys and Cramps albums I do (and because their upcoming album is called Super Atomic Werewolf Chicks On Motorcycles, which is obviously the best name for an album ever). Next up is The Bar-Steward Sons Of Val Doonican. Comedy bands can be a chancy proposition, but when you’re stood in a tent on the outside of several drinks, turning a Chris de Burgh number into a paean of lust for purveyors of cheap savoury snacks and calling it “The Lady In Gregg’s” seems like the greatest idea ever (until late Saturday afternoon when festival fever has well and truly set in, and between bands we brainstorm a movie about Chuck Norris roundhouse kicking the Pope. Tagline: One wants to say Mass. One’s going to kick some ass). Mark Chadwick‘s next, for a set that’s mostly acoustic versions of his Levellers songs and goes down a treat for this partisan crowd. Nominal headliners are 3 Daft Monkeys, but I’ve never really got on with their slightly childrens TV presenter vibe, so I duck out for a late night stroll round the site. There’s all the food concessions and sellers of festival tat you might imagine, and bars run by Thornbridge, who are essentially running a parallel beer festival with fifteen or twenty of their ales on, and a load of guest ciders. These bars are packed all weekend, despite the longstanding BT policy of allowing festival goers to take their own drink to all areas of the festival, probably because of the quality of the beer and the reasonable pricing – pints starting at £3.40 are cheaper than I’d pay in a lot of Bristol pubs. A million times better than the usual festival idea of not letting you bring any beer in and then charging you six quid for a John Smiths.
The festival starts properly around midday on the Friday, with four official stages. The Main Stage is self explanatory, the Something Else tent is a big top with an underground DIY vibe, Magical Sounds is a dance tent that ends up a bit too geared to psytrance for my taste, and then there’s the Woodland stage. This is just lovely, a bit off the main path of the festival and set in an oak grove. It’s where I took the photograph that’ll go with this, and it’s instantly my favourite part of the festival. There are also impromptu stages in cafes and tea tents, where the blessing of synchroncity can bring some unexpected treats, like Hobo Jones & The Junkyard Dogs’ agricultural labourer’s take on skiffle.
So who else do I see throughout the weekend? Well, on Friday Main Stage headliners The Mission are, perhaps not unexpectedly, a bit rubbish, and an Alabama 3 laid low by tonsillitis are a bit lacklustre, but Gaz Brookfield makes up for it in the Something Else tent with his warm hearted acoustic songs. Set of the day, although when the Dutch / US reggae band Jaya The Cat play a stormer at midnight in the Woodlands I almost reconsider. The night finishes off with Radical Dance Faction back in the Something Else tent. I love RDF’s politicised take on dub, but they are a bit let down tonight by the backing singers. Main man Chris Bowsher is legendarily a challenging listen, but when he is not the worst singer on stage then something is very wrong.
A lot of Saturday is spent on the grass in front of the main stage. London Irish punks Neck are lively enough, albeit without an original idea in their heads. Erstwhile Word favourites Skinny Lister are tremendous. There’s something a little too Mumfordy about them on record for me, but live they work incredibly hard, look like they’re having loads of fun and win over the crowd, evidenced in the massive queue for their signing at the merch tent immediately afterwards. And you don’t see someone crowdsurfing while playing a double bass every day, either. I’ve never seen British Sea Power before, but heard loads of good things about their live shows, which they only partially live up to. New Model Army have the sunset slot, and this is as close to a home crowd as they’ll get. Anyone who’s noticed the number of NMA shirts over the last couple of days won’t be surprised to see them draw the biggest crowd of the festival so far. I love that a band usually dismissed as eighties hangovers can play a set that only has four songs from their twentieth century output in, not play any of the “hits”, and still go down an absolute storm. After NMA it’s back over to the Woodlands to see Cara Dillon. She’s very good, if a little mannered for a late night Saturday slot, but all I hear the next day is how good Afro-Celt Sound System were on the Main Stage, so maybe we made the wrong call there.
On Sunday Back To The Planet kick things off in fine style. Their crusty ska pop has actually aged really well, and they wisely stick to the stuff from the classic Warning The Public era. Itch offers up a surprisingly decent hiphop vibe, especially since when he was fronting the King Blues he always came across as a terrific arse. I’ve been anticipating Mad Professor since the line up was announced, and he doesn’t disappoint. An excellent set of heavy dub (and I mean heavy – I remarked to my friend ten seconds after he started that all the other bass players who had been on that stage today had just looked at each other and went “fuuuuuuuuck”) on a sunny afternoon is a treat. The reggae vibe continues with Misty In Roots who just nail it. A quick trip to a side stage to catch the wonderfully eccentric Misty’s Big Adventure (the toytown Cardiacs), and we’re back for Buzzcocks, who turn out to be a bit blah. Main Stage headliners James are anything but blah. They are magnificent. I saw them in 1991, and have only paid cursory attention since then, but more fool me. A great way to close the festival.
Chilled out happy friendly folk. Loads of kids around, loads of families, some questionable headgear decisions, but smiles and friends being made all round, with barely a smidgeon of drunken arseholery all weekend.
It made me think..
Why can’t life always be like this? Actually scratch that. If it was, I’d be dead by now. But I’ll be doing it all again next year.