There are, of course, many reasons to attend a festival: music, price, atmosphere, location to name but few, but of all of those the atmosphere is probably the most important element. After all, it does not matter how good the music is or how impressive the array of goodies on offer if you don’t feel comfortable and, more importantly, safe. Bearded theory excels in this regard because of all the festivals this reviewer has attended; none has ever been as friendly, as courteous and as community-minded as Bearded theory. The claim that this is a family festival is not idly made, as the organizers have put an immense amount of effort into making sure that everyone and anyone is welcome into the Bearded theory community.
Upon entering the festival, attendees are directed by invariably friendly staff to park in the adjacent field to the festival itself. Being a relatively small affair there is plenty of space and, in the scenic grounds of Keddlestone Hall, even the car park is gloriously picturesque. A short trek brings you to the festival proper and its campsite and, unless you have a frown on your face that threatens thunder and pessimism, there’s a good chance you’ll have greeted and been greeted by half a dozen people before you even make the gate… it’s just that sort of place. On entering the festival itself you’re greeted by an arena that will do much to cater to your every need. Well placed and well stocked bars stand at either end of the arena, whilst music seems to be happening everywhere at once thanks to a dance stage continuously thundering out mind-melting beats and busking stops cheerfully inviting the crowd to fill any quiet moments when one of the three live music stages isn’t encouraging you to dance. There is also plenty of food on offer, with a wide array of dishes and budgets catered for, for those who haven’t bought the wherewithal to use the communal cooking area in the campsite, and there are also plenty of shops selling cool things including the work of an artist named Fikey Spinger whose T shirts are unnervingly brilliant (if you can find him, do so!) Finally you can find a whole array of kids activities ranging from face painting to hula hooping – it’s hard to imagine a better place for families to come than bearded theory and you can imagine that this friendly, alternative festival set in idyllic countryside is how Glastonbury must have felt before the corporations turned it into a playground for mobile-phone-toting executives trying to prove they’re still with it by dancing to the Prodigy.
The first band that captures SonicAbuse’s attention (and it takes some time because there are so many amazing things happening around you that it can take some effort to sit still for an entire band’s set) are the Bakseats who capture the acoustic rock sound the Levellers so neatly perfected on ‘mouth to mouth’ with warm, rich bass, folk inspired vocals and emotive climaxes that leave you feeling strangely inspired. The band play to a reasonably full tent and with songs like the country-themed ‘lost and found’ there’s a pleasing eclecticism about them that keeps things fresh.
Meanwhile at the Lock Inn a brilliant skiffle band known as the Jive Aces makes the entire tent smile with songs like ‘Ukulele Swing’ and a super-fast rendition of ‘get me to the church on time’ (from my fair lady) that is played with so much energy that you’d swear the band have conjured the sun with their performance, which is all you can ask form a festival band really.
Over on the main stage Rutts DC draw a decent crowd despite the cold breeze and grey skies. Kicking off with some honest reggae with a laid back lilt they have members of the crowd dancing from the off and if anyone has the power to make the sky turn blue it is these sharply dressed veterans. Moreover, ruts DC are far from just laid back reggae merchants and blasts through tracks such as an awesomely powerful ‘backbiter’ make sure that anyone unconvinced is soon dragged into the band’s powerful gravitational field.
With the dance tent providing warmth and sanctuary to a mixture of young children and confused ravers, a swift return to the main stage sees Macka B & the reggae roots play to an ever expanding crowd, their chilled out and humorous vibes (check out ‘Ganja ladies’ for further evidence) the perfect music for a festival. Meanwhile, over at the Lock Inn more skiffle appears courtesy of DH Lawrence and Vaudeville skiffle who play a suitably folky take on the genre which does much to warm the crowd defrosting by the bar: “just tell the kids it’s my Nottingham accent and we’re actually talking about a warehouse!” the good-natured band helpfully tell parents, keeping the show family friendly all the way(!)
The highlight of Saturday, absolutely without a doubt, are Tankus the Henge who play a delightfully insane mix of folk, blues, rock and god-knows-what mixed up with Ska and Elvis and served on a platter of explosive piano lines played upon a smoking piano. It may sound odd, but the crowd absolutely love it and so do we. With songs like ‘it’s a grim world sometimes’ the band deserve to be monumentally huge and their show… their show is a work of genius that has to be seen to be believed. Fresh, inventive and with a bucket-load of attitude, tankus simply do not put a foot wrong throughout the set and we gladly queued along with everyone else at the end of the set to buy a copy of their excellent debut album. Tankus the henge rock and you need to check them out this instant – they’re more fun than a jelly filled wetsuit and totally unique.
Dashing back to the main stage and the Quireboys are about to take possession. Oddly the band are far better now than they ever were in the past, exuding both energy and charisma over their lengthy set, they kick out honky-tonk, rock ‘n’ roll anthems with furious abandon that take two parts stones to one part pistols to form a virulent brew indeed. With a new album out (Hell has, apparently, frozen over) the band blast out new single ‘too much of a good thing’ with furious intent and it turns out to be a life-affirming jam that hits home with suitable force even if it does open with a riff that is perilously close to Free’s evergreen ‘alright now’. Hell, during ‘even Mona Lisa smiles’ the sun even makes a brief appearance, just going to show that even nature and all its fury must bow to the superior fire power of punk rock.
Sadly whilst the elements did not quite get in line on the Saturday, on the Sunday the simple fact that The Levellers were on site (allegedly) bought on the hottest day of the year thus far and we were able to dispense with cold weather gear and adopt more seasonal fare.
The Sunday line up did not disappoint either. With plenty more sterling sounds, and plenty of ale to wash away the activities of the night before, the final day of bearded theory 2013 was the sort of unmitigated triumph that truly warms the heart to have been a part of. With so much going on around the festival, from making soft plant pots to resting in the quiet, well laid-out campsite, it’s easy to get lost for the day, wondering around in the warm sunshine marvelling in the friendly atmosphere and appreciating the wide variety of costumes various talented festival-goers have indulged in. However, over at the main stage, The Farm deliver the perfect late evening sounds for the chilled-out revellers spread supine across the warm grass. Integrating a number of elements from reggae to dub via punk and trance, the band are the ideal choice for a Sunday evening and as the sun slowly sinks in the sky they energise a crowd in danger of flagging after a weekend of hedonistic excess with ‘bank robber’ which sounds rather like the Clash on steroids.
A large crowd has gathered by the time the mighty, seemingly unstoppable stiff little fingers hit a stage adorned with their oh-so-familiar logo. Songs like ‘nobody’s hero’ sends a powerful message and the crowd are visibly buoyed by the band’s raucous performance. This is pure, unadulterated punk, played with an eye firmly on lyrical and musical honesty and a blithe disregard for the vagaries of fashion and the crowd, similarly uninterested in what passes for music on commercial radio and TV channels, are happily in thrall to the band’s animal magnetism. It is a brilliant, unforgettable show in a setting the band are clearly equally in love with.
The festival’s final band could not be more apt. Taking the stage like conquering heroes, the Levellers proceed to play one of the best sets I have ever seen them play, and this must be my tenth time of witnessing the band at least. Imagine every encore the Levellers have done and then imagine them condensing those songs into one epic, festival destroying set, and you have the band’s performance at bearded Theory. Opening with the furious attack of ‘England my home’ the band blaze through ‘beautiful day’, ‘the game’ (YES!!!!), ‘world freak show’ and the metallic ‘Belarus’ without pausing to draw breath, whilst rarities like ‘this garden’ fit the scene perfectly and the entire field bounces up and down for ‘dirty Davey’, ‘riverflow’ and ‘liberty’. It’s like a gigantic homecoming, even though it is the first time the band (largely credited as being responsible for the festival’s eccentric name) have played there, and the audience, who should, by rights, be exhausted having existed off gloriously tasty halloumi, refreshing festival ale and dry cured beef, not only rise to the challenge but seem to be granted a new lease of life by the band’s positive, memorably melodic brand of folk rock. No one can deliver like the Levellers and there is no doubt in my mind that they are one of the UK’s very finest live acts who pour their heart and soul into every performance. It is the perfect ending to a festival that can only be described as life-affirming in every sense.
The final word on Bearded theory. There are bigger festivals; festivals with line-ups that may be more to your taste; festivals with a larger following or whatever, but you absolutely will not find a friendlier, more comfortable or professionally run festival. Consider the following when looking at festivals next year: bearded Theory is small, safe and community driven. Bearded theory is a festival that is not only safe for the family, but the only festival that offers friendly and readily available activities for children not interested in the many acts on stage. Bearded theory offers a wide variety of music and is small enough for you to be able to wander between stages, taking in the many delights on offer. If all this sounds like an promotional slot, it is simply because we couldn’t find anything that disturbed our experience. The security staff were all amazingly friendly and helpful, keeping a watchful eye but never interfering with the atmosphere of the festival. The stages were run with amazing efficiency, virtually every act appearing at their allotted time (virtually unheard of) and yet nothing felt rushed or stressful. Toilets were plentiful and kept very clean. The campsite was a haven of tranquillity and the food and drink was all at a reasonable price. We left bearded theory feeling refreshed, positive and inspired to be creative and it was a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful experience. Next year cannot come soon enough.