Bearded Theory 2016 (Fri & Sat) Festival Review

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The last time SonicAbuse was privileged to attend Bearded Theory it was held at Kedlestone Hall Park, a beautiful piece of land that perfectly suited the family friendly vibe that defines the festival. However, with an ever-expanding audience, Bearded Theory has now moved across Derbyshire to the well-worn Catton Hall (which also holds Bloodstock), a stunning site that has allowed Bearded Theory to grow organically without sacrificing the friendly atmosphere that brings people back year after year. From the off, what appeals about Bearded Theory is the totally relaxed vibe. People smile at you when they pass, a variety of musical genres are catered for across a number of stages, the market and food areas are high quality and well-priced and the security/stewards are both the friendliest and most helpful in the business. I can think of no other festival where families would so happily and comfortably allow their children to roam freely as Bearded Theory and the festival has gone far to encourage this too by including a school and Children’s area which is well-staffed and maintained.

Walking around Keddlestone a few years back, Bearded Theory was a gem of a festival and you could feel its potential, but in its new grounds it’s arguable that Bearded Theory is the spiritual successor to Glastonbury, a festival that, whilst still special, has arguably far outgrown its roots as an eclectic festival of performing arts for the truly alternative. That’s not to look at it from an elitist perspective, but rather, as the festival has grown in size and expense, so the inclusive ethos that made it a mecca for many has slowly been lost and this is where Bearded Theory steps in. From punks to folk fans, from acid house junkies to dub fans, there’s something for everyone and, if you just want to chill out away from the noise, well there’s space for that too. It’s an easy festival to fall in love with and, from the smiling faces all around, it’s clear that pretty much everybody else feels the same way.

Due to work commitments (yawn) we rolled up on Friday (Day one) to find the festival in full flow. Guided in by the ubiquitously helpful staff, we soon found our way to the arena past the most remarkable dance tent filled with lasers, colourful artefacts and dancing bodies Few festivals indeed make such a remarkable effort over the various stages dotted around the arena, and yet every stage is themed and decorated beautifully, for which the designers and artists deserve a huge amount of credit. It’s impressive and innovative work and it is yet another example of the high regard with which Bearded Theory treats both festival goers and artists.

The first band we caught up was the ever-green Reverend and the makers, who, fronted by the effervescent John McClure, engendered spontaneous bouts of dancing throughout the large crowd and mass singalongs. It’s the perfect show for a sunny afternoon and as the strains of ‘shine the light’ ring out across the field, you can feel the troubles of the world drift away – a feeling that persists throughout the band’s life affirming set and, by the time we reach the spectacularly popular ‘silence is talking’ there’s not a still body in the place. It’s exactly the sort of band you want to have playing on a warm summer’s afternoon, and the energy the band pump out at will could easily light a small town.

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Next up is a sparkling visit from the reformed Terrorvision, a band who were seemingly unavoidable on the festival circuit in the late 90s. In truth, the band have lost none of their punch from that period, and opening their set with a blistering ‘Alice what’s the matter?’ promises great things. There’s no question that the band feed off the energy of the crowd, delivering a set heavy on hits that engender multiple sing-alongs.  Highlights include ‘My house’ and ‘oblivion’, but, whilst the crowd go wild, I still find it hard to get excited about the likes of ‘Tequila’ (although it is at least the original version and not the amped up remix that garnered so much attention at release). Nonetheless, as the afternoon sun slowly segues into the warm light of evening, there’s much that is appealing about Terrorvision’s bouncy rock and the crowd clearly love them, cheering long after they left the stage.

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It’s never quite clear whether the mighty Killing Joke inspire love or fear, but whichever it is, there’s no mistaking the hypnotic power of Jaz Coleman, Youth, Geordie and Big Paul Ferguson, much of which is helped by the fact that the band, post-reunion, have continued as a creative unit rather than simply a nostalgia act. As a result their set, played to the backdrop of the falling light and huge flame burners (which flank the stage) genuinely seems to presage the apocalypse. The band’s grinding, proto-industrial noise sounds truly immense, but, at the heart of the maelstrom, is the articulate and intelligent figure of Jaz Coleman – a genuine artist whose stage presence is magnetic. Feeding off the energy of the crowd, the band lock into a mesmerising groove on opening number ‘exorcism’ and maintain the levels of intensity from there. Tracks such as ‘money is not our god’ (a belief, alas, held by dwindling numbers it seems) and ‘requiem’ have lost none of their edge, whilst ‘I am the virus’ demonstrates that on ‘pylon’ the band have, if anything, honed their ferocious soundscapes to new levels of ferocity. The hour allotted to the band seems to evaporate as the band unleash one last broadside in the shape of ‘Pandemonium’ and depart. Few bands are as intelligent, powerful and hypnotic as Killing Joke and this near-perfect set was a reminder of exactly why the band have influenced everyone from Fear Factory to Ministry.

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If Killing Joke are the harbingers of doom, then the Levellers sweep away any sense of paranoia with their glorious blend of folk, punk and rock with a set that holds a number of surprises, not least a fantastic rendition of ‘too real’, which is a rare treat. Opening with a blistering rendition of ‘the game’, the Levellers come out all guns blazing and the crowd noticeably swells as more people succumb to the urge to dance, sing and embrace the sense of love and community that is the inevitable result of any Levellers gig. Songs such as ‘Belarus’ (still packing a punch with the almighty riff that lies at its centre), ‘One way’, ‘This Garden’ (another surprise highlight) and the atypically caustic ‘England my home’ are played with the band’s customary verve and it’s impossible to come away from a Leveller’s show not feeling somehow lighter of step and, with the ‘liberty song’ ringing in our ears, it once again feels like anything is possible.

All in all, the first day of Bearded Theory proved to be a triumph, and whilst the main stage may have fallen silent, there’s plenty of music and excellent Bearded Theory ale late into the night.

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Day two sees us exploring the various other stages that make up the festival, not because the main stage does not have plenty to offer, but because each stage offers up an impressive array of delights. Indeed, one of the greatest elements of Bearded Theory is the fact that you can walk to pretty much any stage and find something interesting taking place. Whilst a given band may not be to your taste, it is impressive just how much care the bookers have taken to find acts that are talented and committed to their art and the result is that the festival is a pleasure simply to roam, taking in the various sights and sounds around you. However, if there is one place that is truly a haven within Bearded Theory, it is the woodland stage. Like something out of a dream, the stage itself is set in a small glade, with lights strung from the trees and various ale and food stalls surrounding it. My pithy description, however, does little justice to the magical atmosphere evoked by the stage and, whether the prevailing act is punk or folk, there’s a feeling of calm that pervades the spot. It is another example of the immense care with which the festival is curated and I can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon than whiling away a few hours with a glass of ale and acts such as

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Over on the main stage, an early highlight is the indestructible Wilko Johnson. Quite how this effervescent figure manages to play rhythm and lead guitar at the same time is a mystery that even detailed study fails to solve and Wilko kicks out more noise than most bands manage with an army of guitarists. His show is a sublime highlight of a festival filled with highlights and tracks like ‘going back home’ (from the amazing album of the same title), ‘bye bye Johnny’ and ‘Dr Dupree’ can never a bad thing be, the whole crowd are dancing, cheering and tapping their feet from the front to the back.

Although I’m not familiar with the works of Black Uhuru, there’s no question that their chilled out reggae vibe perfectly fits the setting sun on a warm Saturday afternoon. Drawing a huge crowd, they deliver an impressive set that serves as the perfect calm before the storm that is PiL appears.

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Public Image Ltd are, from start to finish, nothing short of astonishing. John Lydon, the articulate punk poet, could easily have been forgiven for retiring after the anarchic roadshow of the Sex Pistols. The fact that he managed, instead, to involve himself with a post-punk outfit that outstripped his initial act in terms of innovation is testament to the restless creative spirit that consumes him and, from the moment he appears on stage, the arena is rooted to the spot, trapped in the glare of a band whose power is undeniable. Opening with the chaotic sound clash of ‘double trouble’ it’s no easy ride, but by the time we get to the dark groove of ‘this is not a love song’ it’s clear that we’re witnessing a remarkable event. Unifying the punks, the dub fans and the merely curious who have roamed the site all day, PiL are a magnet drawing an ever larger crowd and, seemingly in spite of the fact that little they produce could be called mainstream, the audience remain hooked till the very conclusion. Highlights include a manic ‘death disco’ and a dark take on the chugging ‘warrior’ with its chorus of “this is my land – I’ll never surrender!” clearly striking a chord with the audience. It’s the perfect close to the mainstage, although once again there’s plenty taking place around the arena to keep night owls going until dawn.

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Bearded Theory is a festival that should stand as a highlight of any concert goers calendar. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact ingredient that makes it so special a place, because there are so many facets that work so brilliantly. The line-up was arguably the best it’s ever been, but it’s a festival that’s about more than just music, and what will always make it stand out in my mind is the remarkable community spirit that can be found at the festival. With music seemingly becoming increasingly wrapped up in genre=specific festivals and all-day events, at Bearded Theory the eclecticism and quality of the acts draws in the open minded, the exploratory and the curious and these like-minded souls, whether drawn to punk or dub, interact beautifully together. It’s a festival that, as you arrive, feels like home and such an atmosphere can be attributed to an array of factors from the amazingly friendly staff, the varied stalls and the awesome stages to the warm, friendly people who populate the place. Any number of acts stood out over the weekend, but for SonicAbuse the highlight was seeing Killing Joke perform a set that can only be described as an act of communion held between band and audience. Roll on 2017!!!

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