The most fun you can have legally, with your clothes on…The annual Bearded Theory Festival celebrated its 10th birthday in fine style this year, and Music Republic Magazine was well up for it, bringing you the low down and lots of lovely photos from one of the most chilled out music festivals in the UK. Simon Redley got stuck in…
Last year I got to attend this great little festival for the first time, and came away stating in my review coverage: “It’s no theory, Bearded Theory; probably my new favourite festival……………”
Getting the invite to come back to help celebrate the event’s 10th birthday this year, I can confirm I have not changed my mind. As the late Irish comedian Frank Carson would say: “It’s a bloody cracker”. I believe 10,000+ people per day over the four days would not disagree with me. Once again, it was gorgeous, sweltering weather, more like summer than UK springtime.
The party vibes were topped off by those nutty boys Madness, who closed the festival in fine style on the Sunday night. Seasick Steve headlined on the Saturday and Skunk Anansie on the Friday night, all on the main stage. The Fall, The Alarm, Vintage Trouble, current Radio 1 and UK music press darlings Slaves, Sugar Hill Gang, The Selecter, Cast, Glasvegas, Foy Vance, Don Letts and New Model Army were among the eclectic and impressive bill.
The Derbyshire event’s 10th anniversary was held in the grounds of Catton Hall and once again, completely sold out in advance. It kicked off on the Thursday with the line-up including some of the acts that appeared on the main stage of the very first event back in 2008. Dreadzone headlined, plus: Don Letts, 3 Daft Monkeys, Tarantism, True Decievers, Hobo Jones & the Junk Yard Dogs and Gail Freedom.
Bearded Theory Festival started in the field behind a pub in 2008, and has been held at Catton Hall, an independently owned, 250-acre estate near Burton-on-Trent, Lichfield and Derby, for the last three years. It attracts around 10,000 people each of the four days and there is a wonderful and distinct lack of advertising and corporate presence on the site or connected to the event. In 10 years, the event has raised over £200,000 for around 50 different charities. Nice job.
Food and drink prices are not the usual festival p*** take prices, and there’s even a special Bearded Theory ale brewed for the event by Thornbridge Brewery. The whole event has a really chilled vibe. So much so, there is always an OFSTED approved school held on the Friday on site, to allow parents to rock up for the entire four days and bring the kids without them missing school. Now in its third year, it started with 100 pupils and now has more than 350.
More than 200 bands, artists and acts over the four days on the “Pallet,” main stage (so called because in year one that was what the stage was made out of!), “The Woodland” second outdoor stage, “Magical Sounds” and “Maui Waui” marquees, plus “The Something Else Tea Tent” and the “Convoy Cabaret” marquee, plus a couple more stages.
Beards r us!
Final day at the main stage, there is a tradition; the World Record attempt at the most false beards in one place! Thousands of ‘em! This year, John Robb, front man of The Membranes and Goldblade (the latter who performed on the main stage on the same day) took on judging duties and chose the winning entry. The festival has won several awards, including: AIM Music Awards Winner – Best UK Independent Festival, UK Festival Awards Winner – Best Small Festival, Best Promoter, Best Family Festival. No reason why it should not add a few more to its trophy cabinet after this year’s anniversary bash.
I rocked up on the Friday morning, and by all accounts the Thursday “bonus” line-up kicked ass. Laid on mainly for the campers who turn up early. The main event beginning in full on the Friday. The main stage opened on the Friday with the very talented Yorkshire singer songwriter Beth McCarthy. Quirky voice, born story teller, a delicate mix of country, folk and indie pop. She gets compared to the likes of Ellie Goulding and KT Tunstall by some, but not by me. She’s got her own style and she’s bloody good. Nice way to start the day.
Next up, from Sheffield, the bonkers but infectious Faerground Accidents, who did the business last year on the smaller Woodland stage. Lots of theatrics, OTT prancing and dancing plus plenty of make-up. Singer Bomar Faery and Faerground Accident deliver psychotic pop and this is probably what a nervous breakdown sounds like! Great fun and they deserved their main stage spot. Follow that! Kent seven-piece outfit Fight Brigade did just that; male and female band offering grand anthemic sounds, sweeping guitars with comparisons to Arcade Fire and Of Monsters and Men.
This next lot were one of the best acts of the whole festival for me. Jaya The Cat. From Boston, USA via Amsterdam. They played the Woodland stage a couple years ago, with a late night raucous performance. Back again this year, their punk meets reggae with a ballsy rock edge went down nicely. Talk about never judge a book by its cover: They look like they parked their Harleys out back and should be on the main stage at Download. But along with their hard rock flavour, they channel the same kind of sounds as the Clash. Unusual stuff and well up for seeing them again sometime, somewhere.
Now it was time for one of the festival’s favourite bands: Ferocious Dog from Nottinghamshire. Hard hitting folk punk. Since their last appearance at BT, they released their critically acclaimed second album. Now boasting Les from Carter USM on guitar. Biggest crowd of the festival so far, a sing-a-long treat. Word of advice: Never call them a Levellers tribute band, unless you like soup and eating through a straw! How about this though: “The Pogues on speed”? They’ve got a punk attitude, folk sensibilities and lots of heart. Go see ‘em.
The last time I saw this next band, was at Milton Keynes Bowl back in the late 80s, supporting Simple Minds to many thousands. The pride of Wales, The Alarm still fronted by Mike Peters. They released their debut single way back in 1981, “Unsafe Building”, and invited the description ‘Bob Dylan meets the Clash’. They scored 17 top five UK singles, a host of successful albums, over five million album sales worldwide. Mike Peters survived cancer and now helps save lives with his ‘Love, Hope, Strength Foundation’. They turned in a powerful set and won a deserved loud and warm reception.
Slaves did not fuck about. They smashed that stage and that audience into outer space with an incendiary set that took no prisoners. Wow, they were on fire. For just two guys, they had the sound of a full band. Punk ethos to the core, Isaac Holman and Laurie Vincent transcended genre to support the likes of Kasabian, Green day and Rancid. There is never any compromise with them, and you would be best not to judge a book by its cover.
Don’t believe what you read, says Slaves
Those of a nervous disposition were probably best to go find the tea tent for a bit. Mike D from the Beastie Boys guested on their last album. They are darlings of the music press and hot property. It was a coup to book them for this relatively smallish festival. The boys told the crowd not to believe anything in the papers or on TV. “It’s all fucking lies”. I’ll never watch The Teletubbies in the same light again, then! That said; when you read that this band are dynamite live, believe every word. This band, or should I say duo, have so much power, attitude and energy and their set is delivered at 100MPH and is relentless. The shirtless drummer Isaac, sweat glistening in the Spring sunshine, veins sticking out in his neck, gives his all. He jumps into the pit and then into the crowd twice during the set, with the first mosh pit of the weekend.
They had stage invaders three times in their set, and at one stage a woman fell off the stage and clambered back on, to announce to the crowd and the band on the mike: “I hurt my fucking shoulder”…………Security got fed up with this in the end and cut the band’s set by one song, which did not go down well with the two lads or the crowd. Despite their current fame, the Slaves chaps spent the day on the site, wandering about checking out other bands and posing for selfies. No ego, no arrogance. It’s that kind of event to be honest. They had a few beers in the backstage bar mingling with crew and other musicians, happy as Larry.
Main stage headliners Skunk Anansie are a band I have longed to see live for many years. First time for me and I have to say, they were mighty. Skunk Anansie fronted by shaven-headed Skin who has a Jamaican background, burst on to the scene in 1994, and redefined boundaries in the male dominated hard rock world. A ballsy woman fronting a ballsy rock band. They practically owned the 1990s and sold more than five million records, undertaking many sell out world tours. They re-grouped in 2009 after an eight year hiatus. This was the first time at Bearded Theory for Skin, Ace, Mark and Cass – the very first female lead Pallet stage headliner. Stuck in a traffic jam for two hours on their way to the festival, they gave it 100% on that stage and even premiered some new material, including the superb “Sucker”.
The highlight of their set for many; when Skin sits on top of the crowd in the first song and then later in the set, eventually crowd surfs her way to the middle of the audience, who form a circle, all sit down and she sings to them, lit in a spotlight and 5,000+ pairs of eyes all on her. Telling one guy: “No you can’t have a fucking selfie”, before relenting, and telling the crowd to get their photos fast and then put their cameras down and listen to her song. You could have heard a pin drop as she sang to the fans, who gazed up at her adoringly. Talk about commanding an audience. Props.
On the Woodland stage that day, I caught headliners Cast who sound no different to their Brit Pop heyday. John Power still in good voice. I had forgotten how good their material is. The hits “Finetime”, “Alright”, “Sandstorm”, “Walkaway”, the # 4 chart hit “Flying” from 1996, “Free Me”, “Guiding Star”, “Live The Dream”, and the band’s last top Ten hit, “Beat Mama”. They formed in 1992 and split in 2001, reforming in 2010. Glad they did. I also enjoyed Kent horn-soaked ska-punk outfit Skaciety on this same stage earlier in the day. Saturday on that stage, Foy Vance headlined along with The Fall. Vance about to go out on an arena tour opening for Elton John. I didn’t get to see his set, but I did catch iconic Manchester band The Fall, fronted by the legendary Mark E. Smith. That sure was an experience…
The Fall formed in 1976 have had no less than 60 line-up changes in their 41-year history. Mark E Smith, the visionary punk poet, a larger than life character whose contract rider gives a clue as to the kind of no bullshit guy he is: 60 fags and a bottle of expensive brand whisky! Judging by the state of him on stage, falling back into his band members and messing about with the gear, I suspect he polished the lot off when he arrived on site. The boys in the band did not look impressed, but never missed a beat!
Lots of screeching feedback from the amps while Mark spent a lot of the time with his back to the audience, dressed in black leather jacket, leaning over holding his mike to the amp to create lots of bloody annoying noise. His howling “vocal” like he was in serious pain, and the raucous volume of the guitar, bass and drums, created what I could imagine the soundtrack to hell sounds like! Loyal fans would lap it up, others might well liken it to the sound of a burning pet shop. I can say I did not decipher one line of lyric in the time I was there. But I bet you a bottle of whisky that John Peel would have loved it!
No matter though; we were in the presence of a true originator and a true living legend, so he was forgiven for almost anything tonight. One worrying thing: He had a large swelling on the right side of his face and on his forehead on the left side. The man did not look well. I sincerely hope he is OK.
Special mention must go to the brilliant Funke and the Two Tone Baby, which is in fact is one guy in his 20s, with acoustic guitar, keyboard, synth, beats, loops, harmonica and voice. He packed the Woodland with punters who were clearly big fans and knew his catchy material, singing along to much of it, yelling out “go on Daniel” at various intervals. Lots of energy and some powerful and mesmerising blues-meets-trance material.
Back to the main stage on Saturday, local lads The Mocking Jays kicked things off. Tight funky indie style. Straight off to London after their set, to do a gig in Soho that night. Next up: British born, Nashville based Josh Doyle who founded the Dum Dums, notched up four top 30 hits in the UK and who has shared stage with Bon Jovi and Robbie Williams. His career took a bit of a dip which found him waiting tables, but his set here was very pleasing; both with his band and on his own with guitar. One to watch.
The sight of bagpipes filled me with dread, but I need not have worried. Skippinish were very good, delivering classic Scottish West Highland music, some tracks taken from their acclaimed 2013 “Atlantic Roar” album. I caught a documentary on them recently on BBC TV’s Alba channel. I expect to see them get an invite to return to Bearded Theory in the next year or two. Punk stalwarts Anti Pasti pulled out for some reason, replaced by excellent Birmingham band Eastfield, who earned their main stage spot and connected well with the crowd.
African Head Charge started life as a recording project in 1981, when the percussionist Bonjo lyabinghi Noah combined with the studio wizardy of Adrian Sherwood. It was almost a decade before the project went live as a dub reggae experience and their shows became a sold-out success. Billed as having semi- legedary status, sadly I was underwhelmed by their set, especially the stupidly long wait for the main man to come on stage, and like many of the crowd I saw wander away during their set, I got bored with the repetitive percussion and often pretty tuneless material.
Nothing negative can ever be said about the next band. Alabama 3. Bloody liars though! There is more than three of them and they are not from Alabama; they are from Brixton. You may remember them as the guys who made the Sopranos theme song. Great fun, musically unique and their show is more like an adventure where you never know what’s coming next. Lots of funk, they sure can nail a groove and there’s always several lead singers. Today four singers, two singing nuns and a bouncer stood at front of the stage for the whole set. Like a good meal; every time I see them I always want much more. Alabama Three, “sweet, pretty, mother funking, country, acid house music”. The wildest band to play at Bearded Theory on every level, says the festival blurb. If they have these cool cats on every year from now on, I doubt one person would complain. Why can’t all bands be this much fun?
Bearded Theory legends New Model Army went down well, but for me, were another band who felt a bit flat. That cannot be said about old Steven Gene Wold. Who? Oh, you’ll know him as Seasick Steve. A man who recently sold out Wembley Arena, has had a Led Zeppelin legend playing bass for him (not now), and is a darling of “Later…with Jools Holland”. He turned in a blistering set, just Steve and his drummer Dan Magnusson on stage for their headline set. Cannot fault it at all. I have met the guy in the past for a photo shoot, and shot him live on a major stage in front of circa 90,000 people.
Tonight, he was on fire, sat down on his trademark wooden chair for most of the set, occasionally swigging from a bottle of wine on stage. It’s usually JDs. Aptly sporting his long beard at Bearded Theory, the crowd lapped up. his stompin’ bluesy boogie. He makes a big noise for one man, one guitar and a drum kit. Since rising to prominence as a solo artist a decade ago, Seasick Steve has frequently appeared in the album charts, with last year’s “Keepin’ the Horse Between Me and the Ground” charting at # 8. Steve’s albums have featured many guest appearances including Jack White. Another coup for the bookers at this festival for getting Steve here.
Sunday morning opened on the main stage with the gentle sound of a harpist and a ladies’ choir, for those festival-goers nursing hangovers and sore heads. Did it bollocks! After the dub, reggae, funk and hip hop of Smiling Ivy, masters of the urban rave and party scene, who have dropped three EPs and one album, it was time for a very loud wake-up call from Goldblade.
Formed in the mid 90s, high octane stuff from front man and bassist John Robb (also from The Membranes). Goldblade’s 2009 performance in the beer tent after the main stage was blown down in a tornado that hit the Bearded Theory site, has gone down in the festival’s history. John Robb also did the beard challenge judging, after paying tribute to the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, leading a 22 second silence for the 22 victims, and giving a rousing and emotional speech. The Goldblade set was the musical equivalent of a steel toe cap in the balls, and then thanking the kicker afterwards! Heavy stuff and really, really shit hot. No matter it was Sunday morning, John as full of energy, leaping off stage and onto the safety barrier and locking tongues with an excited fan (see my photo to know what that is all about!).
Last year’s headliners John Lydon’s PiL had a tour manager who pissed off a fair few of the (hard working and very pro’) BT Fest production crew for one thing and another. This year he was back, playing bass with Goldblade and keeping a low profile backstage! John Robb is a busy boy. Bassist and singer with The Membranes from 1977 to 1990, and then when they re-formed in 2009 to the present day, while doing the same with Goldblade. Their only UK show this year. He also runs the on-line music magazine Louder Than War.
Reggae, reggae source…
Nice bit of reggae music to calm us down after Goldblade’s frenetic activity. Nucleus Roots, stars of Manchester’s reggae scene for the last two decades, augumented by the Natural-ite Ossie Gad. They did a good job and the perfect soundtrack to the sunshine and humidity.
Two Tone stars The Selecter formed in 1979 in Coventry. Re-formed a half decade ago and still a force to be reckoned with. Pauline Black and Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson are the two original members, with a young band around them, and they delivered a cracking set to a huge crowd in the sunshine on the Sunday afternoon. All their hits were there, “On My Radio”, “Three Minute Hero” and “Missing Words”. I must say, all sounding as fresh as ever. Lovely stuff.
But what came next was on another level entirely…time for some rap and hip-hop innovators in the flesh, The legendary Sugarhill Gang joining forces with The Furious Five. Boy do they make a great sound. That stage was bouncing as were the crowd. One of the best performances of the entire four days. Sugarhill Gang and The Furious Five. A sizzling mash up of two of hip-hop’s ground breaking pioneers, stormed the stage in a spectacular old skool bonanza. Sugarhill’s Henndog, Master Gee and Wonder Mike combined forces with Melle Mel and Scorpio to deliver an earth shaking double bill.
Sugarhill Gang’s smash 1979 hit, “Rapper’s Delight” got the biggest cheers, and sounded frigging awesome. They have only been touring again since last year, after a decade’s lay off. They released four studio albums and fifteen singles.Melvin “Melle Mel” Glover and Scorpio come on to the stage after Sugarhill Gang warmed things up, and hit us with the timeless classic “The Message”. It went down an absolute storm. Those lyrics still deliver a wallop: “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head, It’s like a jungle sometimes, It makes me wonder, How I keep from going under…”
What I did like, was seeing all of the Sugarhill guys stood in the pit near us photographers, watching the whole of Vintage Trouble’s set. Front man Ty Taylor was visibly overwhelmed when he spotted these legends, these Titans, his heroes digging his show, and gave them an on-stage credit. Reminiscing about laying on his bed as a kid, listening to their music and wanting to do what they did. They beamed as he paid homage to them.
Platinum-selling Scottish indie outfit Glasvegas, Mercury Prize nominees graced the Pallet Stage before Vintage Trouble. Their chart successes stem back to 2008 with their debut album going into the UK charts at number two. I had to be elsewhere for their set, but was reliably informed they did the business and went down well.
Best Set Of The Four Days…
US band Vintage Trouble. On directly before headliners Madness. Formed in 2010, and the same line-up from day one. Ty Taylor on lead vocals, Nalle Colt on guitar, Rick Barrio Dill on bass and Richard Danielson at the back on drums. It is as much a visual assault on the senses as it is audibly. They gave an explosive set that could top the thousands of pounds of fireworks shipped in to blast into the sky at the end of Madness’ set, to close the 10th anniversary party. For me, THE performance of the whole festival.
Ty Taylor’s vintage R&B vocal, his incredible acrobatics and his sheer power and performance skills really are something else. Channelling James Brown and Otis Redding, but adding a contemporary twist to things too. The band were on fire and the material exemplary.
If they are good enough to be selected to tour the US with the Rolling Stones, The Who, AC/DC and Bin Jovi, then they were surely gonna get lots of love showered on them in deepest Derbyshire. Fabulous stuff.
I would not have wanted to follow them. But North London’s ska stars Madness had no worries. Their’s is a tried and tested slick set of fun, frolics and hit after hit after hit. “Our House” “Baggy Trousers”, “Madness”, and of course, “One Step Beyond”. They cost a lot of dosh to book, and really earned it. The main arena was crammed and everyone got into the spirit of things, great atmosphere and the band seemed to really enjoy the gig. Suggs chattering away to the audience between songs, enjoying his pints of, ahem….orange juice! A slight speech slur as the set progressed, perphaps giving the game away as to what else may have been in those pint glasses!
They played songs from their 2106 album “Can’t Touch Us Now” and all their hits in a faultless 90 minute set, which culminated in fireworks above the stage, confetti and beach balls fired out into the crowd. Not one person young or old, left that arena without a big smile on their fizzog. Madness have achieved more than twenty chart hit singles. Since performing at both the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert and London Olympic Games closing ceremony in 2012, Madness have ascended into true ’national treasure’ status and they appeared at Bearded Theory hot off the back of a major arena tour.
A Backstage Beer With Suggs…
Suggs told me in the backstage bar after their triumphant set, the band are in a “purple period” and he’s never been happier. “I’m so happy, it is going really well. It’s me and me mates having a great time. What’s not to like? People want to see us still after all this time, and after all we’ve been through. People might be surprised at what we have been through…………………..”
That story may well come out sooner rather than later, after Suggs exclusively revealed to me that the same director who made the award-winning documentary film “Amy”, about Amy Winehouse, has approached them to tell their story. “A film on us would be just great and it’s time”. He tells me.
He said he had a “real ball” at Bearded Theory, complimented the festival’s friendly vibe and kept the band’s tour bus waiting with most of the rest of the band on board, while he danced to the DJ’s sounds and had a good drink in the backstage bar, after his nutty boys brought the four-day spectacular to a fantastic end.
A funny moment for me; wandering up the backstage road in a red Fez and carrying a gleaming gold sax is Madness star Lee Thompson. Popping to the artist’s loo before their set. “Shall I take that for you while you are in there doing what you have got to do,” offers I, helpfully, regarding his sax. “No thanks mate, I’ll take it with me,” he replies. And he did. Same toilets, one of Sugarhill Gang comes in earlier while I am taking a leak, carrying his walking cane with a gold skull on top, and pops it on the shelf while he is busy! Autograph hunters would have had a field day at the door to these ‘bogs to the stars’!!! Please note: I do NOT usually spend a lot of time hanging about outside toilets – your honour!!!
There are various stages across the site, some inside marquees as well as the two main outdoor stages, Pallet and Woodland. On the Magical Sounds stage, legendary producer and bassist from Killing Joke, Youth popped up twice, as did a band featuring Jah Wobble. Sean Lakeman (Seth’s brother) and Kathryn Roberts – twice winners of the Radio 2 folk award as a duo – pulled a good crowd at the Woodland stage on the Sunday evening. The Convoy Cabaret stage probably offered the most bizarre act of the festival on Saturday: Circus Insane. One of the most extreme circus acts in the world, and banned from countless countries TV shows and venues. Billed as “no illusions, no fake blood, everything you see is real”. A man with a shaved head and a red Mohican, who among other gory things, drills his face with real electric drills. Never again will I fear going to the dentist for a filling – unless he pulls out a ‘Black and Dekker’ like this bonkers bloke.
Where There’s A Will…
In the awning of the rear of the merchandise tent, late one night, I heard some wonderful sounds. Singer-songwriter Will Whisson giving an impromptu performance for the stage crew and merch’ staff. He really was superb. Using loops and possessing a real virtuoso skill on guitar. His voice is fabulous and he has some very strong self-penned material. I felt compelled to find out a lot more about the guy. He’s 29, looks about 18, born in Kent, raised abroad, eventually returning to the UK, living in London for a few years before him and his partner Kate quit their jobs and hit the road in a camper van. To pursue his dream of being a full time musician and songwriter. He’s built a profile across nine countries in the last year alone, since his nomadic adventure began in the summer of 2016. About to take on a 15-date UK tour.
His rootsy sound nods to the likes of John Butler and Jack Johnson, and such guys as John Mayer and Ben Howard. With a Dylan-esque emphasis in his lyrics, and a percussive element to his playing, his material is melodic, meaningful and engaging. Will played guitar in his former band Electric River, but he didn’t sing. The band’s one commercial release, “The Faith & The Patience”, met with acclaim from the music media, and sold well. It landed them tours and festivals before they split at the end of 2015.
He took singing lessons and grabbed his guitar, penned new songs and off he went busking and solo gigging around Europe in the summer of 2016, growing a fanbase and blagging gigs as he went along. All venues wanting him back. Recording and releasing his debut EP “Age Of Wonder” in September last year. Produced by Brett Shaw (Jess Glynne, Florence and the Machine) and songs based around embracing change and overcoming uncertainty.
Organic folk-tinged pop might be a fit to describe what he does. To know he did 80 gigs in nine countries in 11 months shows this guy is pretty determined to get out there and sing for his supper. His voice is warm, with a timbre and breathy tone similar to the great Green Gartside of Scritti Politti. He spent 10 years with his band, and their longest period on the road was three weeks at a time. He’s been on the road in that old camper van now for a year in a month’s time! Will is a real find and I predict good things to come from him. He deserves a break. I’ll follow his career with keen interest. You should check him out…I always look out for slogans on tee shirts at music festivals and like to choose one or two as the best of the festival, to mention in my review. I spotted this one which sums it all up for me: “Normal people scare me”. Here’s one I might have made to wear at next year’s bash: “Bearded Theory: The best legal high there is!”
Words and all photos: Simon Redley