Bearded Theory Festival has got its mojo back. Not that it ever really went away, it just went through a dip last year with the new site to adjust to, coupled with relentless rain. But for 2015, the weather smiled down on Bearded Theory, the festival site was looking all new and improved and the confidence was back.
Arriving at Catton Hall on Friday, it’s apparent just how much development has been going on: The Pallet main stage and sound system are impressive and there are more food choices and stalls. Fancy dress theme is Pirates, and from the start a number of swashbuckling types are strolling the site in full regalia; beards too are in evidence and of far more originality than your standard hipster. The bar is Thornbridge Brewery again, with their excellent Festival Ale, and all at decent prices.
The piece de resistance is the Woodlands. More like an add-on last year, it is now almost a mini festival in itself. Tucked away behind the arena in a wooded area, with dappled sunlight filtering through the trees, is the stunning new stage of sculpted oak, the setting for mainly folk-related artists who play from noon till late. It has its own bar, and Nana’s Kitchen, a cosy cafe where revellers queue for home-made roasts, chips and the most delicious cakes, baked daily on-site by Adele.
A great deal of effort has also been put into the extensive Children’s Village where there’s a daily timetable packed with events, many pirate-related, and the new Bearded School offering school lessons with a festival twist. And even the toilets have been upgraded and noticeably kept clean for the festival’s duration.
Alabama 3 are on early Friday evening – a band I’ve seen many times and this is one of their best performances. Aurora Dawn coolly struts her stuff, and Larry Love and Rev D Wayne Love keep everyone entertained with their amusing and somewhat rude banter. Woke Up This Morning, Up Above my Head, Hypo Full of Love (with the low-down dance moves), and Too Sick to Pray are on the setlist. There’s nothing precious about A3 and this was a definite crowd-pleaser festival set.
Saturday afternoon’s Pallet stage showcases some excellent folk-rock outfits – the opening band Three Minute Heist play an Americana-influenced set features some strong bluesy numbers. Skinny Lister are adept at getting the audience into full afternoon drinking and dancing party mode before Irish Canadians The Mahones take over the stage with their high-powered punk folk. Still on a folky theme, the Woodland stage is host to The Leylines, who produced one beautiful song after another, and whose fiddle player will have you playing air violin (not in public, though).
Early evening and it’s British Sea Power’s first time at Bearded Theory. One of my favourite bands, British Sea Power possess a very British charm and quirkiness and their stage shows are known for – well unpredictability and bears. Maybe the unpredictable here was that the bear didn’t appear. The rousing and uplifting Machineries of Joy opens the set, followed by Apologies to Insect Life, then Waving Flags. A powerful version of Silver Machine finishes the set, Jan Scott Wilkinson repeatedly throwing his guitar in the air, looking increasingly as if he isn’t going to catch it. Sliced in between an afternoon of foot-stomping folk and the all-out rock of New Model Army, BSP offered a more cerebral transition to the evening’s entertainment – a welcome must-see for some, but not maybe of universal appeal.
A surfeit of festival-goers sporting New Model Army t-shirts are an indication of the numbers waiting to see these long-term rockers. I caught the end of their storming set at Bearded Theory two years ago and, as the programme blurb says, it is a set “still talked about in hushed, reverent tones”. The band undoubtedly deliver a powerful set, Justin Sullivan a mesmerizing figure among the blue smoke, his voice still powerful and full of portent, opened with Stormclouds, taking the band through a mix of numbers and finishing with I Love the World.
For Sunday at Bearded Theory (beards, pirates, The Beat, Transglobal, James and more…) click here
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