Well it’s all change for Bearded Theory festival this year. The three amigos who brought it to life have finally hung up their beards and sold on the favourite Midlands fest. And this is its first proper year under the new banner of DHP Family. No doubt the new team know they have a very loyal crowd ready to pounce on every teensy fault, so they’ve prepped the crowd with a fantastic lineup to soothe any savage beasts. And they’ve also made sure that female artists – often overlooked on festie lineups – are well represented.
One issue the new team have addressed is the ever-growing problem of Bearded Theory’s pesky second stage. Increasingly, the Woodland Stage, ostensibly designed as a chillout spot for quieter more acoustic-driven acts in a scenic forest glade – had become just a general alternative stage. And with queues to get in. Not what you want at a festival.
To share the load, the Meadow Stage is now in place (you can’t miss it, it’s huge) – as far away from the Main stage as possible, no doubt to counteract any sound bleed. It’s also a tent, with a roof, which would be great if it rained. But, as happens every year at Bearded Theory (well, almost), the festival gods made sure the sun blazed down all weekend long. However memories of that deluge of the first year at Catton Hall are still lodged in my memory.
Otherwise, things seem to be in their rightful place; the main “Pallet” stage is still there in all its glory, Something Else Tea Tent starts out with a reassuringly plentiful supply of cakes (but sold them all by Saturday night) and Magical Sounds Dance Tent is its usual lovely self.
It took a while to find The Catton Fiddle, no, not The Cat and Fiddle – the new much-touted ‘pub’ with craft ales and even one from Bass. It turned out to be one of the glass-roofed bars which didn’t look particularly festival-like – hopefully next year they’ll give them a suitably atmospheric vibe.
Opening day and the music revved into action early evening. Long-term BT friends 3 Daft Monkeys kicked off the main stage action with a set that felt fresh and perfect for such an auspicious occasion. By track two – Days of the Dance, they’ve got a folky equivalent of a mosh pit happening. Over on the Woodlands stage, Heartworms made her appearance. Jojo Orme is a mesmerising presence on stage and presents a raft of good material with Retributions of an Awful Life wrapping the set. The Orielles pack the Woodland out for a set that drops recent material amongst some of their previous disco-flavoured numbers.
Emerging band Panic Shack are a great way to start the first full day’s music offering. They’re a fun and feisty Cardiff outfit with some amusing lyrics – their party attitude reminds me of Los Bitchos. Meanwhile the new Meadow stage opened ceremoniously with Girlband. There was a slight mix-up with another Girlband, who were featured on the Bearded Theory playlist. They may have only formed last May but they have assembled some killer tunes and are cool presence on stage. The Meadow tent also gets a thumbs up – it’s a capacious, wide space without that sense of claustrophobia you can get inside packed festival tents.
The Go! Team were an afternoon highlight – their usual high-energy set delighted the crowd. And later The Bug Club gave one of their enjoyable garage-band-on-speed performances. They bash out their short songs, each one with a catchy riff and vocalist Sam Willmett’s dry delivery. I had to dash around at this point in order to catch Americana band Morganway on the Maui Waui stage – they even sound a tad Fleetwood Mac-like at times. It’s an enchanting and tight set with impressive harmonies.
Rock royalty made a visitation in the form of Beth Orton. There were a few sound problems that marred the start of her set but she eventually found her feet – or voice. She played a thrilling version of Lonely. Mid way through the set, Beth announced she would sing a song on her own – this was an understated announcement for the atmospheric Stolen Car, followed by the band joining her for She Cries Your Name.
Leeds based Yard Act gave an inspired performance. Despite the imposing size of the main stage, James Smith managed to bring an intimacy to his performance, and he really connected with the crowd. He prowled the stage, spitting out the lyrics – quite different from the previous time I saw him at another festival – maybe he was having a bad day. This was one of the my top performances of the festival.
With the Meadow Stage fully up and running, the Woodland resumed its rightful place as a quieter space and Cornish artist William the Conqueror was an absolute gem. It seemed surprising to read ‘indie rock’ and ‘like Nirvana’ in the brochure notes – this was more like a bluesy Americana folk mix with witty and amusing lyrics.
She Drew the Gun are led by the formidable front woman Louisa Roach, a cool and mesmerising performer, who belted out her rousing political anthems about social problems and injustice, and the plight of refugees. They covered some of their most catchy songs like Resister. And later indie-pop act Pale Blue Eyes, who have been absolutely smashing the hell out of live shows this year, played at Meadow stage with an ever-growing crowd dancing to Dr Pong and their other propulsive and ecstatic numbers.
All credit to the BT team for luring Gary Numan to Catton Hall. Honed to perfection, his show is curated with immaculate detail – from the styling and colours of the band member’s outfits to Gary’s expressive and dramatic movements. With smoke machines on overdrive and his two guitarists looking like terrifying creatures from a sci-fi film, they power through a set with some latter material like My Name is Ruin and a smattering of oldies: Metal, Cars and Are ‘Friends’ Electric? It’s a full-on impressive assault both musically and visually. Photos of Gary Numan at Bearded Theory
The other big draw of the night was Echo and The Bunnymen and, in common with the last time I saw them (at Festival No 6), the tent was full to bursting with excess crowds sitting outside where the sound, and the intensity of the experience, was diluted. Maybe a main stage slot would have been a better decision.
Bearded Theory traditions have been upheld for ‘family Sunday’ and the usual fun shenanigans take place around the main stage. The dress-up theme for this year is “Fairytales and Folklore”. Predictably there is an abundance of large, hairy men dressed as Snow White and suchlike. The winners are chosen before we move onto another tradition – hugely popular band The BarSteward Sons of Val Doonican with their sign language interpreter. Their set includes a song about the woes of touring and finding a cheap hotel for the night, called ‘Where the sheets have no stains’ (no prizes for guessing the tune).
Magical Sounds tent has been pulsating away all weekend as usual with DJ Ginge and others keeping a steady output. Merv Pepler and Banco de Gaia crowded out the tent on Sunday, and Flutatious played a layered and beautifully textural set.
It was a joy to hear Chrissie Hynde – her vocals remain as flawless as ever. Midway through her set, she had to restart a song, somewhat distracted. ‘Wait, I’ve just seen Bobby Gillespie’, she informed us. And indeed Primal Scream duly made their entrance onto the stage for their Bearded Theory headline slot where they pulled out all the stops: a gospel choir dressed in white, impressive visuals and a spot-on finish in time to herald the firework display.
The bones of Bearded Theory are still there and its family-friendly ethos remains intact. And the biggest change, the new Meadow tent, has successfully taken the pressure off the Woodland – I didn’t hear any complaints about this new addition over the weekend. Hopefully the new owners have completed their changes, and will be content to sit back, congratulate themselves on a job well done, and set about building a dream lineup for next year’s festival.
Bearded Theory festival, Catton Hall, Derbyshire. 25–28 May 2023
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