Everything looks sparkly and fresh at Bearded Theory’s new venue at Catton Hall. The grass is lush, green and springy. The main stage stands at one end of the remarkably flat new site, with a dance tent and the more intimate Tornado Town tent just far enough away to be out of earshot, while a secret stage lies hidden in a clearing in the woods. What better way to start proceedings than with a Thali at Ghandi’s Flipflop for £8 and a celebratory raspberry cider.
The main stage’s primarily retro lineup kicks off with the superb Leatherats (pictured below) – a band familiar to the festival, whipping up the atmosphere with their dancey, upbeat folk rock led by mad Gandalf lookalike Pete Bailey.
In the Tornado Town tent, Funke and the Two Tone Baby, in the form of Dan Turnbull, offers a whirlwind of intense vocals and accomplished lightning speed guitar work. Enthusiasm and energy are paying dividends for this young musician, he announces at the end of his set that he has 29 festival appearances lined up this summer.
As the day turns to evening, Dub Pistols play a perfectly pitched set with singer Barry Ashworth looking particularly chilled and smiley. This is the time of the day to relax and luxuriate in a feel-good moment: admire the sunset, sip a drink, contemplate a dinner you won’t be cooking, and think of the weekend ahead full of joyous music. Looking upwards, that sunset is noticeably absent, the clouds are ominously rolling in, and rain is already pattering onto that gorgeous lush grass. Will a sea of mud ensue?
Dance tent Magical Sounds appears to have been granted a five-star budget for decoration, we admire the impressive Christmas-influenced tableau complete with santa, penguins and mushrooms. On Saturday night, Astralasia’s set is thrilling old-school mystical trance, I Feel Love is a mesmerising, drawn out version which I don’t want to end.
On Saturday, Bearded Theory favourites (and mine) 3 Daft Monkeys, play a good-natured afternoon set, mixing numbers from their latest album Of Stones & Bones, peppered with classics such as Days of the Dance. After having seen them several times before, it’s good to catch them at Bearded Theory – it is their influence that helped kick the festival into gear at the very start.
The roll call of retro-Brit bands continues, with Pop Will Eat Itself who inject some relevant political commentary into their impressive set (such as corruption in Brazil pre-World Cup), followed by 90s outfit, The Wonder Stuff. But the night belongs to The Stranglers. It’s a glorious – and long – set, taking in Get a Grip on Yourself, No More Heroes, Peaches, Go Buddy Go, Skindeep, Hanging Around, Always the Sun… The band sound just incredible, remarkably similar to their original recordings, despite those lineup changes. The Stranglers remain a charismatic, powerful, muscular force, that driving bass which gets you somewhere in the guts, the gothic fairground organ, and prowling Baz Warne.
By Sunday the grass is no more, and the sea of mud is a continuous gloopy presence – not that anyone seems to particularly care, in fact nothing dents the mood. It is noticeable that fancy dress Sunday has become more subdued however, and the Magic and Sparkles theme isn’t too much in evidence. Monster Ceilidh Band play an energetic set at the Tornado Tent, playing their rousing mix of ceilidh and drum ‘n’ bass. Early evening, crowds gather at the mud pit in front of the Main Stage for the Blockheads, who run through their classics: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Sweet Gene Vincent, What a Waste, Reasons to be Cheerful, Clever Trevor and end with Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick – they dedicate a song to Wilko Johnson, who should have been performing at the festival but is currently recovering from treatment.
The mighty Dreadzone are on next – they catch the mood just right for a chilled Sunday evening slot before the big headliner UB40. After a few numbers we leave Ali Campbell and the boys, and head over to catch The Orb Soundsystem for a final dance before wending our way homewards.
Families are always well catered-for at Bearded Theory, the children’s dedicated Angel Gardens providing a wealth of activities all day, there was even a well-orchestrated children’s flashmob to ‘Happy’, in front of the main stage pre-Blockheads. Food stalls provided a diverse range of choice, including zebra burgers, with outlets situated at both ends of the festival site, and a cafe outside the arena too. Moving to a new site was always going to present the organisers with some testing moments, no doubt this was exacerbated by two days of fairly constant rain. The organisers apologised for the toilets, which certainly needed to be cleaned more often, and the car parks could do with more stewards on site. No doubt these issues will be addressed for next year.
Musically, Bearded Theory takes you on a comprehensive – if almost exclusively male – voyage back through the ‘Best of British’ over the last few decades, with plenty of punk, ska, folk and reggae, and a chance for new acts to make an appearance at the smaller tents. It’s hard to think of another festival with quite the same level of friendliness as Bearded Theory; as a ‘brand’ it certainly has found its niche (just hope it keeps up the beards competition), plus it possesses that element which I feel helps no end – a really even spread of ages with everyone getting along together.
Did you go to Bearded Theory this year?