Bearded Theory festival or “Spring Gathering’ as they like to call it, has been silent for the past three years, but due to the strange elasticity of time, once we’re on site it feels more like a week or so since we were last there. Things are looking comfortingly familiar – we don’t want too many changes, thanks. The flags are fluttering, stages are ready for action and bathed in gentle sunshine.
Apart from the stages, another favourite place beckons… the Something Else Tea Tent where you can relax in a comfy chair listening to a roster of artists with one (or several) slices of cake – there are about 15 varieties after all. Anyway, enough about cake.
The line-up is the sort of Bearded Theory mix we’ve come to expect: some well-loved returnees like Ferocious Dog, Three Daft Monkeys, Gaz Brookfield and The Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican. There are the heavyweight headliners including legendary Patti Smith, plus there’s the joy of discovering surprise new artists further down the lineup. Magical Sounds dance tent is still there – loved by many (me included), avoided by others, and it also has a great lineup including Astralasia and Eat Static. Some people pass by and wonder why they’re playing the same thing all day and night, but my advice is to just walk in instead and you’ll be surprised at the variety of DJs and live bands… and you might just dance your socks off.
One of the opening bands on the main or Pallet stage is Australian duo Pierce Brothers – and there’s no mistaking the fraternal connection. They play an enthusiastic, rousing set of their folk-based material, enhanced by their warm, rich harmonies.
Next up are the Dub Pistols who have graced many a festival stage. I can honestly say this is the best performance I’ve seen yet from the collective. They were on fire. Upbeat and invigorated, it was a performance of absolute joy and the crowd gave it back in spades. There was some new material to air at the end of their set too. Later, we head for the Woodland stage for a Party in the Woods with Craig Charles.
Friday is the first proper full day of music with all the stages open. Early in the afternoon we’re treated to a blinder of a set from the Nova Twins, lead vocalist and guitarist Amy Love and bassist Amy South, two feisty young London women who strut the stage like they own it. They have toured recently, supporting Skunk Anansie, who is a huge fan of theirs – if you were at Bearded Theory in 2017 you will no doubt remember her headlining show. Their set is a mix of heavy (ish) alt rock, rebelliously grungy.
Dubioza Kollectiv first appeared on the Bearded Theory stage in 2018 and that performance won them an absolute legion of fans. Word must have got out as the main stage is crammed and expectant as the Bosnian collective swarm over the stage in yellow and black outfits. Dubioza energetically dance and play their way through a full-on set of swagger: hip hop, reggae, punk, gypsy folk; it’s all there and with a dose of humour, too. And let’s hope Dubioza Kollectiv get their wish to be a Eurovision entry.
In another part of the festival something else is going on – school. The famous and famously popular Bearded Theory OFSTED-approved school day takes place in the Children’s Village every year and it is legendary. So – proper educational activities for the children, guilt-free moshing for the parents.
Fat White Family tend to be fairly Marmite, if you get my drift. The intense Lias Saoudi does his own thing, regardless of what anyone thinks. Although I have seen him throw a hissy fit at talkers in the crowd, so maybe he does care what people think of him. For the first number the band, bathed in pink light, just got on with – you know, playing their instruments – while Lias swigged from a whisky bottle before rather alarmingly launching his white-linen suited self off the stage, over the barrier and into the crowd.
One of the first things you notice are the amount of Ferocious Dog T shirts walking around the site. Their set was a festival highlight. They weave ancient Celtic sounds with a punky energy and there’s a strong emotional pull too. It looked as though the Bearded crowd, jumping around, was left as happy as I was.
Folky, dubby, multi-genre Tarantism play at the Woodland stage mid afternoon with the fiddle and flute casting a calming and mystical atmosphere over the crowd. This is the sort of band I envisaged for the Woodland stage when it was first unveiled many years ago, rather than a more general second stage. Tarantism have a new album out too. It seems incredible that this band have been together for over 25 years, bringing the spirit of earlier festivals to their live act. They finish the set with a song called I Drank The Levellers’ Rider – and tell us how surprised they were to discover that some of the crowd at a previous festival had no idea who The Levellers were.
Gails’s Something Else Tea Tent is a constant stop off over the weekend and once you’re in there it’s hard to haul yourself out again. Political folk punk artist Efa Supertramp played an enjoyable and impressive set, ending with the song Prosecco Punx. And big thanks to Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls who took to the main stage early evening. He’s a big supporter of grassroots music venues and recently played the final night at Nambucca in north London before it closed its doors. He asked the crowd to keep supporting their local venues – we can’t afford to lose any more.
There are plenty of people rocking their fancy dress outfits for the whole weekend. I meet one lady drinking shots from a large bottle with a label saying Fisherman’s Friend, a vodka drink if I’m correct. And a past winner who had constructed a beard out of Lego is wandering around drinking from a Lego mug.
And so onwards to Patti Smith‘s Saturday night set which was everything and more that we could have wanted. It was notable for its simplicity, allowing Patti’s stirring vocals to command the stage. She has a rare way of opening up to the audience with a refreshing honesty and directness that is very personal and intimate. At one point even telling us how nervous she felt before coming out on stage but saying we’d helped her through it. The set includes Because the Night, After the Goldrush and a shiveringly beautiful version of Nine.
The early bird catches… the soundcheck by The Flaming Lips. Those wandering around, bleary eyed, were caught by surprise by Wayne Coyne – resplendent in full bubble mode – on the main stage playing Do You Realize?
Sunday at Bearded Theory traditionally starts out as a family day and that means Fancy Dress – the theme for 2022 is ‘Heroes’, with beards and a competition for the best outfit. The Bar-Stewards of Val Doonican entertain the main stage crowd. The Heroes theme appears to have resonated with everyone this year in a very personal way – there’s a group of suffragettes, plenty of comic book heroes, two Princes, and a Robert Smith. Plus countless others, including 2019’s winner, a spaceman who has recycled his outfit and turned it into a washing machine. The timings were all askew though; the usual stage call-up of potential winners never happened and a mini competition was rustled up in the photo pit, which was not very visible. A talented young lad as ‘The Ghost of Freddie Mercury’ took first prize.
Not sure if it’s intentional or not, but Sunday afternoon unveils a roster of strong, independent women playing solo and in bands, which hopefully exonerates Bearded Theory from the oft-criticised tendency for festivals to put on male-heavy lineups. A late addition is Emily Capell who has supported Dreadzone and has amassed a following here and and abroad. The beehive hair and eyeliner wings give at least a hint where we’re going with sound – a raft of material that wavers through ska, 60s pop and doo wop and she impressed everyone I spoke to.
There’s a much anticipated performance from LIINES, the Manchester band. They are a force of energy from the start with Zoe’s rousing and powerful vocals soaring out from the stage and over the crowd. It’s an intense and raw experience – there’s no let up, just those distinctive vocals, driving guitar and Leila’s drumming. They have definitely attracted some new fans today. I managed to catch them for an interview after they came off stage, check back to Gourmet Gigs.
As The Flaming Lips came on stage, part of me wishes I’d never seen them before just so I could appreciate their creative madness for the first time. Bearded Theory likes to go out with a full-on show – and The Flaming Lips certainly fulfilled the brief with Yoshimi and the giant robot, confetti cannons and more. Stage props aside, what struck most of all was Wayne’s down to earth personality. After the morning soundcheck he took a wander round the site just like any festival goer with his family. And during the show he stopped for a good 15 minutes as a medical emergency was dealt with. The set was a perfect ending and melded perfectly with the firework finale.
There were loads more notable performances. But then a festival isn’t just about the music. It’s about seizing a feeling of freedom for a few days, to float about in a different and ‘safe’ environment for a while, a break from real life. It’s about chatting to new people, having a laugh and coming home feeling inspired and optimistic. On that note, I think Bearded Theory managed to do just that.
For more photos: Bearded Theory Photo Album
Bearded Theory Spring Gathering festival