Bearded Theory Spring Gathering or “festival” as it is usually called, has reached an important milestone – its tenth birthday. The hairy-faced contributor to the festival world has grown and blossomed, from bum fluff through designer stubble to full beard. The celebrations opened on a perfect sunny Thursday afternoon with a surprisingly large crowd, perhaps due to the lineup being stuffed with Bearded Theory favourites, or an audience adept at writing convincing sick notes.
To mark the big birthday, Thursday’s lineup was a virtual repeat of Bearded Theory’s first year, with much-anticipated Dreadzone taking the headline spot. Whatever Dreadzone do, they manage to sound fresh and relevant, and their latest album Dread Times bears witness to this ability. Their dub-reggae infused upbeat set was a true headline act, front man MC Spee expertly stage-managing the crowd from his seat. For the finale, as the thrilling orchestral opening notes of Little Britain filled the air, the confetti cannons went into overdrive and sent whirls of confetti over the crowds as fireworks lit up the clear sky. A fitting finale to the occasion.
The sun shone down on Bearded Theory on Friday too, as crowds lazed by the Pallet Stage – American band Jaya the Cat returned by popular demand with a set of reggae-roadhouse revelry – they may perhaps carry more weight as an evening act but nevertheless it was good to see them back. Cat was followed by dog– Ferocious Dog that is, and an obvious Bearded favourite with their folk-rock numbers managing to rouse a sun-sozzled crowd.
Magical Sounds was now up and running; each year the popular little dance tent excels itself in decorative stylishness – this year revellers danced under a psychedelic canopy with twirling butterflies. Manchester’s Big Unit played a powerful and uplifting set – a pumping anthemic mix of dancey acid rock riffs. And later, Tetchi, the elusive Hebden Bridge based outfit who I’ve seen at The Trades, played a remarkable set, skilfully weaving and building complex rhythms.
There was plenty going on elsewhere around the arena, including stuff for children. Bearded Theory’s OFSTED-approved school was in action and kids were occupied with learning – in a far more pleasurable way than real school by all accounts. The Children’s Village was a hive of activity all weekend long – the area is almost like a mini festival all of its own and even offers a veggie food trader too with wraps and a delicious veggie breakfast.
Over at the Something Else Tea Tent, people crowded in to sit down, drink tea and enjoy a succession of grassroots acts. It’s tempting to while away the afternoon in this tent, there’s always someone to chat to, some familiar numbers to join in with, and a plentiful choice of cake to try (courgette and lime flavour, for instance).
Time to drift over to The Woodland stage which has been a festival transformer for Bearded Theory, offering a welcoming quiet shady space to chill out among the trees in between acts on the impressive oaken stage. Anyone feeling peckish can head to the Woodland’s quirky market, home of the amazing steampunk food emporium, and Cheezy Vinyl (eat cheese, feel sexy!), a cheese and port bar for one of the festival’s more – ahem – refined dining experiences. Hopefully there will be even more traders here next year.
Skunk Anansie headlined on Friday night and I doubt anyone present will forget the experience. From the moment Skin, the dramatic and visually powerful front woman, burst onto the stage, everything else just fell away. A hyperactive figure clad in sunglasses and an oversized pink coat, Skin held the entire crowd in the palm of her hand. She strutted, she darted here and there – at one point she bounced out into a delighted crowd before being hoisted back onto the stage, a dynamic ball of energy, her voice as powerful and emotional as ever. As the set progressed, off came the sunglasses and the coat, leaving her in a slinky black outfit. It was good to see Skunk Anansie back and it was equally a welcome sight to see a female heading the main stage as Bearded Theory does tend to lay on a male-heavy lineup.
The Maui Waui tent really established its place this year and came up with some star turns – Bo Weavil played a rousing mix of folk which got a fair few people dancing. And performing a late-night set, nine-piece outfit Cut Capers played exhilarating swing, jazz and hip hop. This was a tight set suffused with energy and the applause at the end was deafening.
The mighty Alabama 3 are regulars at Bearded Theory – their backwoods deep-south renegade look appears to have had a bit of a Vogue-style makeover judging by their suave outfits. Larry Love, Rev D Wayne Love and chums belted out a hit-heavy festival set including gems such as Hypo Full of Love and Too Sick to Pray, accompanied by two dancing nuns.
The Alarm also made a popular appearance, with a group of devoted fans, which amused Mike Peters.
Seasick Steve’s mellow and intense performance was a pleasing contrast to an afternoon of bands, and it felt as if the audience had a lot of love for him. He mentioned how delighted he was to be appearing at a festival with the word ‘beard’ in it.
On Sunday, following Bearded Theory tradition, the early part of the day was taken up with a flurry of family activities and general silliness. Outside the Something Else Tea Tent, a Kate Bush flashmob took place. This year’s Fancy Dress theme was “Mobsters and Lobsters” – for those who had forgotten an outfit, traders were helpfully selling tight, shiny green leggings which looked rather attractive (or unattractive, depending on your opinion) on several of the men present. It was also time for the False Beard Wearing World Record Attempt. The crowds gathered at the Main Stage, outfits and beards in position.
Judging the proceedings was John Robb, singer from Goldblade who had just finished his set and took to his new role with great enthusiasm. The eventual winner was 7‑year-old mobster Poppy, against whom Evil Knievel with a giant lobster claw for a hand just couldn’t compete for sheer cuteness.
The Selecter with Pauline Black, and later, The Sugar Hill Gang, were hugely popular draws and with good reason – both delivered fantastic, upbeat sets. Set against such heavyweights, it was difficult for Scottish indie band Glasvegas to fully engage with the crowd, they may have worked better on the more intimate Woodland Stage.
Later was the opportunity to see a new act to the festival – rhythm and blues act Vintage Trouble, with a riveting performance from front man Ty Taylor – he’s got the moves like James Brown. At one point, Taylor got down from the stage, made his way out into the crowd and crowdsurfed back to the stage, which delighted everyone.
Madness delivered their headline slot with a raft of hits towards the end – Wings of a Dove accompanied by confetti and a great burst of fireworks, to herald the end of a great festival.
We all have our traditions, and mine is always to see out the festival at Magical Sounds, this year it felt right to schedule a live act, and Transglobal Underground, with their African and Asian dance mix, fitted the bill. A mini drama unfolded as mid-set, Noise Abatement threatened early closure which upset vocalist Natacha Atlas, but, hurrah, the problem was solved and so we all danced on till our midnight curfew.
And so to the end of the birthday bash, and yet another successful Bearded Theory – even the weather complied. Everyone I talked to was beaming – it’s that mixture of great music, the friendliest people and something special – the Bearded Theory spirit – which descends on Catton Hall one magic weekend a year.
For more photos of Bearded Theory, see Sam Dawson Photography
25th – 28th May