Life, Love and Unity.
The Dreadzone motto of “Life, love and unity” has never been more perfectly exemplified than at Bearded Theory’s Spring Gathering. It’s a philosophy that seems to be embraced by the Beardy tribe. Fields full of friendly folk, a fantastic line up, and a frolicking good time make it the most greatly anticipated and looked forward to festival of the season for so many people, myself included. So I was up with the lark on Thursday 23rd May, loading the van ready for the most awesome weekend of the year.
Thursday 23 May
Last year a combination of traffic issues beyond the organiser’s control and only being able to obtain the required permissions to open the gates from 1pm resulted in an awful lot of people stuck in the queue for some considerable time. But as is the way of the Bearded crew they took these issues to heart, they don’t want people stuck in traffic getting hot and grumpy, they want people in those fields getting chilled and happy.
So this year they pushed to be allowed to open the gates from 9am, which meant that when we arrived at 12pm we drove straight onto the camper field. The parking stewards they had employed this year were incredibly quick and efficient and we were parked up within 15 minutes of arriving on site.
Another reason for the lack of traffic chaos, I think, was the much more laid back, casual entertainment laid on for the evening. There were a few bands playing in The Woodland and at smaller stages from 4pm, meaning people were able to make a more relaxed journey, arriving in a steady flow, rather than all at once in order to see the bands laid on on The Pallet Stage last year.
The happy chatter in the camper field as everyone sets up home for the weekend is always a joy to hear. We are here! Crack open a beer! I’m extremely lucky in that I camp with my Bearded brothers and sisters each year, so Thursday afternoon was spent setting up our little village and talking and laughing in the glorious sunshine we had been gifted.
Before we knew it, it was nearly 6pm and time for Beans On Toast in The Woodland. Beans On Toast is a solo artist whose lyrics make you think about the world we live in, but delivered in a way that isn’t heavy or gloomy, he sings with passion and humour, and was a great choice to get the party started early evening.
After visiting The Woodland, my favourite place on the entire planet, I went for a mooch about the site. This year there had been some changes to the layout. The Pallet Stage and The Woodland were still in the same place, but the organisers had listened to what people had to say about excessive noise travelling to the camping areas from certain stages last year, and had moved these to attempt to resolve the issue.
There was also the addition of two new stages. Swamp Circus, who run circus, theatre and dance workshops and performances and One Big Showcase, run by Academy of Sound and Music, where up and coming artists could literally showcase their musical skills. The Bearded Crew really had made the most of the space available this year.
As there were no bands on the main stage I took this as an excuse to have Thursday to myself, unencumbered by my camera gear, and allow myself a pint or two of mango cider. The Woodland was calling. Sister Bliss of Faithless performed an outstanding DJ set and standing amongst the trees and the lights and bunting, pint of mango cider in hand, I breathed a huge sigh of contentment and thought, I’m home.
Friday 24 May
I found myself wide awake at 5:30am so decided to take advantage of the sunny morning that was dawning and went for another walk about the site in my pyjamas. There’s something about a festival at that time of the morning, like a sense of quiet anticipation, as if the site itself is just waking, stretching and yawning, readying for the musical adventures to come.
After breakfast and a gallon of coffee I returned to the main arena to see the site fully awake and full of happy, contented faces. I spent a pleasant half an hour talking with the lovely stewards at the disabled platform. They do a wonderful job helping out those that need it and really do their best to make the festival as accessible to as many people as possible. The entire Bearded crew want everyone to have the best time possible.
Time had run away from me again and it was time for Mad Dog McCrea on The Pallet stage. A great festival band, they always deliver a romping folk/punk/gypsy shindig.
One of the biggest problems with Bearded Theory is the people. They’re so friendly! Trying to make your way anywhere without bumping into friends you’ve made along the way is an impossibility. And then there’s the problem of chatting to like-minded folks and swapping band recommendations for the weekend.
So by the time I’d managed to grab some lunch I had to dash back to The Pallet Stage for The Wildhearts. They weren’t messing about! Loud, pumping, thumping rock, metal hollered from the speaker stacks. Incredibly polished as a live band, they played metal as it should be played, loud, louder, and brimming with swagger that comes with the confidence that you know you’re good but let the music do the talking. They obviously love what they do and their spot on performance clearly demonstrated their dedication to their craft.
One of the bands that had been recommended to me were Pulled Apart By Horses. A fierce rock metal punk explosion was detonated on stage that afternoon and the backdraft was felt throughout the Woodland. Man alive, those dudes rocked the hell out of that stage! Absolutely superb!
One of the bands that needed to be seen that weekend were Editors. I was completely blown away. The range in lead singer, Tom Smith’s voice is just incredible. The performance they gave was one full of fervour and intensity and they gave their all to the audience. Live, these are the very definition of the word, awesome. It was one of the definite highlights of the weekend and an hour just wasn’t enough.
The band I’d been most excited to see since they were announced as the Friday headliners were Suede. These are a band I’ve loved since I was a yoof, (I remember buying their album, “Suede” in Our Price in 1993), but haven’t seen them live in twenty plus years. They’ve still got it. Brett Anderson is still a foxy minx and they gave a performance that was even better than I remembered them. Brett’s solo acapella performance of “Wild Ones” gave me goosebumps and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, such was the powerful simplicity and beauty of the rendition.
Saturday 25 May
As I have festival friends who are a bad influence I ended up dancing and yet more chatting at The Pirate Ship on Friday night. Simply put, it’s DJ pit in a pirate ship. Then I accidentally ended up in Magical Sounds, the dance tent, dancing to Transglobal Underground and Chris Liberator until 3am. It was not my fault.
Because of this, on Saturday I needed the solace of The Woodland and Rev Hammer. One man and his guitar singing acoustic, thought provoking musings, sometimes serious, sometimes hilarious, he gave a warm and engaging performance with a wicked sense of humour. He was an absolute tonic.
Having seen the rock band Reef live in a tiny pub/club in Corby in the mid-nineties and having not been overly keen, I decided to give them another go when they played The Pallet Stage that afternoon, and I’m rather glad I did. Maybe it was the setting, their music being much more suited to an open space than a small venue, but I really enjoyed their set. Full of vigour, they were giving and receiving that energy in equal measure. I’d definitely see them again given the chance.
Easy Star All Stars followed Reef with a collection of reggae versions of famous rock and pop songs, my personal favourite being The Beatles – Lovely Rita. A really enjoyable hour was spent soaking up the music and relaxed atmosphere.
After some time shopping at the different stalls and having a bite to eat I made my way to The Woodland to see another recommended band, indie rockers The Slow Readers Club. So far, these recommendations were proving to be a little bit good. They could easily have played The Pallet Stage and filled it with their vehemence and contemporary sound. The Slow Readers Club were another favourite festival find.
Saturday got even better, if that’s possible, when Idlewild headlined The Woodland. I’d heard of Idlewild and recognised some of their songs but I fell completely in love with their music that night. With every song they played I loved them a little bit more. It was one of those moments in life that will stay with me forever. Utterly sublime.
Saturday was rounded off with more dancing in Magical Sounds to Ed Tangent’s set. I had danced my daily 10,000 steps target before 1:30am. That’s the Ed Tangent effect.
I went for another wander around the site before heading for bed and was delighted and amazed when I walked into the main arena, not a scrap of litter was to be seen. Either, hats off to everyone for taking their litter and putting it into the many bins provided, or the Bearded Theory crew had enlisted the help of litter pixies who had cleared the entire arena in a very short amount of time. I suspect it may have been the work of the Bearded litter pixies as the festival is very much doing their part to do as much as possible to make the festival as eco friendly as possible, managing to reuse or recycle 100% of rubbish last year. Something they should be incredibly proud of.
Sunday 26 May
For me, Sunday morning is always a bit of a struggle at festivals. I’m beginning to feel a little bit broken, but want to drag every last bit of energy from the bottom of my boots and make the absolute most of the day we have left.
So the obvious choice was to go and experience something a bit different. Something to make me feel a bit more human. So I went and had my haircut by an absolute poppet of a woman at the Convoy Cabaret Barbers. Of course!
Feeling fresh, I wended my way, slowly, to The Pallet Stage, taking in the colourful sights, the delicious smells from the food stalls, absorbing the sounds of different music coming from the many stages and cafes. Sucking every last drop I could, trapping it all in my mind to keep as wonderful memories.
I finally arrived at The Pallet Stage to behold a magnificent set from Irish punk rockers, The Mahones. These are a must see for anyone who likes fun, tons and tons of it. Swinging their instruments around, dancing, singing, laughing, stomping and leaping, their frolicsome shenanigans on stage had the crowd buzzing with their infectious energy and exuberance. One of the best bands I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness live.
I stayed at The Pallet Stage for The Blinders, an alternative punk rock trio who gave a performance of raw and passionate songs with a political message. Punk rock from a new generation with their own, voracious voice.
It was a no brainer for me as to who to see next on the line-up. As one of my favourite bands for twenty plus years it had to be Dreadzone at The Pallet Stage. I have never been to a less superb Dreadzone gig, and yet again, they smashed it. Dub, reggae, with a bit of dance and electronic sound, Dreadzone are guaranteed to get the whole field jumping.
Even on a Sunday afternoon at a festival when we’re all feeling the effects of a weekend of intense enjoyment. Part way through their set, Dreadzone made an emotional and heart-felt dedication to Loki Dread, a member of the Dreadzone family who tragically passed away recently. “Digital Mastermind” has never been more fervently performed or danced to, a fitting tribute.
Closing the set with firm favourites “Little Britain”, and “Captain Dread” there was not a single face without a grin. The lovely stewards and kind folk using the disabled platform allowed me to join them to take advantage of the view to take photos, there was only one problem, trying not to dance and stay still enough to actually get some shots. I have a pavlovian response to Dreadzone’s music, I hear it, I dance, and it seemed to be the same for everyone else there. I’d just like to say one thing to the organisers, please can Dreadzone have a longer set next time? Their sets are over far too soon. We love them and we want more!
Grub time and one last dinner, so I took my time perusing the many delicious food stalls. There’s a good variety of tasty fare on offer throughout the site, catering to most tastes and pallettes and dietary requirements, and it’s all pretty reasonably priced too.
I particularly recommend Ghandi’s Flip Flop, who sell delicious, honest, fresh cooked curries, samosas, and other mouthwatering Indian street food. Also Cowley’s Fine Foods, who have a huge array of dried meats, biltong, jerky, pickles, sauces, relishes and chutneys available. Vegetarians and vegans are also catered for. All delectable flavours, some unique, you can even buy Unicorn jerky.
With some food inside me to give me one last burst of energy it was off to The Woodland to see Imperial Leisure. I’d liked what I’d read about them in the programme and wanted to check them out. Storming, loud, and jumping, Imperial Leisure are an alt ska explosion. Leaping about the stage and into the crowd they were a spirited, high octane infusion of energy as well as a visual feast. A stage full of talented musicians with a massive sound and personality; these, I definitely recommend.
I hung around The Woodland to catch the first part of The Dreadnoughts set. They were bonkers. I wished I’d been able to see all of their set because what I did see was fantastic. Self-described “worldcore clusterfolk merchants”, The Dreadnoughts threw their vigorous punk folk sound into the crowd with force. On stage they were truly having a laugh, as infectious as their cider drinking musical mischief.
As is the was with Bearded Theory, there is so much choice and so many great bands there will always be clashes between acts. Sunday night was my night for tough choices, as The Dreadnoughts and The Skatalites in The Woodland clashed with The Pallet Stage headliner, Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul. Little Steven won.
Having heard many good things throughout the weekend they seemed too good to miss. Filling the entire stage with a big band Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul equally filled the main arena with a big sound. This wasn’t just a festival set, this was a huge production of a stage show, with all the showmanship and wow factor of a stadium performance.
Little Steven, aka Steven van Zandt of Sopranos fame and band mate of Bruce Springsteen, owned the stage with his presence and showed he’s an incredible front man in his own right. His band showcased their sensational talent throughout the entire set, a stage full of musicians and singers at the top of their game.
Hang on, I’m not finished yet, and neither were Bearded Theory. The weekend was rounded off in the fluffiest possible way, with The Orb at Magical Sounds. Having a final wobble dance standing just outside the tent, taking in the sights and sounds one last time I was filled with happy sad. Happy to still be in my favourite place, sad that I had to leave in the morning.
But there was one more laugh in store. There is a Banksy at Bearded Theory who goes by the name of Bogsey. Completely independently, he turns up and places witty art installations around the site that make us laugh throughout the weekend, usually at the expense of Donald Trump. But Sunday night he had surpassed himself, turning a portaloo into a Keith Flint tribute party portaloo.
With photos and tributes to Keith, and festooned with disco lights inside, he had even installed a small sound system playing Prodigy hits sung by the great man himself. At one point there were five people dancing inside the tiny cubicle. Thank you, Bogsey, for making the bitter end so much sweeter.
And that was it. In a flash it was all over. No sooner were we arriving and hugging hellos than we were leaving and hugging goodbyes. Welcome aboard the Bearded Theory time machine, where four days last five minutes.
Bearded Theory really is the embodiment of life, love and unity. It’s the best festival with the best people; organisers, staff and punters alike. Where magic things happen and moments and memories are made and treasured.
See you all next year to make some more.
Review and photos by Hollie Latham
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 23 August 2020.
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