Gig review: BEAUTIFUL DAYS FESTIVAL – Escot Park, Devon, 16-18 August 2019

Beautiful Days festival, in it’s 17th year, is held in the grounds of Escot Park in Devon and is a festival I’ve attended every year since 2011, with good reason.  Founded by punk folk rockers, Levellers, they always offer a high calibre line-up.  A smorgasbord of music from different genres.  For the number of quality artists you get to see £149.50 for an adult weekend ticket is good value for money.

Thursday 15th August. 

The weekend began with the threat of rain hanging in the heavy dark clouds overhead, so everyone was on a mission to get set up as quickly as possible before the clouds burst. Plus, the quicker you set up, the sooner you can get down the hill into the festival proper.

Walking down the hill you couldn’t miss the absence of The Band Stand.  Instead, The Theatre Tent and cafe had relocated to where The Band Stand used to reside.  For me, it was always an integral part of the festival. Open mic slots throughout the weekend made The Band Stand a place to discover new music from unsigned musicians. I’ve seen some excellent acts perform there over the years.  It was disappointing that it wasn’t part of the festival this year and hopefully they’re just taking a break.

There was, however, a very welcome new seating area where the cafe and theatre tent used to be. There seemed to be more seating around the site in general this year, which was very much appreciated as it used to be difficult to find somewhere to rest weary legs.

Thursday evening at Beautiful Days is always a jolly affair.  Dirty Davey’s and the bar in the main arena were buzzing with excitement and happy vibes and walking around, beverage in hand, the buzz hung over the whole site and down to the Bimble Inn where dance tunes were throbbing from inside the tent.

Seeing final preparations being made to the stages and peering into the Big Top and seeing the chairs set up on stage with the Levellers backdrop in place, the excitement kicked in. Levellers were going to be playing on that stage and I was going to see them!

A celebratory toastie was purchased from Toasties and Baguettes or “the toastie place” as many refer to them. They’re a Beautiful Days regular and absolute favourite, not just for me. Selling good, honest food at reasonable prices, a toastie cost £4.50 and they’re chock full of fillings and taste really good. The staff are always friendly and indulge in the festivities as much as we do. A great pitstop for a late supper and a laugh before tackling the hill that gets steeper over the course of the weekend.

Friday 16th August.

After hoping beyond all hope that the forecasters were wrong, at 8:30am, the rain began to fall. Hard. I hid in the awning for most of the morning, but a bit of rain wasn’t going to stop me going to The Big Top for Levellers opening the festival with their greatly anticipated acoustic set. Wellies and rain poncho in place, I slithered down the hill.

The Big Top was heaving, so I took advantage of the extra seating and sat outside to listen. With Beautiful Day being bellowed from the tent by an appreciative audience, ironically, the heavens opened again. There was a sea of ponchos, wellies, smiles and pints. It was the only way to cope with the stinking weather.  I may have been getting soaked, but I wouldn’t have been anywhere else on earth.  One of my favourite bands were playing beautiful music twenty metres away.

Staying at the big top for folk punks, The Leylines had nothing to do with respite from the rain in the photo pit and everything to do with how good they are. A superb live band, lead singer, Steve Mitchell, announced that this was their biggest gig to date. This was hard to believe. Playing their huge punk folk noise they appeared well at home leaping, jumping and running around the stage.  They looked as though playing to packed festival tents and live music venues was standard.

Continuing with the folk theme I went to see what Seth Lakeman was offering on the main stage. What he had in store was a set that tested his professionalism and that of the stage crew, due to the torrential rain. The E string on his violin broke not long into his set, but he carried on, playing songs he could play using his guitar instead. His powerful voice and beautifully crafted songs didn’t disappoint, despite the struggles. Fair play.

But a combination of hunger and the onset of trench foot and hypothermia forced me to leave Seth Lakeman and head back to the camper field for food and dry clothes, stopping for coffee at the Veggie and Vegan stall to warm my hands on the way.

After putting myself on the outside of some hot food and regaining the feeling in my fingers and toes, I poncho’d up and slid down the hill back to the main arena for original punk band, The Stranglers.  I made the executive decision to leave my camera gear in the van due to the rather inclement weather.  I quite like my kit and I was going to need it for the rest of the weekend.  Downside, I didn’t get to photograph The Stranglers on the main stage.  Upside, early pint and useable cameras.

I won’t lie, there was a huge part of me that wished I’d said, hang it, I’m taking my camera, because, wow, what a performance! The Stranglers are a band with astounding talent and they were absolutely on top form and appeared to be relishing every moment of being on stage. It was throwing it down with rain but we just didn’t care, it was The Stranglers!  And they played hit after hit after hit. “Golden Brown”, “Peaches” and “Skin Deep” to name but a few and adding to the weather irony of earlier, the sky emptied as they sang “Always The Sun”.

Another band who made me wish I’d brought my camera with me were the main stage headliners, Skunk Anansie.  Every time I have seen them live they have never been anything less than outstanding.

Skin’s commanding presence, alluring performance and huge voice and energy fill the stage and burst out into the audience.  It was a goosebumps moment when she had the whole crowd singing the song where it all started, “Hedonism”.

Skunk Anansie also appeared to achieve the seemingly impossible, they made the rain stop.  Or maybe we just no longer noticed it, so enthralling was their performance.  It was one of those sets you wished would never end.  Unfortunately, end it did, but the post Skunk Anansie high made the hill to bed much less arduous.

Saturday 17th August. 

I awoke on Saturday to the sound of, well, nothing. No rain hammering on the roof of the van.  It had finally stopped and sticking my head out of the door I saw actual sunshine!  So I grabbed my towel and wandered to join the queue for the showers.  Showers at festivals can be a bit hit and miss temperature wise, but these were Goldilocks showers.  Not too hot, not too cold, just right.

Feeling refreshed, I gulped down a coffee and some breakfast and skidded down the hill through the mud to see Gaz Brookfield & The Company of Thieves on the main stage.  Gaz Brookfield & The Company of Thieves certainly gave an exuberant performance.  And this exuberance spread through the fairly impressively sized crowd at the main stage.  Foot stomping folk songs with a social message were lapped up.  The ground was mush underfoot but there was still plenty of dancing going on.  What else are wellies made for if not for dancing in the mud to a talented foot stomping folk bellower?

I had been reliably informed by Scott Doonican himself the previous evening that he was performing a solo busking set at Grey Goat Guitars, a stall selling interesting and unique guitars made from recycled cigar boxes, hub caps and all manner of things.

The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican always make me grin broadly so a solo performance by the lead singer Scott Doonican was something I was definitely going to see.  The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican’s mission is to make people smile with their witty parody songs.  Mission accomplished, Mr Doonican.  Humming “Festival Heroes”, a song appreciating the hard work that goes into running a festival, I crossed the bridge to The Big Top for Black Water County.

Using the stage as their playground, hard rock folk band Black Water County chucked a massive bucket of energy at the folks in the Big Top, drenching us with their enthusiasm and huge sound.  Fast paced, romping, thumping songs delivered with fervour.  Glorious.

The main stage was my next destination of choice for Celtic Social Club.

Another healthy dose of punk folk was ingested along with a healthy dose of pie and mash from Barnaby Sykes Pie Maker, whose stall I spotted while shuffle dancing and people watching.  Fuel for proper dancing which is what Celtic Social Club’s music required.

One of the many delights of Beautiful Days is the street performers you come across whenever you go for a walk around the site.  My absolute favourites of the weekend were Beltane Border Morris. Not your typical hanky waving morris dancers but proper stick bashing, roaring, leaping and dancing with force.  Completely mesmerising and a treat to behold.

After being distracted by morris dancers I realised it was time for indie rockers, Ash, on the main stage.  Being of the nineties generation, of course I was going to see Ash.  I wanted to relive dancing like a fool at Reflections night club’s alternative night.  I was not disappointed.  It was like stepping into a time machine. Although, my knees weren’t quite as up to the job of vigorous leaping as they used to be.  Back to the shuffle dancing.

Lead singer, Tim Wheeler’s guitar died three songs from the end, around the same time as my knees, but the excellent stage crew sorted the problem in time for firm favourite, “Girl From Mars”.  I absolutely loved every minute and the encore came far too soon. Were they really on stage for a whole hour?

Staying at the main stage I wanted to catch Sleaford Mods as I had promised a friend, who is a huge fan, that I would check them out.  Just two men walked out on stage but they proceeded to make the biggest noise I’d heard all weekend.  Grimey, sweary, anarcho electro punk rap exploded at us.  Utterly bonkers with an important message they want to share, and boy did they share it.  Boom! Have that in your ears!

After Sleaford Mods on the main stage was an artist that I overheard one person describe as “the effing highlight, mate!”.  Ziggy Marley.  This person was absolutely nail on head.  It was something a bit special.  Continuing his fathers legacy with his own fantastic reggae songs, he also played Jammin and One Love, and it was like watching and listening to the great man himself perform.

This is not to take away from Ziggy, as he is truly a reggae legend in his own right.  I kept having to remind myself that, yes, this was really happening.  I was watching a reggae idol giving a fantastic stage performance that was proving him to be more than worthy of his status.  It was an absolute thrill to get to see him live and a massive highlight to end the day with.

Sunday 19th August.  

Another warm day dawned on Sunday, our last day in those fabulous fields.  So no time to mess about, better make the most of the time we had left.

There was no better way to start the last day than with Membranes and Choir at the main stage.  Dark and haunting, some might say gothic, the choral music played with a punk band was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.  It’s a real shame they only had half an hour.  A stunning combination and sublime set.

As it was the sabbath it would have been remiss of me not to attend The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican’s Sunday Service.  Being hosted by a comedy folk band this was far from a typical Sunday Service.  There was singing involved and the man at the front was wearing a dog collar but the similarities ended there.

A wonderfully chaotic musical extravaganza took place in The Big Top, rammed to the rafters with Doonifans.  Joined on stage by a plethora of musicians from other bands, far too many to mention here, but also their significant others, Amanda, Claire and Lizzie.  The women behind the scenes holding it all together.  It was fifty minutes filled with fantastical frolics.

Exiting the Big Top with a massive grin plastered on my face I was surrounded by people in their fancy dress finery.  The fancy dress parade was just setting off so I decided to join them.  This year’s fancy dress theme was Fairy Tales and some of the costumes were really quite impressive.  Nice work to everyone who participated, an awful lot of effort had been put in for the occasion.

After that little break from the norm I went to see The Rails in the Big Top.  This husband and wife folk duo were utterly divine.  Providing lyrics to make you think and melodies to make you melt, they were a perfect band to relax and listen to sitting in the free and easy festival surroundings.  Pretty soon I had almost completely sunk into the grass, lulled by The Rails hypnotic tones, but I had to pull myself upright and get over to the main stage for Ferocious Dog and a massive dose of folk punk zeal.

Ferocious Dog are the first unsigned band ever to sell out Rock City in Nottingham, and for an unsigned band they certainly do pack em in.  The main arena was full of people who had been looking forward to this all weekend, and rightly so.  These are an incredible band to see live, a visual and auditory treat.

They always put on a sensational lively show and enjoy interacting with their audience, this time introducing the crowd to a circular mosh pit they had first seen at one of their own gigs in The Netherlands.  This involved the mosh pit dancing and running round in circles together and the moshers seemed to be having a ball.  Possibly a little less chance of injury than the traditional mosh pits we see in the UK?  Either way, it added to an already splendid experience.

Sunday afternoon saw the onset of festival fatigue, so more pie and a sit down were essential if I was to make it through the rest of the day.  Especially as Less Than Jake were next on my list on the main stage.  I also needed coffee but didn’t have time before an American punk explosion was detonated on stage.  Caffeine was no longer required!  Less Than Jake took control of the stage and of proceedings, inviting various members of the audience to join them on stage.

A man in a tutu, a bare chested man told to simply stand and flex his muscles, and a man dressed as a cow were chosen from the crowd to jump up on stage and join in with the band’s own capers.  I was exhausted and broken before Less Than Jake brought me back from the brink.  Well played, organisers.  You seemed to absolutely anticipate our needs because I can’t have been the only one flagging who needed that punk equivalent of an energy drink.

Still buzzing after Less Than Jake, I stayed at the main stage for a band I had been looking forward to seeing since they were announced in the line up.  NOFX.  Controversial is one way to describe their set.  Their swearing, insulting, laughing, don’t give an eff arrogant punk performance definitely divided opinion.

Some loved them, some wished they hadn’t bothered.  I was in the loved them camp.  I loved them, their music, the chaos.  I even loved lead singer, Fat Mike, in a dark green velvet minidress.  They were larking about so much on stage that the stage crew had to unplug them when their time was up.  Punk as you like and definitely one of my highlights.

Then, before I knew it, the weekend was far too close to being over.  Levellers were about to perform their closing set on the main stage.  As with their acoustic set that opened the festival, the main stage closing set is also always greatly anticipated.  I was particularly keen to see them this year as they were performing their set from Glastonbury 1994.

Being there for the original performance I was eager to be there to see the repeat.  It was every bit as good as the original.  Song after song that I loved and bellowed along to just as hard and as loud as I did twenty five years ago.  It was absolutely fantastic and I was completely in my element.

But sadly, all things must come to an end.  Walking away from the main arena, crossing the bridge and climbing the hill for one last time I felt a feeling of being contentedly broken.  My body was on empty but my heart and soul were full.

Beautiful Days, the name says it all.

Review and Photos by Hollie Latham

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