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Bearded Theory festival 2013

Mark Chadwick of The Levellers at Bearded TheoryKedleston Hall, Derbyshire
17-19 May 2013

Bearded Theory is, pretty much by definition, a party that got out of hand. It started out as a birthday bash, and is now in its sixth year as a music festival. Somewhere in among this tangled web of history is an obsession with beards, and on the Sunday they have an attempt at the world record for the most fake beards gathered in one place. Which is… definitely a thing. It’s also a sign that it doesn’t take itself too seriously – although everything’s handled incredibly professionally and there are few problems, there’s never a sense that anyone, including organisers and security, aren’t actually enjoying themselves at the same time.

Friday

New Model Army at Bearded TheoryAs we arrive, with The Hummmingbirds‘ jangly Beatles-esque indie pop soundtracking our surprisingly successful attempt to put the tent up, the prognosis for the weather isn’t looking too great, despite some not-entirely-convincing assertions on the festival’s Facebook page that the wind was “drying the ground,” everyone’s pretty good-natured and stoical about the possibility of rain. Turns out there’s a very good reason for this – a few years back the main stage, having just hosted Hawkwind, disappeared into space. Well, was blown away, at any rate. I guess once you’ve had that happen, a bit of rain ain’t no thang, really. This is presumably the reason for the second, indoor stage being called Tornado Town, and having a ceiling bedecked with inflatable clouds, complete with lightning bolts. It’s a great little venue, and will play host to some of Bearded Theory’s more surprising acts over the weekend.

As we walk in Whisky Stain are playing – a two-piece, with a drummer and a vocalist/guitarist/bassist, who crank out a rather splendid brand of grungy, bluesy Americana which goes down a storm with the crowd, especially when they’re joined by a troupe of wandering trolls, briefly giving the whole thing the feel of hopping a boxcar in Middle Earth.

Justin Sullivan at Bearded Theory

Local heroes The Beekeepers are on the main stage with their cheery and energetic brand of ’90s pop punk, and there’s time to drink a fair bit of cider. Which leads me to another great point about Bearded Theory – if you come from London, you’ll be paying more for a pint in your local pub that you will in the beer tents. Which is a rarity these days; and (having conducted a very scientific study based on the principle of asking a couple of people) it’s not too over the odds for people who AREN’T from London, either. And there’s a massive range of real ales and proper ciders from the Thornbridge brewery. I have a vague idea about sampling them all, but it turns out the first strong cider I try (Cheddar Valley) is kind of amazing, so that’s my tipple for the weekend.

And drinking cider is perfect for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin on the main stage. I was never a huge fan, but it’s pretty nostalgic anyway, because they’re essentially unchanged, and remind me of a lot of old friends, drunken nights and cheap ciders. They play “Kill Your Television” and everyone goes mental. Job done.

New Model Army at Bearded TheoryAnd then… well, OK. If you want “fair and balanced”, you’re reading the wrong page. I’m about as fair and balanced about New Model Army as Fox News are when it comes to the subject of anything else. And New Model Army, I can objectively state, basically OWN Friday at Bearded Theory. Just amazing. Not a note wrong, not a misjudged choice in the setlist, just track after track after track of pure awesome. “Rumour And Rapture,” “Green And Grey,” “States Radio”… every one a winner. Justin Sullivan‘s clearly having a wicked time, belying the band’s grim Northern bastards reputation, introducing “Today Is A Good Day” with the observation that Margaret Thatcher died on his birthday, and “sometimes in life you do get what you want,” and clearly loving every second of their hour-long set. Thirty years and a few line-up changes have done nothing to damage their guitar onslaught, and even less to damage my conviction that they are still the best live band in the country. It’s… emotional.

Crowd for new Model Army at Bearded Theory

New Model Army at Bearded TheoryWhere do you go after that? Reverend And The Makers are headlining the main stage, and while they’re not really my cup of tea, they certainly seem to be getting the crowd going. And earlier in the day they launched their own beer, which is pretty cool whichever way you look at it. But in Tornado Town there’s an only-slightly-less-massive party going on with Buster Shuffle, a huge celebration of ska with piano-top dancing and everything.

And now everyone’s talking about Sicknote. Who the fuck are Sicknote? I have no idea. But they’re on in the Magical Sounds dance tent. And they’re utterly, utterly bonkers. It’s hard to put into words how bonkers they are, but there’s something of early Sheep On Drugs to their punky, theatrical stage presence and unreconstructed bangin’ techno, only a lot more camp, and with more gas masks and tutus. Basically, they’re exactly what needs to be playing RIGHT NOW. And they’re ace.

And then it’s time to go to bed. It’s been a long day, and there’s been a lot of carrying stuff involved. Mostly drinks.

Bearded Theory at night

Saturday

It sounds like it rains all night. I don’t think it actually rains all night. But it sounds like it rains all night. I’m expecting to be up to my eyes in filth, but when we emerge from the tent it’s actually fine; a bit grey overhead, but mostly okay. And breakfast is definitely a thing that must happen. So it’s time to wander around the site while everything’s opening up.

Reverend &the Makers launch beer at Bearded TheoryAnd it’s lovely, really. I must admit, one of the things that had filled me with trepidation before coming here was the fact that Bearded Theory makes a great deal of its family-friendly credentials, and I had visions of the place being swarmed with annoying kids. But it turns out kids are FAR less annoying when they’ve got loads of cool stuff to do. It’s actually quite charming, and that’s not something I expected to be saying. (Seeing a tiny kid doing the bro fist with his dad during The Quireboys later on is quite sweet, to be honest). And there’s definitely loads of cool stuff to do, for adults as well as children. Although I’ll really never understand the festival obsession with face painting. I think I’ve missed my window of comprehension on that one.

Zombie Met Girl at Bearded Theory

Every morning this weekend Will Kaufman is performing his presentation on the life and work of Woody Guthrie, kind of like a lecture with songs. He’s an engaging speaker, he knows his stuff, and the subject matter is fascinating, but tales of hideous racial violence, while they very definitely need to be told, aren’t quite helping either my hangover or my breakfast. What I need is some rock’n’roll.

And at midday it appears in the shape of Zombie Met Girl. Unapologetically lifting from The Stooges and The Cramps, they’re half an hour of rockabilly horror punk, with a front man who dances like Iggy and wobbles his voice like Elvis, and a bunch of zombies (and at least one Frankenstein’s Monster) dancing down at the front of the stage. And then we’re wide awake. Just as I’m writing “The Ramones” in my notes, they finish with a cracking cover of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” which is not only great, but also illustrates the fact that I, like pretty much everyone else in the world, have an uncanny ability to spot when a band sound a bit like The Ramones. Yay me!

Ahab's Luke & Callum at Bearded TheoryThere’s a surreal moment during Ahab‘s set when one of the vocalists (they all take turns) spots me in the crowd and recognises me from my day job in London. This puts me in mind to be quite favourable about them, but it doesn’t really need to. Their melodic, folky guitar pop drawing in John Lennon, The Waterboys and a far less mawkish Crowded House turns out to be a bloody good thing, and they come across as being an affable enough bunch of lads, with a lot of between-songs banter. And one of them accidentally kicks his beer at a dude in the front row, which is funny, and then spends ages apologising about it, which is sweet. Even more so when you consider that he only kicks it at the guy because, having knocked it over, he’s only trying to push it off the stage so nobody slipped in it. What a nice man.

Bootscraper's Cassius C Langhorne at Bearded TheoryIn Tornado Town are Bootscraper. Which is a great name for a band. And which works best if you say it in a very gruff, growly voice. One of the two vocalists has this voice, though he doesn’t use it to say “BOOTSCRAPER”. He does, however, use it to sing about half the songs, which in the space of about forty minutes manage to emrace Tom Waits, Gogol Bordello, klezmer, polka and hellbilly outlaw country, as well as corrido and, because it’s almost compulsory for a festival, ska. Basically, they’re ace; like a Balkan hoedown.

And talking of ska, Citizen Fish, back on the main stage, still sound very much like Citizen Fish. Which is great news if, like me, you like Citizen Fish. Big, brassy, ballsy anarcho-punk made for skanking as much as it’s made for rioting. Dick‘s still as engagingly crazy as ever, flinging himself about the stage and rattling off his anti-consumerist diatribes. It’s all fantastic stuff, and you wouldn’t expect anything less.

Dick Citizen Fish at Bearded Theory

Suitably punked-up, we decide to check out the wonderfully-named Far Cue in Tornado Town. And they are, indeed, Punk As Fuck. And sweary, filthy and hilarious. Whether they’re singing about Wombles (the Wimbledon Common ones, not the anarchist collective), covering Cock Sparrer or rattling through The Proclaimers‘ “500 Miles,” they’re exhilirating. When they finish with “Ode To Joy,” I’m put in mind of something like a cross between Snuff, and Bill Bailey fronting Conflict.

Far-Cue at Bearded Theory

Jaz Delorean of Tankus The Henge at Bearded Theory

And then it’s time for one of the other great surprises of the festival, Tankus The Henge. Tankus The Henge are… they’re pretty mental, to tell you the truth. There’s definitely some more of that gypsy punk thing going on, with a healthy dose of Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits, and the whole thing’s fronted by a kind of apocalyptic Willy Wonka. By the time we realise that his piano also doubles as a smoke machine, it’s almost too much awesome to cope with. “Last days are coming,” he sings, and you get the impression the end of the world is going to be one hell of a great party. Amazing.

The Quireboys at Bearded TheorySo after all that, how could The Quireboys come close? I was never a fan at the time, and they haven’t changed, and… somehow they’re a huge amount of fun. Far more fun than they have any right to be, quite frankly. Turns out their brand of Stonesy glam sleaze rock was just what I needed right now. OK, so they’re not as pretty as they used to be, but bizarrely I end up enjoying them a humungous amount. And so did everyone else, as far as I can tell. Especially the band. Don’t tell anyone I had such a great time, though. It’ll be our little secret.

Pussycat (& the Dirty Johnsons) at Bearded TheoryPussycat And The Dirty Johnsons fill Tornado Town with their sleazy rock’n’roll with a furry act, and it’s pretty fun, Pussycat molesting the audience while the Dirty Johnsons crank out the riffs. Something about them reminds me of Eagles Of Death Metal – maybe it’s the lack of seriousness, maybe it’s the grooves, maybe it’s the dedication to old-skool rock’n’roll- but whatever it is, the drummer looks alarmingly like a cross between Animal from The Muppet Show and Saxondale.

Saturday night on the main stage is torn apart by Asian Dub Foundation. And they are intense. And loud. And intensely loud. They still sound like someone got some hip-hop, some drum’n’bass and some banghra and chucked them all in a liquidiser, and they still sound like that was the best milkshake recipe ever. Add in some simultaneous flute-playing and beatboxing (with the same mouth) and some righteous rabble-rousing, and you’ve got a spectacular gig. If they weren’t playing outdoors, they’d tear the roof off the sucker. As it is, they’re just wonderful.

Asian Dub Foundation at Bearded Theory

Sunday

And maybe they did tear the roof off after all, despite there not being one. (It’s a metaphor. A roof of clouds. Do you see? Do you? DO YOU SEE???) Because Sunday is gorgeous. Hot and sunny. All day. I finally break out my Hawaiian shirt. And then put it on. And then put on some sunglasses, because the shirt is too bright. Eventually I get it all figured out and it’s time for the last day, which seems to have rolled around alarmingly quickly. But not to worry, there’s still a lot of cool stuff left to see and do before real life has to start up again.

Johann Beardraven of The Beards at Bearded Theory

For a start, there’s a jousting tournament. Sort of pantomime jousting, really. It’s very silly, and surprisingly entertaining. And then there’s The Beards. The Beards are men with beards, who sing about beards. And it shouldn’t really work, but it does. It takes a lot of versatility to stretch one joke out over an entire set, but they have it. And also beards.

Whether they’re coming on like a pognophile Tenacious D, or singing a folk song beginning with “there once was a man who had a beard, he shaved it off and now he’s dead” and ending with the crowd joining them for a rousing chorus of “Kings Of Leon are shit”, they’ve certainly got beards. “You Should Consider Having Sex With A Bearded Man” is another of theirs, but my personal favourite is “If Your Dad Doesn’t Have A Beard, You’ve Got Two Mums.” And they’re definitely not pleased about the existence on-site of a cut-throat shaving stall. Despite all this real-beard malarkey, they’re also choosing the winner of the best fake beard competition on the main stage, a prize which goes to two people dressed as robots with beards. Obviously. Robots win everything.

There’s more silliness with The Lancashire Hotpots, who start off amiably enough by being a bit like a Northern Chas’n’Dave and doing a pirate song about sneaking sweets into the cinema, but then spoil it all by doing a song about “chavs,” which is pretty much the acceptable face of class hatred. It kind of stops being so fun after that, so we go off to see the dub/ska/polka (there’s definitely a polka theme developing somJohn Robb of Goldblade at Bearded Theoryewhere, and I have to say I’m fully in favour of it) of Hallouminati, who make everything better again by a) being really good and b) getting people to build an impressive human pyramid.

And then Goldblade take the main stage, and the place goes utterly apeshit. Full-on punk mayhem, with a healthy dose of good-time rock’n’roll and audience participation of the kind that was once commonplace but these days is sadly all too rare, and usually, as today, accompanied by the security staff looking hilariously anxious. Frontman John Robb climbs the barriers, gets us to sing, drips sweat on us and basically does all that stuff you’re supposed to do. It’s epic.

Goldblade at Bearded Theory

Andy Heintz of The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing at Bearded and Whiskered Theory

London’s finest purveyors of proper steampunk (ie steampunk that actually has punk in it, as well as steam), The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, have ventured out of their backstreet gin palaces and factories to play for us in Tornado Town, and they’re marvellous, as usual. The crowd don’t really know what to make of them at first, but they’re soon won over by their Victorian metal antics. They play all the greats – “Margate Fhtagn,” “Boilerplate Daniel,” “Steph(v)enson” – as well as a couple of their new ones – the fantastic, straight-faced one about coffins whose name I don’t know, and, of course, “Gin.” Which is ace. And about gin. And is ace partly BECAUSE it’s about gin, but also because it’s, well, ace. Although its being about gin is important too. By the time they leave they’ve definitely made a bunch more converts.

Andy Heintz of The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing at Bearded and Whiskered TheoryOK, time for a confession. I’ve never really “got” Stiff Little Fingers. I know they’re a legend, and I know they’re great blokes, and on stage they’re immensely likeable, and all their songs sound like exactly the sort of thing I know I should love, but I’ve just never really “got” them at all. It’s frustrating, in a way, because everyone else at the main stage seems to be loving it, and I feel a bit left out… but by the same token, if everybody else is loving it, I don’t need to feel too bad about not giving them my support; it’s not exactly like they need it.

Jeremy Cunningham of TheLevellers at Bearded Theory

Bearded Theory on the main stage draws to a close with, of course, The Levellers, possibly the ultimate festival band. And they’ve still got it. “England My Home,” “Beautiful Day,” “15 Years” – all great songs, and all ideally appreciated in a field with a bunch of people. It’s their natural environment. Due to an unfortunate though inevitable scheduling clash (well, I say “inevitable”, but it’s the only time all weekend it’s happened – the size of the place means you waste little time getting from one stage to another, and there’s usually been a decent amount of staggering – not just in the cider-related sense, but that too – of the acts that it’s not been hard to see everyone), however, we only catch the first half hour before returning to Tornado Town for Gallon Drunk, who despite loving, I have somehow managed never to have actually seen before.

Gallon Drunk at Bearded Theory

It’s been worth the wait. Big sleazy grooves and STD-infectious riffs, with thumping great stabs of organ (erm… actually, the innuendo seems entirely appropriate) bring matters drunkenly lurching to an intoxiated and intoxicating climax. There’s still dancing going on elsewhere, but quite frankly we’re knackered.

Levellers crowd at Bearded Theory

Coda

Justin Sullivan at Bearded TheoryLeaving the next day feels genuinely sad. Getting home and not having awesome home-made chips from the Welsh breakfast stall for my tea is potentially heartbreaking. And we’re still none the wiser about Ferocious Dog, who nonetheless deserve a mention even though we didn’t see them, as their secret gigs meant they were the talk of the festival.

It’s been a great festival. Great line-up, and the perfect size. And the crowd are by far the friendliest festival crowd I think I’ve ever seen – maybe it’s because we’re all older now, or something. But that’s not to say that it’s sedate. Basically, although it’s an older crowd (apart, obviously, from the children, who tend to be younger as a rule) everyone’s still having just as much fun as a young crowd would, and nobody’s being a dick. It’s a very laid-back vibe. Cheap beer, good company, great music – what’s not to love?

Maybe next year I’ll even grow a beard.

-Words: Deuteroneumu 90210 the beardless-
-Pictures: Zoe Gillard-

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