Live review: Bearded Theory festival (27-29 May ’16)
This overlooked gem on the UK festival circuit impressed again with a host of big alt-rock, indie and reggae names
The end of May saw Songwriting once more jumping in our trusty camper van and heading up to Alrewas in Derbyshire for Bearded Theory, definitely one of our most eagerly anticipated dates on the festival calendar.
If you read our report last year, you’ll know we had a great time at Bearded Theory 8; the good news is that Bearded Theory 9 was, if anything, even better. It’s SO refreshing, in this day and age, to find a festival that’s free of corporate sponsorship, where stalls and food outlets don’t charge rip-off prices, whose bill is devoid of AutoTuned pop tarts and stage school graduates and where the crowd are as laidback, friendly and devoid of estate agents in wacky frightwigs as you can imagine.
The trip was also, it must be admitted, something of an R&R jaunt for this reviewer, after a particularly gruelling few weeks of shoulder-to-grindstone bizniss. As a result, both note-taking and tear-arsing around were kept to a minimum and what follows is a personal, impressionistic and entirely subjective account. So shoot me…
Not being much of a one for latter-day indie-rock, Reverend & The Makers hadn’t, in all honesty, impinged on my consciousness too much previously. After catching their Bearded Theory set though, I wished I’d been paying more attention: their blend of indie-rock, ska and funk got the early evening crowd in front of the main stage on their feet in good style. Which made them the perfect warm-up for…
…Terrorvision, who were another surprise. Having bought How To Make Friends… when it came out but lost interest somewhere around Tequila, for this proud Bantams supporter whether or not to go and finally catch Bradford’s biggest rock band of the 20 years in action was never in question; whether they were going to be any good or not was a different matter. But they came on, cranked up the amps for Alice What’s The Matter? and all doubts were banished. A top performance that also featured what was undoubtedly the onstage introduction of the weekend: “Hello, we’re Terrorvision, from Bradford. Or should I say, hello, we’re Terrorvision, from the 90s?”.
Darkness was beginning to fall when post-punk/goth legends Killing Joke took to the stage, which was only fitting, really. Propelled along by Martin ‘Youth’ Glover’s sinuous, bowel-churning basslines they worked their way through a set that took in many early classics from the Killing Joke–Revelations era, even if (to many onlookers’ disappointment) it missed out Love Like Blood. And Jaz Coleman? As charismatic, unhinged and terrifying as ever…
Not content with running their own successful Beautiful Days festival, Brighton’s alternative folk-rock survivors The Levellers had to come and headline this one, too – and judging by the sheer numbers that flocked to the main stage for their set, and the t-shirts in evidence, for many they were the main attraction. A little fiddle goes a long way for this reviewer, but the crowd seemed to enjoy it and it has to be said they were impressively tight – nearly 30 years of playing together tends to do that for a band…
Friday night’s musical adventures concluded with a trip over to the Woodlands stage, which is generally (though not always) the place at Bearded Theory to find gentler, more acoustic vibes. Tonight’s main attraction was Turin Brakes, who’ve featured in this publication several times previously, and their brand of folk-tinged indie had what was definitely the more ‘presentable’ element of the Bearded Theory massive eating out of their hands.
It’s Saturday teatime… what do you need? You need a shot of rhythm and blues, my friend. Which is just as well, cos that’s exactly what Wilko Johnson was there to deliver, and deliver he did, in spades. Not sure what our favourite bit of this was: a blistering version of Roxette? Or the sight of the man himself loitering backstage before and after his set, chatting to anyone and everyone with a huge grin on his face, clearly delighted to – let’s be honest – still be here after his near-fatal brush with the Big C. Long may he continue!
Following Wilko’s energetic performance and the obligatory half-hour changeover, fellow Londoner Billy Bragg took to the stage. Opening with The World Turned Upside Down, the Bard of Barking thrashed and strummed his way through a selection of sing-along favourites including New England, Milkman Of Human Kindness, Never Buy The Sun and To Have And To Have Not, while delivering fierce polemics between the songs that got arguably even bigger applause than the tracks themselves! Set of the festival, no contest.
Next, it was time for reggae legends Black Uhuru. With Andrew Bees largely taking care of lead vocal duties, backed by founder Duckie Simpson and more recent addition Kay Starr, they kept mostly to the more upbeat and summery side of their back catalogue, but even so, three songs in front of the bassbins was as much as Songwriting could manage before needing to retreat further back into the crowd! They could’ve smiled a bit more, they could’ve moved a bit more, but hey – they’re Black Uhuru, they can pretty much do what they want. No Great Train Robbery, sadly, but then there never is…
Another undoubted highlight of the weekend were the mighty Public Image Limited. Good old Johnny may be carrying a few extra pounds these days but the energy and anger (the latter is the former, after all) of his performance were as fierce and fiery as ever, as the band rolled out old faves like Public Image, This Is Not A Love Song and Rise alongside more recent material. Some of those around us in the audience weren’t happy with the groovier, more funk-fuelled treatment some of those songs get these days (“How can he murder his own song?” one woman leaned over and asked yours truly… even while dancing to it) but you’ll find no complaints from this quarter. If you stay still, you stagnate, and that’s something Mr Lydon has always understood.
As per the previous night, once all the jumping around in front of the main stage was done for the night it was off to the Woodlands to catch some mellower sounds, in this case supplied by Jack Savoretti. A long-time favourite of Radio 2 listeners, his recent fourth album Written In Scars went Top 10 and as a result, the Woodlands was something of a roadblock for his set – without press passes we’d never have got in. Taking to the stage in jeans, t-shirt and open plaid shirt – a stark contrast to the slick, suited publicity shot in the programme – he showed that when it comes to polished, melodic Americana à la Ry Cooder or Ray LaMontagne, the UK can more than hold its own.
More reggae legends got our Sunday started, but homegrown ones this time, as Bristol-based Talisman (est: 1977) served up ital riddims that were the perfect musical accompaniment to a glorious sunny afternoon. They may not be international stars like Black Uhuru, but they proved themselves to be easily in the same league when it comes to songwriting and musicianship – and unlike Black Uhuru they actually looked happy to be there, too.
From reggae to ska, as 2-Tone era faves Bad Manners brought their party-tastic live show to the Bearded Theory main stage. There was a slightly bizarre interlude in the middle, when they brought “our old mate” Max Splodge (of Splodgenessabounds) on to lead the audience through a ‘greatest hits of punk and new wave’ singalong… when he launched into Tenpole Tudor’s Swords Of A Thousand Men, there was a collective ‘WTF?’ moment among the audience before, pretty much as one, everyone shrugged their shoulders and started partying like it was 1981. From there on in the energy levels never dipped as (a now positively slimline) Buster Bloodvessel and co romped their way through Lip Up Fatty, Walking In The Sunshine, This Is Ska, Special Brew, Lorraine and many more, including a bossanova-tinged version of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You that inspired another mass singalong.
To the delight of all the ageing ex-mods in the audience, Bad Manners were followed by Bruce Foxton’s From The Jam, who brought us an hour of Jam classics mixed in with select tracks from Foxton’s new solo album Smash The Clock. It has to be said the whole set-up is kind of odd, but singer-guitarist Russell Hastings really is a dead ringer for a young Weller and with the set embracing album cuts like Smithers Jones and the hard-edged Brit-funk of Pretty Green as well as the obvious hits, it’s fair to say a fun time was had by all… not least Bruce himself who was clearly delighted to have woken up and found himself back in the charts again a few days previously.
Closing the main stage on Sunday night were none other than the mighty Squeeze. Their set was, in one sense, highly predictable, being comprised mostly of all the big hit singles you’d expect. On the other hand, many of those singles were given radical new treatments – until you’ve heard Slap N’ Tickle rendered in a bluegrass/Irish jig stylee, you’ve not truly lived. And as for being in a crowd of five or six thousand people singing along to every word of Labelled With Love, AKA one of the saddest songs ever written… proper goosebumps!
Remember where we said above that the Woodlands stage is generally, but not always, the setting for gentler, more acoustic sounds? Sunday night was definitely one of those ‘not always’ times, as veteran punk rockers Stiff Little Fingers rattled through their late 70s anthems in a set that was a distinct contrast to the performances by PiL and Killing Joke. Where the latter two bands have joyfully embraced contemporary sounds and styles, Burns and co have stuck firmly to their original three-chord thrash aesthetic. Not that the audience – comprised mostly of what was definitely the less ‘presentable’ element of the Bearded Theory massive! – seemed to mind that at all.
All this, and we haven’t even mentioned Moulettes or Cockney Rejects or Asian Dub Foundation or John Otway or Blyth Power or any of the other top acts we managed to miss, or catch only the briefest glimpse of, due to scheduling clashes. Nor have we tipped our hat to the Magical Sounds tent, with its non-stop diet of acid techno and firing Goa trance, courtesy of big-name DJs like Chris Liberator, Juno Reactor and Astralasia (a bit more musical variety here wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it’s good that it’s there). And deserving of a special mention are Bristolian up-and-comers Regime – definitely ones to check if you like artists such as Rage Against The Machine or Akala. Because Bearded Theory isn’t just a nostalgia fest, you know!
That said… respected music journalist Nige Tassell, a friend and sometime colleague of Songwriting, recently published a book called Mr Gig in which, after years of eschewing gigs in the name of parental duty, he heads out on the road to reconnect with live music. One of his destinations is 80s festival Rewind, where he bemoans all the day-glo fingerless gloves, rah-rah skirts and deelyboppers in evidence, arguing that if he’d dressed up in his old 80s clothes it’d be a donkey jacket, CND badge, Coal Not Dole t-shirt, black Levi’s and DMs. To which all we can say is, come to Bearded Theory with us next year Nige, you’ll love it!
A big thanks to all involved for having us there… and as for our favourite moment of the weekend? That had to be the guy with an 8-inch mohican and studded leather jacket we saw taking a break from pogoing around to Bad Manners to carefully adjust his toddler daughter’s sunhat and ear protectors, like a punk rock version of that naff Athena poster. Bless.
Words: Russell Deeks Photos: Tessa Beeching
To find out more about Bearded Theory, visit their website