Songwriting takes a trip to the Derbyshire countryside to enjoy a weekend of ‘heritage’ alt-rock and a lot more besides…
an you judge a festival by the t-shirts it wears? To some extent, you probably can! So, among the tees spotted at Bearded Theory in May – not counting those for bands that were actually playing there – were The Who, Cream, Sex Pistols, Sisters Of Mercy, The Damned, Southern Death Cult, Zoundz and, our fave, “The Lurkers – come and reminisce if you think you’re old enough”.
Just that short list should give you a flavour of the overall vibe of Bearded Theory… before we went, one seasoned festival-goer had described it as “like a punkier Shambala” and she wasn’t wrong. The laidback, non-corporate vibe is similar at both events, but at Bearded Theory, dreadlocks and mohawks outnumbered “hilarious” wacky funster wigs by about 50 to 1 and there were as many hairy bikers as bearded hipsters.
Thankfully, though, while ageing ex- and not so ex-punk/goth/hippy types might form the bulk of the audience, Bearded Theory is no mere nostalgia fest. Sure, alternative music legends of the 80s and 90s topped the bill, but there were plenty of younger, up-and-coming bands playing too, while the musical menu for the weekend embraced everything from lilting Irish folk to heavy dub, via pounding hard dance and freeform jazz, all sprawled across the main Pallet stage, the large Something Else Big Top marquee, the Magical Sounds dance tent and The Woodland, the latter a smaller stage set in a little enchanted glade all of its own.
Songwriting arrived early on the Friday afternoon and, having set up camp and had a bit of a wander round the site to get our bearings, the first act to get our full attention was Hugh Cornwell on the main stage. He played a set that was heavy on Stranglers classics, mostly rendered pretty faithfully albeit he did mess with the words in places – “Take a look over there… is she trying to get out of Derbyshire?” in Peaches made us chuckle – while bassist Caroline ‘Caz’ Campbell brought the kind of glamour to proceedings that JJ Brunel somehow never quite managed…
Mr Cornwell was followed on the main stage by Gun and Alabama 3 but for Songwriting, next on the agenda was a wander over to The Woodland, where young Bristol indie hopefuls The Jacques both surprised and impressed us – keep an eye on these lads – before the legendary Pigbag took the stage. They took forever to tune up and it all got a bit Jazz Odyssey in the middle, but when they eventually got to Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag the crowd went well and truly crazy, even singing along to the horn riff. Altogether now: do-do-be-do-do, do-do-do-be-do-doooo-do!
And then it was back to the main stage for what was undoubtedly one of the festival highlights, a blistering set by gothic rock heroes The Mission. Opening with Beyond The Pale and closing with (of course) Deliverance, with an extended Tower Of Strength served as an encore, Messrs Hussey, Adams and friends stuck largely to old faves from the God’s Own Medicine/Children/Carved In Sand era and proved that they’re still one of the world’s great live rock bands. No Wake, Blood Brothers or 1969, sadly, but you can’t have everything… we did all get to sing happy birthday to Wayne, though!
As the final chords of Tower Of Strength died away, we headed over to Magical Sounds for Zion Train but it was an absolute sardine tin, so we had to content ourselves with soaking up their bouncy digital dub vibes from outside, while taking some caffeine onboard and saving our energies for Radical Dance Faction in the Big Top. Probably best, too, because the veteran crusty agit-rockers have lost none of their edge since the last time this writer saw them c. 20 years ago, and their blend of ska, punk and dub, topped with Chris Bowsher’s distinctive poetic vocals, had the whole tent bouncing from start to finish. Long may these rogue troopers sing their freedom songs… we need them now more than ever.
Saturday’s daytime line-up featured just about every variety of punk-ska-gypsy-folk fusion you can think of… fans of The Pogues and Gogol Bordello would have been in raptures, but that’s not really us so we mostly divided our daytime hours between wandering around the many food and clothes stalls, having a go on the various fairground rides and popping into the dance tent now and then for a semi-ironic boogie to the near-constant stream of psy-trance. Female-fronted ska outfit Defekters did impress, though, coming on like a more dub-inflected version of near-namesakes The Selecter, and by teatime we were back over at the main stage, where British Sea Power played a competent, if to these ears somewhat unexciting set that nonetheless seemed to please their fans. We were there to see New Model Army, though – another band yours truly hasn’t seen for far too many years.
Justin Sullivan and co have been doing their thing for 35 years now, and it shows. In a good way, that is, because the now five-piece band were as tight as you could possibly ask for. They’ve seemingly left the folksy leanings behind and indeed can get out-and-out thrashy at times; we heard several people complaining afterwards that they played too much of their more recent material and not enough of the classics, but when old faves like Christian Militia and I Love The World did drop, they hit hard and heavy, while Slade’s between-song rants showed he’s lost none of his righteous anger.
We then wandered over to The Woodland, where the traditional Irish folk vibes of Cara Dillon provided a complete change of pace, before returning to the main stage to catch the end of Afro Celt Sound System. They may not be strictly Songwriting material, admittedly, but these veteran world/dance/dub fusionists know a thing or two about getting a crowd on its feet and their exuberant set made for the perfect Saturday night main stage closer. Our younger selves would no doubt have gone and checked out Eat Static in the dance tent after that but our real, middle-aged selves headed back to the camper van instead…
And sadly that was it for this writer, family commitments necessitating our reluctant departure from Bearded Theory on the Sunday morning. Luckily, though, roving reporter Nathan Measures was on hand, so we’re still able to inform you that The Buzzcocks ripped through their big hits in true crowd-pleasing style and had the whole main arena singing along, having lost none of their energy despite approaching bus pass age. James took the surprising step of opening with their biggest hit Sit Down and as a result had the crowd eating out of their hands from the outset, though a set that was dominated by newer material “drifted off a bit”; more impressive, reports Nathan, were spiky funk-metal twosome Ghosts Of Men and folk-punk songstress EFA Supertramp. If you needed proof of our earlier statement that Bearded Theory is no mere nostalgia fest, there it is right there!
All this, and we haven’t even mentioned the cinema tent, the huge kids’ arena (with a dedicated space for the oft-overlooked young teens contingent), the wide array of food options to suit everyone from vegans to the most rampant of carnivores (seriously, you people eat zebras now?!) or the pleasingly affordable prices found almost everywhere. With the friendliest security and stewards you could ask for, an even friendlier crowd and – most amazingly of all – toilets that remained fit for human habitation all weekend, Bearded Theory seriously impressed, and we’ll definitely be back next year.
Words: Russell Deeks Photos: Tessa Beeching
To find out more about Bearded Theory, visit their website