The sun is shining, the crowd are amiable, eclectic and rainbow clad. Children are jumping around with their hands in the air enjoying Terrorvision with their parents. The summer starts here people, it’s Bearded Theory 2016. the festival field is packed full of revellers as Terrorvision perform Tequila and what promises to be a weekend of dancing commences.
A brief interlude to check out weird and wonderful merchandise at the copious alternative stalls is followed by the field being flooded by ominous music and Killing Joke take to the stage. Pounding drums persuade the crowd to pogo and dance as fiery flames of fire shoot from the sides of the stage. With an arm raised, Coleman commands the crowd like a true veteran of the stage. Coleman marches up and down the stage and there’s no doubt who’s in charge. With a nod to his strong political beliefs Coleman makes it clear that he is anti Trident and how government really does need much more sensible policies in place. A furious foot stomping precedes Pssyche which echoes around the field and powers a bouncing crowd. Killing Joke conquered the crowd.
Next up is BT crowd favourites, the Levellers. What can be said about these guys that hasn’t been said before? There are few acts that are as entertaining and as enjoyable as the Levellers. Furious fiddling and the occasional confetti cannon adds a backing to some of the finest tunes ever penned; Beautiful Day, Belarus, Dirty Davey, Riverflow, One Way, Hope Street, This Garden… plenty more.
There are few acts as musically tight on stage and even fewer with the songsmanship to be able to truly captivate a crowd and command such respect and, corny as it may sound, love. This crowd truly hold the Levellers dear and it’s easy to see why. This is a near 2 hour set of ecstasy and if you don’t believe me then I hear a rumour there is a tour later in the year so go and see for yourself!
Day two sees us exploring the various other stages that make up the festival, not because the main stage does not have plenty to offer, but because each stage offers up an impressive array of delights. Indeed, one of the greatest elements of Bearded Theory is the fact that you can walk to pretty much any stage and find something interesting taking place. Whilst a given band may not be to your taste, it is impressive just how much care the bookers have taken to find acts that are talented and committed to their art and the result is that the festival is a pleasure simply to roam, taking in the various sights and sounds around you. However, if there is one place that is truly a haven within Bearded Theory, it is the woodland stage. Like something out of a dream, the stage itself is set in a small glade, with lights strung from the trees and various ale and food stalls surrounding it. My pithy description, however, does little justice to the magical atmosphere evoked by the stage and, whether the prevailing act is punk or folk, there’s a feeling of calm that pervades the spot. It is another example of the immense care with which the festival is curated and I can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon than whiling away a few hours with a glass of ale and acts such as the indestructible Wilko Johnson.
Quite how this effervescent figure manages to play rhythm and lead guitar at the same time is a mystery that even detailed study fails to solve and Wilko kicks out more noise than most bands manage with an army of guitarists. His show is a sublime highlight of a festival filled with highlights and tracks like ‘going back home’ (from the amazing album of the same title), ‘bye bye Johnny’ and ‘Dr Dupree’ can never a bad thing be, the whole crowd are dancing, cheering and tapping their feet from the front to the back.
He was followed by Billy Bragg, who played in the main a solo set, opening with The World Turned Upside Down. Bragg was on great form, with banter between numbers that veered from the amusing to as always, the political. With the force of his convictions, he found a way, even on the huge Pallet stage, in front of thousands, to make you feel as if you were watching him at some intimate little venue.
Public Image Ltd are, from start to finish, nothing short of astonishing. John Lydon, the articulate punk poet, could easily have been forgiven for retiring after the anarchic roadshow of the Sex Pistols. The fact that he managed, instead, to involve himself with a post-punk outfit that outstripped his initial act in terms of innovation is testament to the restless creative spirit that consumes him and, from the moment he appears on stage, the arena is rooted to the spot, trapped in the glare of a band whose power is undeniable. Opening with the chaotic sound clash of ‘double trouble’ it’s no easy ride, but by the time we get to the dark groove of ‘this is not a love song’ it’s clear that we’re witnessing a remarkable event. Unifying the punks, the dub fans and the merely curious who have roamed the site all day, PiL are a magnet drawing an ever larger crowd and, seemingly in spite of the fact that little they produce could be called mainstream, the audience remain hooked till the very conclusion.
Day Three promises to be one hell of a climax. Already this weekend we have seen some legendary acts and most festivals at this point would be petering out and fading as the crowd diminishes to leave for work the next day because there just isn’t enough to hold them. BT is not any normal festival though. With a final day lineup including John Otway, Beans on Toast, Stiff Little Fingers, Mad Dog Mcrae, Bad Manners, From The Jam and Squeeze amongst plenty of others, it’s actually hard figuring out how to fit them all in, and alas we have to accept we can’t so we resolve to catch the odd song here and there of some of our favourites where we can.
John Otway is beyond words so we manage to get there just in time for ‘Beware of the Flowers Cos they’re going to get you, yeah’. A song Otway is enormously proud of for being voted as almost as good as Paul McCartney. Mad Dog Mcrae was unfortunate in timing also so we will have to catch him later in the year, a great disappointment for us as there is rarely more energy on stage than this.
We do however catch Bad Manners. 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 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.
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. Singer-guitarist 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 crowd favourites Town Called Malice, Eton Rifles, Dvid Watts, Going Underground etc, it’s fair to say a fun time was had by all.
Closing the main stage on Sunday night were none other than the mighty Squeeze. Their set was, in one sense, 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 style, you’ve not truly lived. Squeeze were the perfect end to the perfect weekend.
This was a special footnote in the history of Bearded Theory. The only problem is…with such an amazing no holds barred lineup this year – how are they ever going to top it next year?!