Set in the middle of the National Forest, Derbyshire, Bearded Theory has developed a well deserved reputation for being family friendly, inclusive, well organised and for always putting on an incredible line-up of bands. Whether you want to see some really big names that have been playing for years or a huge array of young, upcoming bands, many of whom are entirely DIY without the financial backing of a label or promotion company Bearded Theory will have them. Rock, punk, post punk, electronic, chilled out dance, hard drum ‘n’ bass, folk – you’ll find them all here either on a main stage or else popping up throughout the day on one of the brilliant side stages such as the Tea Tent – live music on it’s stage, coffee, tea and a huge variety of cakes available at the back. For those with children there’s the Children’s Village with workshops, games, crafts and talent shows. The Festival School has lessons in Maths (how to budget a festival), English, Drama, Drumming, Art, Science and Technology all delivered to national curriculum standards but in a unique way in a unique environment. Local schools were required to give official permission for students to enrol. Education beyond the four walls of a classroom is surely the best education you can get. Most importantly the whole vibe and atmosphere at the festival is positive. There’s no aggression, no testosterone fuelled machoism. The whole place feels safe. Drinks are served in reusable pint cups but cans are also available and you can even bring your own drinks into the main area. Despite this and the takeaway food trays there’s almost no litter – a credit not only to responsible punters but also to the hard work of the volunteers around the site. And to top it all the toilets are kept clean, emptied regularly and kept stocked with paper. How many festivals can make that claim?
Many festivals are, rightly, criticised for their lack of female performers – an accusation that could never be made here.
This year, it’s 14th, saw the addition of new stage The Meadow meaning that some big name bands were not confined to the beautiful, but limited capacity, Woodland Stage.
Arriving Thursday evening the first thing that struck us was how friendly and efficient the staff are. Within 10 minutes of arriving we were pitched up in our camper and heading down to the Woodland to catch our first band. It’s fair to say that the only problem we encountered over four days was just who we should go and see at certain times. With a love of upcoming alternative/ post punk/ punk rock and a constant desire to discover someone new it would have been easy to spend every day in The Convoy Cabaret Tent. But that would have meant missing out on seeing some of my favourite acts on the bigger stages. So Thursday started with the superbly dark, electronic post punk noise of Heartworms. Surrounded by trees, fairy lights and with the sun beginning to set it was the perfect introduction to Bearded Theory. The dreamy, funk of The Orielles followed before the need to eat meant investigating the vast array of food options available. From toasties and pizzas, pie and chips, Indian, Thai, Noodle bars, meat, veggie, vegan no-one is going to come to Bearded Theory and not find something to tickle their taste buds and, to be fair, whilst festival food is always expensive the prices didn’t make our eyes water.
Some difficult choices on the Friday meant seeing half-sets by some amazing bands but going by the mantra of a mate who maintains you can’t claim to have seen a band unless you stay for at least five songs we crammed in 13. Girlband who, considering they don’t even have anything on Spotify yet, had the crowd in the palm of their hands when they opened the Meadow stage. Real standouts today included the intense noise of Deja Vega, the absolutely brutal, politically charged anger of Benefits who sounded absolutely immense on The Meadow stage, the quirky, fun, guitar punk with some serious social messages of Pete Bentham and The Dinner Ladies and the DIY queer punk of The Menstrual Cramps in Convoy Cabaret, the post-punk performance art of Snapped Ankles and the funky, upbeat tempo of Yard Act on The Pallet main stage. On any other day Pallet headliners Gogol Bordello would have demanded our attention for the whole of their set. East European influenced fast paced, Romani influenced punk with an energy rarely seen on a stage nowadays. They were superb but Viagra Boys were headlining in the Meadow and this was one band not to be missed. We weren’t disappointed, the Swedish punks playing a brilliant set of grimy, bass driven songs to a packed out tent. Great to see a significant number of youngsters watching.
Waking up to more glorious sunshine and a huge blue sky can only start any festival day on a good note. Saturday, like Friday, threw up some tough choices and was the only day that didn’t see us drop into Convoy Cabaret. Elsewhere there were acts we would have loved to see but just couldn’t fit in – Delilah Bon and Beans On Toast amongst them. A person needs time to eat and hydrate. Our day starts in The Woodland with Muddy Summers and The Dirty Field Whores – brilliant, feminist folk. Proud to be middle aged, anti tory, anti-fascism and with songs about lady wanking, having your tits out – why should blokes be allowed to walk around topless whilst women are objectified if they ever bare their chest – and more. A wake up call about the attitudes of still too many people.
Coach Party’s melodic grunge on the Pallet stage goes down a treat whilst being baked by the mid-day sun before we dashed over to the Meadow for the first of the day’s real highlights – Witch Fever have played huge stages supporting some major acts before but having only seen them in small venues previously it was great to see the dark, sonically charged noise of this Manchester four piece engulfing the Meadow with ease. Not only that but at just 1.30 in the afternoon they brought in a huge number of fans.
With one major exception it’s The Meadow that really grabbed our attention throughout Saturday. The laid back indie pop of Pale Blue Eyes, the angry, driving guitar sounds of Dead Pony and the always great, charismatic Brix Smith delivering fantastic sets. The real standout in The Meadow today was Loose Articles – an all girl punk group who shout with politically charged songs that hit home in these times where everything seems dominated by the shit-show currently in power. Full of anger yet full of fun Loose Articles should be on everyone’s ‘must see’ list. Over on The Pallet Billy Bragg draws a huge crowd with his late afternoon slating of Conservative policies, his support of LGBTQ+ rights and his anti-war stance. Being the mature, responsible grown up he is we’re also reminded that it’s hot and we need to wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water.
That one major exception to the Meadow stage is Gary Numan whose shows are always a highlight of any gig year. Having only ever seen Numan in indoor venues that allow his stage show and lighting effects to really impress there was a wonder about how he’d go down on a huge open air stage when the sun was still up. Those doubts were dashed as soon as he walked onto the Pallet stage with his band. Numan is, quite simply, mesmorising. Never still he dominates the stage and his heavy, dark industrial sounds fill the air from front to back of this huge space. And Gary Numan doesn’t just walk on stage and play a greatest hits set. Are Friends Electric and Cars are, possibly, the only two songs the majority present actually know yet, unlike Royal Blood, Numan knows how to grab and hold the attention of thousands of festival goers. Brilliant. Interpol follow Numan and do what they do well but the crowd isn’t as big and the atmosphere not as addictive. Later wanderings hear more than a few people saying the Numan/Interpol slots should have been reversed.
Finally, after a long, hot day of brilliant music we head back to the Meadow and another big surprise. Not only is Ian McCulloch allowing photographers into the pit, we don’t need to stay at the sides, we get the full first three songs and the lights don’t make it impossible to get anything other than a silhouette. Echo & The Bunnymen play a set of classics loved by the huge crowd. Going Up, All That Jazz, Dancing Horses, Nothing Lasts Forever, the perfect All My Colours (Zimbo), Never Stop and more – a perfect end to a fantastic day. And whilst he’s no longer the youth he was back in 1980/81 McCulloch must surely still be one of the coolest people in music.
Saturday night is freezing, staff working overnight say there was frost and people in tents suffer. Sunday morning sees clouds but, thankfully, no rain. Sunday really was a day that just kept on giving. From the bouncy, flute tinged folk punk of Meadow openers Black Water County, the fantastic, hard hitting, barbed punk of High Vis, the spikey, fun filled, frenetic energy of The Lovely Eggs who despite being a duo absolutely owned the huge Pallet stage. The Woodland stage hosted the riotous, huge energy and infectious noise of IDestroy, another set we’d have loved to have seen to the end but there’s a small overlap with Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs whose pounding, sonically huge assault of doom rock is just as powerful and mind blowing in the cavernous Pallet arena as it is in a small Newcastle venue. Once again the Convoy Cabaret tent delivered some real highlights in the sleazy, arty, conceptual post-punk of The Erotic Secrets Of Pompeii and, later, the scathing social commentary of The Blunders. Back in Woodland the frantic pace, passion and crowd interaction of SNAYX has the place bouncing as does the infectious ska-punk of following act Millie Manders & The Shut Up, who despite songs about betrayal, anxiety and unrest create a feeling of happiness and there’s no end of smiling people dancing around.
Warmduscher brought their raucous funked up grooves to a huge crowd on the Pallet stage and it was great to finally get to see The Mysterines whose continued rise in popularity is well deserved.
The Pretenders are simply timeless, Chrissie Hynde having written some of the most memorable songs from the best part of 40 years ago. Songs such as Talk Of The Town and Kid simply don’t age and fit perfectly with the sleazy blues rock of more recent cuts such as Turf Accountant Daddy. Recent, admittedly small venue, shows sold out in minutes. Judging by the numbers watching today their return to the festival circuit is more than welcome.
Primal Scream close the main stage with a brilliant technicoloured backdrop and lightshow together with a choir that adds a fantastic sound to whatever song they deliver, whether it’s the trippy dance grooves of Come Together and Moving On Up or the more rocky Suicide Bomb, 2013 and Rocks.
Thankfully, Bearded Theory isn’t over yet and, for this reviewer, it closes in the Meadow tent with a simply astonishing set by Public Service Broadcasting, whose tales of history set to breath-taking soundscapes and stunning visuals are something that needs to be seen to really understand. Full of emotion their songs have the crowd dancing, singing, chanting or simply standing in a hypnotic trance staring at what’s unfolding in front of them. Quite simply they were brilliant.
Whilst we did manage to see more bands than we’ve mentioned (see gallery at the end) it’s a shame there were times we had to make difficult choices as to who to watch and there were bands we missed who on any normal day would have been on the ‘must see’ list. But that’s simply a reflection of the quality that was on offer.
Bearded Theory 2023 certainly set the standard for the fast-approaching summer of festivals.
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