Bearded Theory Festival 2023
Catton Park, Derbyshire
25th – 28th May 2023
Phil Newallreturned to the sun-drenched fields of Bearded Theory and experienced everything from the warped genius of The Bar-steward Sons Of Val Doonican, via the raw aggression of Benefits and on to the sublime Echo & The Bunnymen.
It felt good to return to Bearded Theory; I had missed last year’s post Covid return to Catton Hall, which is located on the banks of the river Trent close to the picturesque town of Swadlincote, South Derbyshire. The 2022 festival was also the first since the event had been bought up by promoters DHP. I had heard a few comments suggesting that since then the festival had somehow lost its edge – having attended at least ten of the previous events this would be my chance to gauge for myself.
Thursday 25th May
I was on-site early, ahead of the gates opening on the Thursday morning so took the opportunity to explore the festival grounds. Thankfully very little had changed, a couple of minor tweaks here and there including an improved entrance/exit gate if coming in from the campervan areas, the Convoy Cabaret tent had been moved a matter of yards also to improve access; the most obvious change was the addition of The Meadow stage; an enormous tent located across the arena closest to the main public entrance – the Meadow is now the festivals second stage and has sensibly been introduced to resolve the previous capacity issues with the Woodland Stage which remains a beautiful performance space, tucked under the oak canopies, but its limited capacity created problems every year, that the Meadow would obviously address. It was also good to see that the famous Bearded Theory School was set up and in place; if you are unaware, the school is fully OFSTED registered and was set to accept two hundred pupils who follow National Curriculum subjects tailored to the festival environment.
Thursday is arrival day, and as such just two stages, The Pallet and The Woodland, open up, both with a limited number of bands. 3 Daft Monkeys take the honour of opening 2023’s Bearded Theory stepping out onto the Pallet at a very civilised 6pm, their blend of both Celtic and Eastern influences shot through with healthy dollops of ska, dub, gypsy twists and turns. An abundance of energy sees them ignite the crowd with their driving beats and sing-along choruses; then it’s a short dash to the Woodland to catch Heartworms. I’ve read all the positive press, but this is my first time to see them live. Jojo leads her band out onto the compact stage as the sun is setting, the woodland canopies casting shadows across the entire area; she’s wearing a black Seditionaires style parachute shirt which dwarfs her slight frame, and attached to her microphone stand is a theremin – I’m in almost before the first note is played. The stage is washed in a stark blue light that perfectly compliments the icy pulsing waves of rhythm and the motoric beats that provide the platform for Jojo’s incredible voice, a voice that transforms in an instant from breathy fragility to a worrying primal scream; the music is stark, it’s the space each track is afforded that is important; the references to the likes of Wire, Joy Division, The Cure, perhaps even the likes of Fad Gadget are all noticeable, yet Heartworms entirely craft their own sound. Jojo herself holds the entire audience with her performance, the long stares the considered movements; this really is a band worthy of your attention.
I make it back to The Pallet in time to catch the last ten minutes of Oh My God! It’s The Church, fronted by The Right Reverend Michael Alabama Jackson who is backed by his Virgin Marys – this is perhaps my kind of church. You can do what you want. You can get naked, you can drink, you can dance, you can kiss girls, kiss boys, you can do whatever you want. It’s a full-on gospel show with a thumping beat, The Virgin Marys in red lamé habits, each armed with glistening crosses gyrating like the very best table dancer, The Reverend imploring his flock to imbibe the holy spirit – in this case absinth – and release their demons. Utter genius.
Friday 26th May
Cardiff’s Panic Shack open up proceedings on the Friday morning, and a healthy crowd welcome them onto The Pallet Stage as they deliver their lively punk-tinged set. It’s clear those dates supporting Yard Act have benefited greatly – the Pallet is a huge stage yet they are not over-awed, delivering a blistering set that clearly wins them over a healthy swath of new fans. I headed up to The Meadow where Girlband are finishing their set of US style alternative tunes, rushes of guitar, a solid yet twisted rhythm section providing the platform for some neat vocals, yet the band seemed almost dazzled by the task in hand; the stage is huge and they are a young group – it would certainly be good to see them later in the year following a summer of festivals.
I make it into the Convoy Cabaret in time to catch the wonderfully named 2000 Demented Slags, the perfect Convoy band – raw, primitive, barely able to hold it together punk; great for a festival, but whether I would actually pay to see them headline is a moot point.
Deja Vega take to the Meadow stage and produce a driving, passionate performance; I’ve previously only seen them on smaller stages at the likes of The Ferret in Preston, yet their propulsive krautrock infused psych instantly fills this cavernous space; drawing on material from their eponymous debut and the current Personal Hell albums, we are treated to the likes of Its All Gone Wrong with its opening electronic squall that roots you to the floor, before a barrage of drums rain down and the barked vocals punch their way into your head. Similarly with Mr Powder, a glorious headrush of noise and that deceptively simple guitar riff ahead of the maelstrom breakdown. Despite being a 3-piece they are still able to utterly transfix the crowd; frontman Jack juggles between guitar, vocals and keyboard noises, it’s clear the entire band are enjoying this which in itself further fuels their performance – if you are yet to see Deja Vega, now is the time to rectify the situation.
The hooded figures of Snapped Ankles step out onto a sun blistered Pallet Stage and are a joy to watch as they both confound and thrill separate chunks of the crowd, with that by now trademark propulsive bass, motoric percussion and a one, maybe two digit synth riff; it’s a gleeful cacophony of electronic bleeps and pulses strapped to a danceable beat that has me thinking about the likes of later period Cabaret Voltaire. I have to cut short the set to head back up to The Meadow to witness Benefits, whose brutal assault to the senses literally causes the audience to step back from the stage as they retreat from the industrial blast beats, the mechanised squall and the stream of consciousness lyrics that implore you to look into yourself, to challenge the perceived societal norms on the understanding that we can surely do better than the current situation we currently find ourselves in.
Liverpool’s kitchen-core pioneers Pete Bentham & The Dinner Ladies take to the Convoy
Cabaret as Yard Act and EMF are concluding their sets, and treat us to their unique blend of amusing, yet lyrically powerful songs; songs that call out consumerism and racism and, via the likes of Goth Postman, ask us to challenge the expected norms. The set is drawn from the current album What’s On The Inside Has To Come Out (our review here) yet harks right back to 2010’s Hip Potater which sees the huge crowd leaping around with total abandon, while onstage the Dinnerettes cavort with brooms, strings of sausages and bricks. This band sound like nothing else – the references to the likes of The Fall are there, but with such a solid rhythm section, that driving sax and Pete’s thrashing guitar they too have carved out their own unique niche.
I just make it back in time for Flogging Molly over on the Pallet Stage, as lead singer Dave King leads his band out to a welcoming crowd; King is a master of his craft – the man has presence to spare and instantly engages the audience, it’s as if he shrinks the multi-thousand capacity arena into an intimate venue, the band performing just for you. The energy coming off the stage is enthralling, band members pinball around, King extorting us to sing-along, and by the end of the first song a moshpit has formed, bodies crashing into one another in celebration, arms thrown skywards.
Then a quick dash to catch the first half of The Menstrual Cramps set, another band with a ultra strong DIY ethic who deliver their own queer, female empowerment lyrics with a touch of humour; fronted by Emilia Elfrida who, dressed in a vivid orange boiler suit, delivers a set with an intensity that lights the Cabaret stage. As I head back towards The Pallet, I pass the newly installed Big Ed, which replaces the previous Pirate Ship – the DJ is banging out Hacienda classics, there must be one thousand people bouncing around as the sun is setting bringing some relief from the days heat.
Gogol Bordello are Friday’s main stage headliners. Fronted by Ukrainian-born Eugene Hütz Gogol, Bordello, have not shied away from criticising Vladimir Putin since he ordered Russia’s invasion. Tonight, is no different as the band appears under an enormous, illuminated backdrop – a blue and yellow fist with Solidaritine, the title of the band’s 2022 album, beneath. The band explode across the stage, the songs are built around traditional folk and polka rhythms injected with some kick ass rock’n’roll and punk rock attitude. The twin drummer set up creates an awesome powerhouse sound, punctuated by flying fiddles and an eccentric accordion; the entire band are a whirl, cavorting around the stage – their own private circle pit. Hütz steps onto the monitors slashing away at his guitar, it’s hard to work out were the vocals are coming from before Ashley Tobias dressed in black studded leather any NYHC punk would be proud of bounds to the front of the stage. At one point she is lying on her back, her head tilted down, to screech out her vocal. Much of the material is drawn from Solidaritine, yet despite its message Gogol Bordello deliver a truly euphoric set that leaves the entire audience exhausted by the experience.
Saturday 27th May
Saturday begins with Manchester’s Witch Fever, who bring their dark explosive sound to the Meadow stage. Again, they’re a band that literally shocks much of the audience, from frontwoman Amy Walpole dressed essentially in underwear whose voice pins you to the floor, whilst behind her Witch Fever instantly get into their blackened groove; it’s an enthralling mix of Sabbath riffs punctuated by gothic guitar slashes all held in place by some ultra tight drumming that absolutely wakes the Bearded Crowd from their post Friday slumbers.
Elvana are the perhaps perfect festival band, a Frankenstein collision of Elvis Presley and Nirvana, topped with a huge golden In Utero statue; this is pure unbridled entertainment. Elvis is adorned in a black and green cannabis leaf glistening jumpsuit complete with cape, as he leads us through a distorted Blue Suede Shoes into Lithium, whilst A Little Less Conversation is warped into Smells Like Teen Spirit; Elvis bounces around the stage, the full on Vegas years version – yet don’t be distracted by the glitter and sashaying backing singers, this band are as tight as hell. Whilst it might sound amusing to blend the likes of Rape Me with Love Me Tender, it takes an accomplished musician to actually pull it off with such gusto.
Gary Numan takes to the Pallet stage as the sun is dropping in the sky. It seems an odd time to witness his post-apocalyptic industrial soundscape, but Numan and his band deliver a stunning set that drew from his entire four decades career. It’s clear he’s appearing in front of a crowd that are probably only familiar with his Cars and AFE-era fame, thankfully Numan doesn’t alter his current set to cater to this audience – opening with Intruder, the title track from his 2021 and current album, Numan takes to the stage like a man on a mission, flanked by Steve Harris on guitar and Tim Slade on bass, both dressed like dystopian drag queens. Numan cavorts around the stage while Steve Harris looks to be addressing his own personal demons. Metal, as befits its name, is a huge grinding behemoth ahead of the familiar Cars, which for many here has been unexpectedly transformed from a poppy synth tune into an industrial powerhouse. My Name Is Ruin has the video backdrop of Numan’s daughter Persia providing the backing vocals on this Eastern-influenced gem. It’s clear Numan is enjoying the experience, and as it concludes a rapturous cheer rewards Numan for his performance.
Echo & The Bunnymen wrap things up for Saturday on the Meadow Stage. Judging by the size of the crowd, it seems the majority of the festival has made efforts to get into the tent. With a stage swathed in enough smoke and dry ice to make Andrew Eldritch envious, McCulloch takes us on a journey across the bands forty years rom the post punk twitchiness of those Bedbugs and Ballyhoo, and Never Stop via the hypnotic Bring On The Dancing Horses, and into the two greatest songs ever written; The Killing Moon and The Cutter. That plaudit is Mac’s own; he ranks The Cutter in second place. I’d dispute that. I have heard that song literally hundreds of times, I’ve seen it performed live possibly a hundred times, and it still somehow raises the hairs on my neck, there is just something inexplicable that stirs your emotions… Will Sergeant guides us into new sonic territories, his guitar shimmers, leading us through the darkness, and Mac’s incredible voice, despite his near constant smoking, retains a sonorous beauty a drams and a beguiling power. Concluding with the two encores of Lips Like Sugar and the majestic Ocean Rain, the Bunnymen once again prove that they are as important now as they were all those years ago.
Sunday 28th May
Maybe I’m getting a bit jaded, all that shuttling between stages, but I largely confine myself to the Pallet Stage for Sundays proceedings; The Undertones are brilliant, a frantic run through of all their familiar tracks from Jimmy Jimmy, Wednesday Week, My Perfect Cousin, Teenage Kicks and the wonderful Get Over You. all of which remind everyone that true pop music doesn’t have to be dull and pithy.
The Lovely Eggs step out into the sunshine, Holly in a dress that must have been almost designed for the occasion, drummer David positioned to the front of the stage though partially obscured by an array of drum pads and triggers bolted onto his kit, before launching headlong into The Digital Hair, I’m With You and I Wanna before pausing for breath long enough to welcome a crowd which stretches way back as far as the perimeter market stalls. The mind-altering Magic Onion precedes the intense This Decision, before David strikes “the party gong”, at which point a light aircraft circling overhead releases a shower of MDMA – stick your tongue out if you want a full hit…
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs immediately follow The Lovely Eggs. Sadly the opportunity to pull off a live performance of their joint release, the 2021 cover of Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff is missed. That said, we are treated to cavernous riffs aplenty, as their particular blend of sludge rock engulfs the crowd; barefooted vocalist Matt Baty wearing some worrying shorts stalks the stage, the microphone lead wrapped perilously around his neck – huge sections of the crowd look positively shell shocked, the perfect reaction, the beats get heavier, and slower as a sense of psychedelic menace washes from the band who by now are locked into the their rhythmic groove – I’m not even sure they are aware of the audience, such is their commitment to the groove.
Warmduscher bring their distorted disco beats and expletives to the Bearded Theory fields all dressed in black boiler suits and sunglasses, those weird angular Devoesque pulses and beats certainly jarring people into movement resembling a form of dancing – maybe it’s the too much sun?
I only catch the first couple of Pretenders songs. Chrissie Hynde may now be into her 7th decade, and the only original member of the band to appear, yet her voice is a strong as ever – she is a genuine rock star, dressed in tight jeans with a leather jacket, hair falling across her kohl-heavy eyes; note to self to catch a full set in the near future. Similarly with Primal Scream, I am unable to watch more than a couple of songs, but opening with the gorgeous Come Together lays the tone for a greatest hits set that is as visually spectacular as the opening tracks indicated; Bobby Gillespie, rail thin in a white suit, black Western style shirt with a mop of bedraggled hair, to his left a 5-piece gospel group. From just about hammering out a beat with a nascent Jesus & Mary Chain to releasing one of the defining albums of an era, Gillespie has certainly come along way, and looking out across the barriers to the swelling crowd he has brought plenty of friends along with him to celebrate.
Public Service Broadcasting headline the Meadow stage and reward everyone with both a visual and sonic treat; entirely dressed in white, including dickie bows before Opening with Im Licht and Der Rhythmus Der Maschinen, during the latter the band livestream themselves from the stage onto the huge video wall that acts as a backdrop. The sound is perfect, the band fully benefiting from the space the stage offers them. This is a band who have forged their own path, a band that continues to explore new musical directions, yet which are able to utilise historic samples equally effectively. They dive into The Race For Space with both Sputnik and the magnificent Go! before encoring with Gagarin and the cinematic Everest. Public Service Broadcasting provide a beautiful end to a wonderful weekend.
Happy 14th Birthday Bearded Theory.
Year upon year Bearded Theory simply gets better – it continues to be one of the very best quality and value events on the festival circuit, thankfully new owners DHP have realised this and contrary to rumours have retained the festivals independent stance, and continue to bring a hugely diverse selection of artists to the event – long may it continue.
More writing by Phil can be found at his Louder Than War Author’s Archive
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