Moist but Marvelous! A belated post about Bearded Theory…

I was very proud to be involved in the seventh Bearded Theory festival, which started off as organiser Rich Bryan’s birthday party in 2007, and launched as a very small festival in 2008, at the Knockerdown Inn near Wirksworth. It’s now a well-established festival, with around 5,000 ticket-holders. In 2014, for the first time, the mighty Oxfam Stewarding Team were providing their services at the festival.

This year, the festival was held on a new site, Catton Hall, in the most southern part of Derbyshire, near Burton on Trent. On a hot Wednesday afternoon, I drove down to the site and set up camp in Angel Gardens, which is the kids’ field at the festival, meeting old and new friends, and getting my aging tent repaired with Gaffer tape by some lovely fellow Angels. It was a beautiful evening, and warnings of terrible weather fell on deaf ears. The river Trent flowed right next to my tent, looking tranquil in the evening light. How could it possibly give me any worries? There were at least eight feet to the top of the bank. I was looking forward to spreading the word about my novel Outside Inside too.

I attended the Oxfam stewards briefing (possibly slightly confused, possibly showing off as a Bearded Theory afficionado), and then enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine and a chat with Graham, an Oxfam colleague who has recently acquired a lovely campervan. Before bedtime, I visited the awning of Keith Manuel, another Bearded Theory veteran, famous for organising the ukulele jam, and eventually settled down at our own Angel Gardens campfire.

It rained heavily during the night, but the sun had come out, with a much fresher feel, by the time I emerged from my tent, ready to string up metres of bunting and help to make Angel Gardens to look amazing. Angel Gardens is the best kids’ field on the festival circuit, bringing artists, craftspeople and performers together to provide some amazing activities and workshops for kids. This year, we even had mad scientists making slime with the children, a samba parade and a flash-mob with choreographed kids dancing in front of the main stage.

This year, we had big domes for the baby zone, and for crafts. As soon as the covers were on, we attacked the dome with bunting, making it look really pretty. Fortunately / unfortunately, at that time, the heavens opened, and I was trapped inside the dome in torrential rain, putting bunting up, standing on a step-ladder, which is actually a pretty cool place to be in the rain. But the roof of the dome hasn’t been sealed yet, so the water was pooling in flaps in the canvas and then pouring like a waterfall. Luckily no one was standing underneath each time it happened. Despite the downpours, the Angel Gardens field was looking wonderful and ready to be invaded by crowds of kids and their families. And the location of the field was next to the main stage, so we were in the middle of the action.

Creations in the craft dome!

Creations in the craft dome!

After a briefing, where I met the large Angel Gardens crew, doing everything from facepainting to making dreadlocks, some “early bird” bands were playing on the second stage, Tornado Town. I managed to catch the last part of Please Y’Self‘s set, the original punk skiffle band. I’ve known them all for twenty four years, ever since gutarist John Gill came to Woodlands Secondary School as a music teacher and musician in residence. If you’ve ever wondered why I’m Anne Grange in real life, and Anne Garage on Facebook, it’s because I used to perform in lunchtime concerts, organised by John Gill, called Garage Shows. They were 10p for entry, and were massively popular! So it was a real pleasure to chat to the band afterwards.

Thursday night’s bill was topped by Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs – yet more punk skiffle, but this time with much dirtier jokes, and Doctor and the Medics (one hit wonders with Spirit in the Sky in the 80s – but they insisted that they’ve had two hits!) They played some great covers and I had a really good dance.

Friday was time to start work in Angel Gardens, but working timetabled slots in different areas gave me more time to explore the festival. In the morning, I ran my first craft workshop, making beards (everyone at Bearded Theory takes part in a fancy-dress beard competition) and hats, and covering the “teen tent” in bits of fake fur and material.

Beard Surrealism

Beard Surrealism

After a lunch break (a delicious home-made veggie burger), I was back, running my first performance poetry workshop. It was a small group, but very productive, and we came up with some great poems.

I explored the site, bumping into a few friends, and I bought a Carter t-shirt (I didn’t actually own one in the nineties, having been too young to be allowed out when they played at Derby Assembly Rooms) and then it was time for my craft workshop, making puppets from toilet rolls. I’d made one earlier, in true Blue Peter fashion, but I was really impressed by the inventiveness of the kids who took part.

Halfway through my workshop, ska-punk band Culture Shock took to the stage. I’d bought their records while trawling through second hand record shops at university, and I was looking forward to catching the end of their set. Unfortunately, it started to seriously hammer it down with rain, and by the time I’d put away my craft materials and returned to my tent, it was absolutely lashing it down, and I felt a bit disappointed about the downpour.

But the cure for that is to put your waterproofs on, load your bag with cider and wine, and enjoy the music anyway. And the rain was stopping, in time for the Dub Pistols – one of those classic festival bands guaranteed to put you in a good mood with their combination of ska, dub, and anything else they fancy.

I had to leave their set a bit early to make sure I was in time for Poisoned Electrick Head at the Locked in the Woods Stage – a secluded glade with a stage, log seating and a bar. Poisoned Electrick Head are my partner’s favourite band from his youth in the North West – 90s festival legends, who perform their proggy space rock while wearing rubber alien masks! They were great. I knew quite a few of the songs, including their biggest hit “out of order”. Although the sound was a little muffled at first, they were a visual treat, with giant revolving eyes and silver jackets. Such a visual band would have been better later on at night, or in the darkness of the Tornado Town marquee. I hope they’re back next year!

Poisoned Electrick Head at Bearded Theory

Poisoned Electrick Head at Bearded Theory

I had to run as fast as I could in the mud to get back to the main stage for Peter Hook and the Light – Peter Hook is the legendary bass player from Joy Division and New Order, and when I reached the stage, I was immediately enveloped in an amazing version of ‘Blue Monday’. The whole set was amazing; one of my festival highlights. Peter Hook and his band really brought the Joy Division songs to life, making them electronic and more danceable. I was completely enthralled.

And headlining on Friday night: Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. Performing their last ever festival set. They’re due to play two London dates in November, and then they’ll split up on a high. For those who don’t know, Carter USM were one of the biggest indie bands in the early nineties (for my generation, anyway), and one of the most unlikely: two blokes with guitars and a drum machine, singing songs full of bitterness and loneliness and biting social commentary, at a breakneck speed, amid flashes of bright white light, silhouetting them on the stage. They are spell-bindingly brilliant, and arguably, even more relevant today than in the nineties, with their songs of media cynicism, class division and sexual exploitation. For an hour and a half, I was fifteen again, experiencing them for the first time.

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine - their last festival gig ever!

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – their last festival gig ever!

Nothing could top that, so after wandering over to Tornado Town to catch the end of Babyhead and chat to some Oxfam friends, I tucked myself into my tent!

Saturday morning dawned rather grey, but the Angel Gardens 10am briefing enthused me, and I chatted about last night’s Carter gig with Angel Gardens volunteer Dan, who was helping me in the teen tent and turned out to be a massive Carter fan. I watched the Red Barrows (a wheelbarrow display team!), listened to some fantastic stories told by “Raggedy Jack”, who turned out to be Trotsky / “Wino Tyrone”, the tea-chest bass player from Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs! Then I was ready for another crafting session, where we made swords and light-sabres, and teen tent leader Sadie finally worked out how to use the bubble gun with very pretty results.

Raggedy Jack the storyteller / Wino Tyrone / Trotsky - this guy gets everywhere!

Raggedy Jack the storyteller / Wino Tyrone / Trotsky – this guy gets everywhere!

On my lunchbreak, I enjoyed a delicious paella, and sat down to listen to a country and western band in the Something Else tea tent. I was enjoying their tall Texan tales and innuendo, all delivered in a very convincing accent, when I stood up, and realised that it  was Trotsky from the Junkyard Dogs again on guitar and vocals! Despite his gormless on-stage persona playing the tea chest bass, he was proving to be a talented all-round performer (and he can even do clean, smut-free material for the children!)

My performance poetry was a big hit on Saturday afternoon, as it turned into a collaboration with Jason, who was running songwriting workshops in Angel Gardens. Once I’d helped each (very talented) child to write their poem, Jason was working with them to set it to music. That’s one of the intended outcomes of Angel Gardens: “Angel” Sam, who runs Angel Gardens, brings artists, musicians, writers, and performers together to build a temporary community and collaborate with each other, and the spirit of working together leads to some really lovely moments for the kids too.

A proud young poet!

A proud young poet!

After my workshop, I headed back to the Something Else tea tent to watch Abdoujaparov (I’ve finally got the hang of pronouncing it!) which features Fruitbat from Carter USM. Named after a Russian cyclist, the band are much more “traditionally” punky than Carter, with some really catchy songs. The band’s set started a bit late, but I enjoyed hanging around at the edge of the tent, soaking up the warm, unexpected sunshine, while I was waiting.

Before my evening craft session started, I was able to catch most of Pop Will Eat Itself’s set on the main stage. Another favourite alternative band from the 90s, they reformed four years ago, with an almost entirely new lineup! Including their gorgeous and appropriately named guitarist Tim Muddiman, whose lacerating guitar playing really adds a new dimension to those PWEI songs, having played for Gary Newman. Former PWEI singer Clint Mansell is now an award-winning Hollywood film composer (top fact!)

My favourite member of Pop Will Eat Itself!

My favourite member of Pop Will Eat Itself!

Anyway, I was having a brilliant time until a line of very dark grey clouds appeared on the horizon and swept rapidly towards the festival, causing everyone to put their waterproofs on before it even started raining. In one song, we’d gone from sunshine to torrential rain, and I made a run for it into the craft dome. Luckily I’d already left my craft materials to the dome, and once we’d avoided a few drips and splashes inside the dome, I set up my craft workshop. There were lots of kids and parents sheltering from the rain, and making things was a welcome distraction from the downpour, even though it was difficult to talk, above the sound of rain hitting the roof of the dome, and Pop Will Eat itself still playing, not very far away on the main stage. It was good timing though, the craft session was very creative, and kept us out of the worst of the rain.

The rain had cleared in time for the Wonderstuff – yet another “grebo” band of the 90s, who reformed a few years ago now and have become Bearded Theory favourites. They played an excellent set, which I spent mostly drinking red wine and admiring violinist Erica Nockalls’ beautiful dress. I swear she’s had a new hairstyle every time I’ve seen the Wonderstuff. I didn’t manage to see the Wonderstuff in the 90s, although they reached stadium-filling status, but I’ve made up for it since. And they never disappoint, playing some great new material, as well as old hits. There were also a crowd of mud-covered revellers, hugging everyone else and spreading the mud around a bit – but I didn’t mind, although I had mud on my glasses for a couple of weeks without noticing!

The Saturday headliners were the Stranglers, a band who emerged in the punk era, but with a much wider set of influences, from psychedelia to jazz, all played with a gothic, yet witty edge. They were fantastic, and surprisingly good to dance to as they played a brilliant “greatest hits” show.

The Stranglers - a classic set!

The Stranglers – a classic set!

And the live music on Saturday hadn’t ended yet. I teamed up with some Oxfam friends in the dance tent, and we decided to go over to the Locked in the Woods stage to see what was happening. We were lucky enough to catch the secret set by 3 Daft Monkeys, a folky, stompy, wonderful festival band (one of my Oxfam friends, Roxanne, took the photograph for the cover of one of their albums, and is a massive fan of the band) so it was a brilliant surprise.

On Sunday morning, my crafting workshop ended up with me making a prehistoric scene with a boy who was obsessed by Jurassic Park, complete with a flying pterodactyl! I hoped it wouldn’t rain again, as the river Trent had risen higher and higher up its banks and was flowing very fast. But I decided to ignore it!

Jurrassic Park! Complete with Bearded jellyfish in the lake.

Jurrassic Park! Complete with Bearded jellyfish in the lake.

Grabbing some delicious samosas from one of my favourite festival food stalls, Ghandi’s Flip Flop, I caught The Ratells on the main stage, an indie rock band from Sheffield (so why haven’t I seen them before!), who reminded me of Bloc Party. They had great songs, skintight black jeans and a compelling stage presence, managing to draw together an initially lethargic Sunday afternoon crowd.

The Ratells

The Ratells

I had another great poetry and song-writing session with some very talented kids later that afternoon, and found out that one of my participants was excited about the ukulele jam, although she was beginning to feel a bit too grown up for her Sponge Bob Square Pants ukulele, although everyone else thought it was cool. One of my participants improvised a brilliant song about the festival, but we managed to remember most of the words and write it down.

It was time to grab my ukulele, tune it up, and head to the ukulele jam at the Tornado Town marquee. I pushed my way to the front, where other ukulele players were standing, and joined in with the mass jam, playing the chords for songs that were displayed on the screen above the stage. I was concentrating really hard, with my tongue sticking out and everything, and went from struggling to remember basic chords to playing fairly confidently at the end of the hour! And I was sharing the performance with some of the special guests on stage, including Mark Chadwick from the Levellers, Trotsky from the Junkyard Dogs (again – that man gets everywhere!) and Ken Bonsall from Ferocious Dog. The uke jam was one of my festival highlights, not only because it helped to revive my love of playing music (and it’s not rocket science – many popular songs can be played with a small number of simple chords!) But it was also a brilliant laugh. Oh, yes, and Tim’s Bez-style dancing! The only downside was that for days afterwards, the fingertips of my left hand were too sore to touch anything!

The much-speculated about special guests on the main stage on Sunday were another Sheffield band, last year’s headliners Reverend and the Makers. I hadn’t been that impressed with them in the past, but they were perfect for this slot in the early evening sunshine, with catchy, bouncy songs, and I look forward to enjoying them again. But for now, I returned to the Craft Dome for my final craft session, which was very busy. The kids seemed desperate for their last chance to make something to take home, and we were awash with glitter and PVA glue. I very nearly overran into the quiet storytime session happening afterwards, although goodness how it was going to be quiet, with Dreadzone cooking up a story (luckily this time not an actual storm) in the background. After stowing my craft stuff, I ran to the main stage and danced my wellies off.

Mud! Children! PVA glue! Glitter!

Mud! Children! PVA glue! Glitter!

Dreadzone were on great form, and I was also determined to watch UB40. By the time I was getting into music as a teenager, UB40’s output was very cheesy po reggae, but through listening to BBC 6 Music, I’ve discovered their earlier material: much more dubby rootsy than their over-polished 90s sound. And they didn’t disappoint. They sounded great, with a big horn section, and Ali Campbell was in great voice. I had a great time skanking around with Oxfam steward Helen.

As a finale, we squelched over to the Locked in the Woods stage to watch Mark Chadwick (from the Levellers) do a solo gig to launch his new album ‘Moment’. Much quieter and more delicate than the Levellers’ folk punk, it was a good way to wind down and appreciate the magic of the glade, and to celebrate the end of the festival. Some people moaned that he only did one Levellers song, but you can’t have everything!

But then it was over. And because of the Sunday night curfew, so was everything else. So I had the bright idea of heading over to the backstage bar, and met lots of friends from the Bearded Theory crew. We danced until dawn to cheesy songs on someone’s ipod (they played the same songs twice, but we didn’t care). While sensible people were tucked in bed, this was a great way to end the festival. Finally, I staggered through the mud to back to Angel Gardens, to find my friends there were still sitting around their camp fire. I sat and chatted for a bit, but I could barely keep my eyes open!

Monday morning was hot and sunny and we managed to take the bell tents of Angel Gardens down before the rain started again. We hugged each other and set off for home through the mud.

As you can tell from this mammoth blog post, Bearded Theory is really something special. A festival where you can happily wander around on your own and always feel safe and be among friends. There were a few minor gripes about the toilets not being as clean as last year, but “teething problems” are inevitable on a new site, and the Bearded Theory organisers really care about sorting these things out for their fans. I can’t wait for next year.

Just put your wellies on and dance!

Just put your wellies on and dance!

 

 

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