Bearded Theory – Did The Festival Live Up To The Hype?

Words and Pics by Andi Callen – All Rights Reserved

Bearded Theory was touted by many to be THE line up of the summer, Glastonbury not included. And with a roll call including The Pretenders, Gary Numan, Public Service Broadcasting, Primal Scream, Echo & The Bunnymen, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Interpol, Gogl Bordello, Warmduscher, Yard Act, Viagra Boys, Alvvays, The Lovely Eggs, Billy Bragg and Benefits, it’s easy to see why. Add a whole load of other great acts, a funfair, comedy tent, clean toilets and hot showers, it becomes obvious why for many families, it’s the festival of choice. Its position in the festival calendar is prime GCSE and A Level revision time, so the 16-18 age group are conspicuous by their absence. The slightly older age group was noticed and commented on by Viagra Boys lead singer, Sebastian Murphy, during their headline set on Friday, whilst sporting his own heavily inked “dad bod”.

The weather, as so much of late May and early June, was absolutely scorching and so it wasn’t a massive surprise to see so many people tucked away at the Woodland Stage, between the trees and nestling under the natural green canopy.

Anyway, enough of the scene setting, back to the music. Sadly, I was unable to cover day 2 of the festival, as my first night camping for over 30 years, didn’t quite go to plan. However, I did return on the last day, but by all accounts, from those attended, the Saturday shows were as equally brilliant as the others.

It must be daunting for bands going on early at festivals, what with the daylight and only a hardcore of fans actually know or care, who you are. So, it was fitting to bump into a load of friendly faces as Northwich boys, Deja Vega took the stage. The trio soon won fans over with their high energy set, and from the smiles on their faces, they seemed to enjoy it too. I’ve seen Deja Vega at least 5 or 6 times in the last couple of years and they never disappoint.

Pet Needs have been wowing audiences in North America, first with their tour support with mentor and friend Frank Turner, before returning in their own right for a series of headline dates. Singer Johnny said that due to lockdown and their US dates, that this was their debut UK Summer festival appearance. Live they present a powerful show, complete with singalong choruses and plenty of bouncing up and down moments, as they chew through their solid set of indie/rock crossovers, and I’m reminded of Symposium in their heyday.

Mid-afternoon sun is probably not what Snapped Ankles would have wanted for their main stage set. However, they play a fantastic set of post-punk electronica, bordering on Can and Faust or as Loud & Quiet once described them “Goat meets The Fall”, which is pretty accurate. They go down well with some of the crowd, who seem to be getting mesmerised by their primal rhythms, in a trance-like state. Entertaining enough, but I feel a smaller venue after dark is more the vibe.

I shoot back to the tented stage to catch the much-lauded Benefits, to see what all the fuss is about. 40 minutes later I’m a convert and ready to fight anyone who doesn’t get this Teeside version of Crass meets The Street’s Mike Skinner! Kingsley Hall (ex-Chapman Family) is an angry man, bringing us tales of urban decay and alienation through the medium of songs such as “Shit Britain”, “Empire” and “Marlboro Hundreds”. It’s not a pretty picture he paints, but then currently neither is the nation he lambasts for being a country of flag shaggers. The message is there for all to see and hear, delivered with such passion I worry about his heart, but he has one and it is firmly in the right place.

Yard Act deliver a solid set of spikey post-punk tunes in the sunshine of the early evening slot, but despite having now seen them 3 or 4 times, they fail to move me and I wonder what the next album will bring. I mentally file them in the same folder as Dry Cleaning.

A quick jog back to the Woodland stage to see the much talked about Opus Kink next. They’ve been described as genre fusion, taking elements of funk, punk and jazz and ripping them apart. I was hoping for The Pop Group, but then that is a hard bar to reach. Instead I witnessed a highly enjoyable brass led, almost mariachi-like set from the Brighton sextet. I mentally file then away in the box marked The Blinders, Lounge Society and BDRMM. I also wonder what the punks at Rebellion will make of them later in the summer.

Things are warming up nicely as the festival starts to enter the business end of the day. Two quick visits to the Convoy Cabaret tent, to see Peter Bentham and The Dinner Ladies and The Menstrual Cramps leave me highly entertained for totally different reasons. The former are good time entertainers, with a serious message to bring us, whilst invoking the spirit of the entertainment company from the 70s BBC Sit Com “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”. Its high camp delivered with a perfect punk twist. The latter are definitely not everybody’s cup of chai, judging by the amount of embarrassed parents leading their grinning teens out of the tent, as the band graphically describes some lesbian sex acts and the merits of certain clitoral stimulators. As I sit here and read back that last sentence, something I never thought I’d have to write in a music review, the smiles come flooding back. I guess the band’s name wasn’t enough of a “red flag” for some people. Their angsty feminist punk posturings hit home and satisfy my desire for some basic noisy guitar music, for the time being anyway. They’re filed away in the “Must Check Them Out Again” folder.

As the sun goes down, its the turn of the big acts to strut their stuff and in true reporter/photographer style, I have to cut my cloth accordingly, so don’t get to see the complete sets of each before heading off to see another. The last 3 acts of the day for me were Alvvays, Viagra Boys and Gogol Bordello, none of which I’d ever seen before.

Alvvays are Canadian purveyors of the awfully titled genre “dream pop” or more accurately “shoegaze”, as we call it here in the UK. Formed in 2011 and now 3 albums to the good, most of the 17 strong set is culled from 2022’s Blue Rev album, with only Adult Diversion and Archie, Marry Me included from their debut album. There are hints of The Primitives, mixed with 90s Welsh rockers Catatonia and The Shop Assistants’ more melodic moments.

It’s a fine moment to slow the pace of the day down, as the temperature drops with the descending darkness. I love Molly Rankin’s laconic vocals and find myself being soothed after a long days snapping, but remind myself that the night is still young and the lure of Gogol Bordello is too strong to resist.

Having rubbed shoulders backstage all day with a whole host of interesting looking people, it was still a surprise when Gogol Bordello actually took the stage.  There were so many of them! I first thought was how am I going to get pictures of all 9 of them in the allotted time!

Appearing under a huge backdrop of the Ukrainian flag, an acknowledgment of their ethnic roots, the next 45 minutes or so was like an assault on your senses, almost carnival like. Throw in a few Cossack dancers and bareback riders, the circus would have been complete. They’ve been described as Gypsy Punk, due partly to their Roma heritage and I’m happy to blue tick that particular box. Despite the theatrical nature of the performance, where you suspect every move is choreographed to within an inch of its life, the sheer spectacle of multiple bodies careering across the stage, as each song unfurls is stunning. Harnessing call and response delivery in part, you the punter have to take in this sensory overload and process what is going on, so overwhelming in general. Probably best enjoyed from a distance, as close up you’re in danger of only engaging with the smaller picture and boy are Gogol Bordello the Technicolour real deal! It may be late in the day, but nobody is dozing off on their watch. Fantastic fun all round, but please don’t ask me what they were on about!

If you need something to keep you up at this time of night, I suppose nobody is more aptly named than Sweden’s Viagra Boys, (not to be confused with late 90s Dutch Eurodance group, the Vengaboys!

Another of my festival firsts, it’s not long before singer Sebastian Murphy is naked from the waist up, displaying his heavily inked dad bod torso. This is not Rollins territory, with nearly 30 years between them. Of their 3 albums, the set draws heavily from 2022’s Cave World, with Aint No Thief, Baby Criminal, Big Boy and my favourite, Punk Rock Loser, being the standout tracks.

Murphy whips up the crowd and then temporarily joins them at the barrier for Ain’t Nice before climbing back on stage. As previously mentioned, he comments on the aged nature of the crowd before him, seemingly taken aback by the apparent lack of youth present. I think he must have missed the memo that said “Family Festival!”

They end Day 1 of the festival for me, before ravers end Day 2 by partying until 6.30am in the crew site. Barely functioning due to zero sleep, I head off home vowing to return for Day 3 on Sunday.

Day 1 verdict = Resounding success

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