Gogol Bordello, Interpol, Primal Scream and the best of the rest from Derbyshire’s stellar indie festival
Bearded Theory might be the smallest big festival around. Sixteen years after it started as a birthday party in a field behind a pub, the Spring Gathering now fills 250 acres with 10,000 people, nine stages and one of the most impressive line-ups of 2023 – but it still somehow feels like spending a nice weekend at your local.
Accessible, clean, friendly and memorably beardy, it’s a festival that enters its teens with the confidence of an upstart and the booking agents of an event twice its size. Half full of 6Music fans in band tees, half with Bristolian wizards carrying glittery wooden staffs, there’s a perfect mix of old and new spilling out of every corner. Rising talent fills the smaller tents as prestige headliners take the main stages. It’s indie and new wave and rock with a soft punk edge to everything. The kind of place you’ll find your new favourite band and get to see your old favourites in the front row without pushing. Where you’ll start your day in the tea tent and end it wigging out in front of a giant Wicker Man. Where you’ll meet 10,000 people who all seem to be best friends with the bloke who started it all.
“This your first time?” asks everyone in queues, crowds and picnic benches. “No no no, I’ve been coming for years. It’s so much bigger now…”
Opus Kink shake the trees at the Woodland stage on Friday afternoon as things start heating up under the late May skies – bringing the first punk saxophone solo of many in a weekend full of brass. The Venn diagram of hippy psyche-rock, post-punk and electronica meets somewhere under the ghillie suits of Snapped Ankles, moving a big mainstage crowd with pagan Krautrock that feels more at home here than it would anywhere. Look closely and you’ll even see Eugene Hütz watching from the wings.
Then it’s Benefits vs Beth Orton, or Teeside oi-punk vs Norfolk folktronica (Norfolktronica?), splitting a crowd that crosses back over itself straight after to choose between Yard Act and EMF. Only last year James Smith was the fastest-rising star of The Great Escape, and now he’s aping Freddy Mercury on the main stage – tricking the crowd into raising a glass to King Charles III – already looking like he’s ready to headline.
Those staying at The Pallet get Flogging Molly (‘If I Ever Leave This World Alive’ still the biggest lock-in anthem ever, even in the middle of a sunny Derbyshire field), and those leaving mostly head to a double bill of The Beths and Alvvays – a safe space for big hooks, sunset emotions and power pop so all enveloping it practically flattens the Big Top canvas of the Meadow stage.
Not that Gogol Bordello are having any of that. Bearded Theory prides itself on its family friendly atmosphere and clean-cut, chilled vibe, but Eugene Hütz is only on stage for five minutes before he’s sloshing bottles of wine over the front row. Hitting like a Balkan freight train, Gogol Bordello are backed by a clenched Ukrainian fist – a testament to the unifying power of music, a war cry in the punk revolution, and an uppercut straight to the chin of Vladimir Putin.
After an hour and a half of frenzied Romani dub (Sergey Ryabtsev stealing Hütz’s thunder, as always, with a violin solo that threatens to catch fire), Friday night’s mainstage closes with more wine in the air for ‘Wanderlust King’, ‘Start Wearing Purple’, ‘Sally’ and ‘Undestructable’. Perfect, then, to tee up a raucous late-night Viagra Boys set in the Meadow – followed by a showing of Pulp Fiction that sees everyone snoozing away under their wine-stained blankets.
Bruised but not broken by Saturday afternoon, there’s probably no better way to get back in the mood than by watching Elvana. “Sometimes I sound like Nicholas Cage”, says Elvis Kell, dressed in a glittery marijuana jumpsuit. “Sometimes I sound like Matthew McConaughey. Sometimes I sound like Kurt Cobain, and that’s what we want… But I never really sound like Elvis Presley. And I don’t f*cking care!” Neither does anyone else, of course, as Elvana lift the whole field with their Nirvana/Elvis covers – the only band that can turn ‘Rape Me’ into ‘Love Me Tender’ and somehow make it work.
Billy Bragg gets the biggest crowd of the early afternoon as half the festival misses out on Dead Pony’s raw-edged grunge and Loose Articles’ spit sharp social punk (cutting deeper than Bragg, but without his jauntiness), but it’s Anna Calvi that feels the most transportive. Daring to bring the whole site down to a goth rock whisper on ‘Wish’, before raising it back up to an operatic scream on ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’, Calvi adds the kind of cinematic drama that shuts out the sunshine and the noodle stands and the Portaloo queues for good.
Perfect, then, for Gary Numan. Saturday night gets far too moody for the weather as Numan delivers a ferocity that barely lets up for an hour. Casual crowds who only stopped by for ‘Cars’ and ‘Are Friends Electric?’ look a bit shocked to see Numan screaming industrial synth-punk over images of crucified nudes – flanked by two bald guitarists in combat kilts that briefly turn Bearded Theory into Mad Max with a better soundtrack. And it doesn’t stop there.
Headliners Interpol follow Numan with a set that rolls through the site in waves – dark romance cut with a post-punk knife to build walls of sound high enough to topple (read our full review here), before everyone rushes off for more of the same from Echo & The Bunnymen. Squeezed into the Meadow (just before 1am showing of The Blues Brothers…) the crowd watch Ian McCulloch darken the night with new wave, ‘The Killing Moon’ heard ringing around the festival for the rest of the weekend.
Small enough to hear the main stages from most of the campsites, Bearded Theory woke up any late-risers on Sunday with the world’s best alarm clock: The Undertones playing ‘Teenage Kicks’. If that didn’t work, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs definitely did – ‘Ultimate Hammer’ loud enough to knock the birds out of their trees from the mainstage.
The Dualers set ska against HENGE’s electro snythwave wizard rock (not an easy call for this crowd), before Skinny Lister took on Warmdusher. As great as the folk outfit were (‘Wanted’ and ‘Trouble On Oxford Street’ packing the Meadow), it was sleaze that won Sunday afternoon as Clams Baker Jr stormed the mainstage with dirty New York punk, funk, hip-hop and the kind of f*ck you energy that makes parents cover up their kids’ ears.
Bit of a shift, then, from that to the Pretenders – but The Mysterines are right over there for anyone who wants to keep the edge sharp (‘Hung Up’ and ‘Life’s A Bitch (But I Like It So Much) landing like Iggy meeting Nick Cave somewhere in the Wirral to watch teenage horror movies).
“Oh hi Bobby!” says Chrissie Hynde, turning during ‘Let The Sun Come In’ to see Bobby Gillespie watching from the side of the stage. Suddenly feeling the pressure, she has to stop and start again. “Nice try Bobby, trying to throw me off my set!”. Once she’s back into it, hit follows hit follows hit in what feels like the festival’s unofficial fourth headline slot before Gillespie comes back on an hour later for the festival finisher.
Dipping into their whole history across an electric closing set, Primal Scream mix Screamadelica classics with angrier, bluesier, punkier tracks from their more corrosive later records – finishing up with fireworks on a ‘Rocks’ encore that lights up the whole weekend (read our full review here).
Main stage closed, it was a choice between Public Service Broadcasting in the Meadow or Sleeper in The Woodland – either losing it all to ‘Go!’ or remembering it all with ‘Sale Of The Century’. Geeky Krautrock with Willgoose, Wrigglesworth and Mr B, or Pixies covers and Britpop with Louise Wener in a “Rock Hag” t-shirt. Or maybe it’s Pirate Ship DJ Takeover at Mai Waui. Higher Intelligence Agency at Magical Sounds. The Rocky Horror Picture Show under a blanket. Everyone’s a winner at Bearded Theory.
And everyone’s now a new best friend of the bloke who started it all.
Tickets for next year’s Bearded Theory will be on sale soon. Find your next 2023 festival here