First time at Beautiful Days but it won’t be the last...unless I pop my clogs in the next 12 months which, given the amount of cider I seem to have ‘accidentally’ consumed over the three days or so, wouldn’t come as a huge shock. Speaking of cider I’m delighted to report that all the bars were stocked with SIX proper ciders. SIX! Be still my beating heart. All of them were produced by local / independent cider makers too and, at just £3.80 a pint, you could get merry without needing a mortgage - other festival organisers please take note.
Another delight was the total lack of corporate advertising, somewhat remarkably the people behind Beautiful Days (The Levellers and DMF Music) clearly ain’t willing to sell their souls to make an extra buck or two and it’s an all too rare opportunity to escape the commercial bombardment that infects pretty much every other event. Whilst we’re covering off the basics (I’ll get round to some music in a moment) the loos were plentiful (there were a few queues for the ladies at peak pee times but nothing too bad) and clean, the food offerings were decent (big up the hog roast dudes), security seemed pretty friendly and there was none of that shuffling around like zombies that you get at some fests when the big act of the night finishes and everyone scuttles off to their tents/the bar. Speaking to a few regulars clearly the festival’s grown year on year and its popularity’s only going to go, ahem, ‘one way’ but let’s hope the capacity stays around this level. Personally I’d rather that be the case and I miss out ‘cos I can’t get a ticket than the thing becomes too big.
Anyway, the music. As ever I missed as much as I saw but that’s the nature of these things. With six stages to choose from even though you can get from one to the other in a matter of minutes you’re always going to face some ‘orrible decisions (such as missing the CUD acoustic set...bugger). Friday’s first main highlight was The Damned. Now 40 ruddy years into their career and holders of the first punk single release crown (although you could debate that forever...) they can still blast their way through the classics without needing oxygen and lead singer Dave Vanian remains as cool as a vampire in a fridge. Nice to hear their respectful cover of Love’s Alone Again Or too...officially approved by the late great Arthur Lee himself apparently.
Later on the same stage Ezra Furman who came on wearing what looked like his gran’s dress and pearls...he even rocked a bit of a blue rinse...and proceeded to holler his way through some of the finest indie rock of the last decade.
If Springsteen was a gender fluid Jewish guy from Chicago this is quite possibly what he’d sound like. Yep, he’s that good. Stomping his heels on the stage, spitting out the words with a ferocity that could well have powered the PA and charming the pants off the cool kids at the front it was a master/mistress class in how to blow away a crowd.
The last pick of Friday’s bill was the ever reliable (god, he’d probably hate that) Billy Bragg who won over a decent chunk of the festival crowd away from the “two blokes playing laptops” on the main stage (that’ll be Leftfield then). I’ll admit I was tempted to watch a bit of Bragg and then sneak off but once he got going I couldn’t resist. As with most Bragg gigs it was a mixture of hits and politics and it won’t come as a huge shock to hear that he’s a Corbyn fan or that he views the post Brexit society as more divided than ever. I’d argue that Thatcher’s Britain was a lot more split but then I was too busy watching Grange Hill for most of her reign of terror so I’ll bow to his opinion on that one. Nice to hear a self deprecating remark about the fact that he’s still a bit of a radical whilst living in a nice house on the beach in Dorset...Bragg may have left Barking long ago but he’s lost none of his bite.
Saturday’s pick of the bunch kicked off with a band from my old home town of Brum. I’d not heard of the UK Feds before but their Rage Against The Machine meets The Jam with a little ska punk thrown in for good measure mix certainly blew away the cider related hangover.
Music needs more anger and rebellion right now and with a little luck this lot could just be the kick in the balls it’s waiting for.
After some deliciously sweet‘n’soulful reggae courtesy of Hollie Cook the rest of the day was 90s music a go go with Terrorvision, Dreadzone, Reef, The Proclaimers and James. Kudos to Terrorvision for allowing a young kid with Williams Syndrome to take to the stage and steal the show for a couple of tracks...and to the lad in question,James, for making the most of it.
Reef are, as compere Jon Robb put it, on the form of their lives right now and if anyone in the world could stake a claim for The Rolling Stones’ crown when they finally decide to call it a day it’s Reef. Hell, they even have the son of a Stone (Jesse, son of Ronnie Wood) in the band, and their cover of Paint It Black would certainly give Jagger and co a run for their millions. You’ll know a lot more Reef songs that you think you do too, but it’s the latest stuff including the gospel tinged belter of How I Got Over (a cover of a Clara Ward original made famous by Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin) that’ll blow yer sock off.
And does anyone in rock have a better beard than bassist Jack Bessant? Nope. No, they don’t.
We missed out on Dreadzone to catch one of the hidden gems of the whole weekend, Josephine and the Artizans at the Band Stand. Hip hop meets opera....or Hip HOpera if you will. I can’t recall many classically trained opera singers who have a thing for hip hop but Josephine clearly does and whilst she didn’t rap herself this evening (although I suspect she could flow with the best of ‘em) the blend of classical opera pieces and raps from the two male band members was refreshingly different and that’s all too rare these days. Ones to watch.
The Proclaimers have become firm festival favourites over the past few years, partially no doubt to that Comic Relief cover and the use of I’m On My Way in Shrek plus the surprisingly good musical movie Sunshine On Leith, and what the band lacks in between song banter they make up for in good old fashioned sing-a-long moments that the crowd certainly made the most of despite the drizzle.
That just left time for James and, much like Reef, they seem to have hit a bit of a purple patch in their golden (okay maybe silver’s a little kinder) years. Formed as long ago as 1982 they hit it big with late 80s baggy anthem Sit Down and went on to have almost a dozen other chart hits before they called it a day in 2001. A 2007 reunion tour sold out in a matter of hours and they’ve released four albums since then including the critically acclaimed Girl At The End Of The World. Tonight, in front of 14,000 or so loved up festival goers the band revisited the pick of their back catalogue (no Born of Frustration though...boo!) adding a little more synth based groove and glitter that the originals lacked. In a reverse Samson lead singer Tim Booth seems to have grown as a both vocalist and performer since losing his hair, confidently plunging into the crowd to be lifted aloft at one point and repeatedly shaking his thang throughout the set.
An emotional Nothing But Love capped things off brilliantly with Booth clearly appreciative of just how epically well the whole gig had gone down with the crowd...but then again...wait for it...he’s a staaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar.
Following a tip from a fellow camper we raised ourselves in time for The Rev Hammer Group at Sunday lunchtime, an unknown quantity to us but well worth catching. Digging around it seems as though the Rev’s been playing since the mid 80s, building up a loyal cult audience along the way. Sharing similar DNA to The Levellers the Rev’s brand of folk rock probably belonged on the main stage in a later slot but we did get a guest appearance from Mark Chadwick who’s clearly a big fan so I’m guessing there was a reason for the early gig.
Check out Down By The River O and the Rev’s epic ‘folk rock opera’ Freeborn John (the story of John Lilburne the leader of The Levellers...the political movement not the band) for a primer into the man and music.
Next up Two Tone legends The Selector got the crowd skanking like good ‘uns (Pauline Black just doesn’t seem to age) before Mariachi El Bronx brought a little Mexican magic to the party paving the way for The Coral (bugger me, another band getting a second wind) who, judging by set highlight and recent single Holy Revelation, have an ex-pysching future in front of them.
Okay, this might seem like sacrilege but we skipped most of The Levellers’ set to watch some masterful Afrobeat from Dele Sosimi who began his set playing to an almost empty Little Big Top!
This dude played with both Fela and Femi Kuti! Good grief. The place soon filled up though with a small but enthusiastic bunch who appreciated Dele’s irresistible blend of Afro rhythms, politically infused lyrics (arguably reflecting the true spirit of Afrobeat) and relentlessly energetic performance. We left in time to catch the final part of The Levs’ set though and high up on the hill as several grands worth of fireworks lit up the sky Beautiful Days ended up in a truly memorable night.