Bearded Theory’s Spring Gathering
Catton Hall & Park, Walton-on-Trent
Thursday 23rd May – Sunday 26th May 2019

Part One of my review + some amazing photos from Judie Tingle photography is over at Urbanista Magazine

To recap briefly, the organisational side of Bearded Theory and their attention to detail big and small, leaves a lot of other festivals in the dust (or should that be mud? 🙂 )

The Bearded School – an Ofsted approved school that kids can attend on the Friday so that parents don’t get fined, is a perfect example of going the extra mile.

Last year, for the first time in the festival’s 12 year history, there were problems with congestion getting to the site.  Most festivals would just shrug their shoulders and say it’s outwith their control, but not Bearded Theory, this year they opened earlier to spread traffic out over the day, and officially there was no music on the Thursday so that everyone wasn’t rushing to try and get there in time (in reality I believe Dr and the Medics played live and Faithless did a DJ set).  The result was a smooth journey in for all.

There is a story on Bearded Theory Chat that when one of the bands on the main stage was too quiet, in frustration they tweeted the festival about it, to their surprise, one of the organisers went over and got the sound turned up!

One of the most important things at a festival for me, even more important than the lineup, is the atmosphere.  You can have the best lineup in the world, but if you are surrounded by people with their faces tripping them, then you’re probably not going to have a great time.  When things are well organised, people have little to complain about and when they are enjoying themselves, they tend to be more sociable, which makes for a good atmosphere.

One of the things you really appreciate when you bring young children is that the kids field is right next to the main stage, so I can keep an eye on my child whilst listening to a band on the main stage, and probably be closer to the stage than if I was at the back of the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury.

Some people don’t like when you compare Bearded to Glastonbury, indeed there is a very small element who really hate it!

To me, comparing festivals to Glastonbury is a natural thing to do – it is after all Britain’s oldest, biggest and best known festival, and despite having the largest capacity, it’s one of the very few that sells out as quick as the systems can issue the tickets, and could probably sell out 2 or even 3 x over.  Every festival has Glastonbury’s influence running through it in some way.

But, being the oldest, biggest, fastest selling doesn’t make it the best festival for everyone, a lot of people have a better time at a smaller festival, and some of the people I know who go to both festivals prefer Bearded (though love both).

For me, Glastonbury’s biggest strength is also it’s biggest weakness – the sheer size of it!  It’s always hard work, and when I get back from it I usually feel like I’ve achieved something, like climbing a mountain or something like that.  I enjoy it, but it is hard work!  When you turn the corner and see the exapanse of the site it always takes your breath away no matter how many times you’ve been, and even if you hate 99% of the lineup, there is so much on that you probably can’t physically see the 1% you do want to see.  No UK festival can compete with Glastonbury in terms of scale.

One of the theoretical strengths of Glastonbury’s is that it is big enough to book genuinely A list global acts like The Cure, Stevie Wonder and The Rolling Stones.  But to be honest, in reality it’s better seeing these kind of acts at their own shows – because at a festival, especially a busy festival, people will come and see them out of curiosity for a couple of songs before going to another stage, so you have constant pushing and shoving throughout their set.  We’re going to see The Cure in Glasgow for example where there is 1 stage and everyone is there for them!

Bearded Theory manages to take the good bits of Glastonbury, and create a similar vibe on a more manageable scale, and whilst it can’t bring in the very biggest names in music, it punches well above it’s weight and even when headliners such as Suede, The Cult and Little Steve are on, you can still get near the front relatively easily if you wish.  (Though once my 5 year old is asleep in his bike trailer, it’s nice to chill at the back on the chairs!)

The stages are close enough together that you can get between stages in under 10 mins (can take an hour at the big G when it’s busy) but are still far enough apart to avoid lots of sound bleed.

Everything about it is just easier – for example, no bashing your refresh button on a Sunday morning to get tickets – buying tickets for Bearded is much more leisurely and civilised!

The demographic is largely families and older people.  It’s probably not the kind of festival an 18 year old going to their first festival with their mates would choose to spend the weekend getting wasted at, which for me personally is a good thing!  Much as I fancy experiencing Boomtown at least once, I’m not sure I’m up to it any more 🙂

Looking through the Bearded Theory chat group on Facebook after the festival, it would seem that the vast majority of people loved it and can’t wait for next year.  There were of course minor gripes such as the queues for the toilets at the main stage (I didn’t think they were too bad compared to other festivals, and found that if you’re desperate it’s worth the 5-10 minute walk to the camp sites where the queues are much shorter) and the festival have already said they will look at it for next year.

Some complained at the prices in the festival stalls, for example, £3 for a pack of paracetamol that would cost 30p in Aldi.  Indeed I found the food stalls quite pricey myself, with not many options giving much change out a tenner, so I thought I’d have a look at festival stall economics.

I couldn’t find any public figures for Bearded, but in the Guardian I did find figures for Lattitude (35,000-40,000 capacity from what I can gather), the example they give is Chunky Chips, Wicked Dips paid £10,000 in rent and they took in £19,000 in sales.

Straight away, you can see that if they halved their prices, they wouldn’t even cover their rent (unless covered by increased trade).  On first glance, it looks like a right money-maker, but once you consider out of the £19,000 they took in sales, they have to pay £10,000 right away in rent, they need a stall and get it to the site, pay wages and of course the stock itself, obviously the ones that come back every year and do lots of festivals must make enough to make it worth their while, but they probably aren’t making as much as we might think.

By comparison, £10K rent for say 5 days trading works out at £2K per day.  When my local Aldi was being built, I downloaded the prospectus for the building, and the guide rent was about £2K per day – with their bargaining power they probably pay a lot less than that, but even if they pay the full price, the rent for a festival stall at Lattitude where people buy odds and ends, costs as much as massive Aldi supermarket where people do their weekly shop – which coupled with their buying power, shows how they can sell paracetamol at 30p that a festival stall charges £3 for.

Stalls are an essential part of a festival’s income.  We’ve seen a few festivals fall by the wayside in such a competitive market, with no corporate sponsors the festival has to be economically sustainable or it won’t take place, and certainly the food I had over the weekend was worth paying a premium for.

The lineup

It might seem strange that I’ve not mentioned much about the lineup so far.  However, next year’s lineup will be different 🙂 If you’ve never been, you can find past lineups online to get a flavour of what might be on offer next year and see whether it’s your bag or not. I’d say that the lineup is probably stronger than it looks – what I mean is, you might be looking at each day thinking there are only 2 or 3 bands that you want to see – but that’s a good thing, when there are dozens of bands you want to see in a day, they all merge into one, and you miss the other stuff that’s going on.

When I went to festivals on my own, I’d run around the smaller stages discovering new bands, but when you’ve got a 5 year old, it’s hard to do that and you end up seeing a few bands you already know.

I thought the 3 main stage headliners all put on a good show and were inspired choices.  I’ve never seen Suede and I was keen to see them, and they didn’t disappoint.  The Cult are a band I probably wouldn’t buy tickets for, I like a couple of their hits but I bought Sonic Temple when it came out and ended up selling it as I never listened to it, but was curious to see what they were like live and I thought they were really good.  They finished the main set with She Sells Sanctuary, and started the encore with Rain but started singing the lyrics to She Sells Sanctuary!  An easy mistake to make 🙂 I hadn’t heard of Little Steve, but he put on a great show, and though the rumors that Bruce Springsteen was going to make an appearance turned out to be false, he really didn’t need any gimmicks!

It was great to see The Egg in a slot that wasn’t past my bedtime 😉 Last time I saw them was 2009 and they are always entertaining.

The Lottery Winners are a band I last saw a few years ago at Liverpool Sound City at a showcase, and they blew everyone in the room away.  It was nice to see that they seemed to go down really well with everyone who saw them, and had us in stitches (with inter-song banter, not the music I hasten to add!)

I’ve seen a lot of people rating The Blinders really highly, and having seen them at Bearded I can see that it’s not just hype, they really are as good as people say.

The Slow readers Club are another band who have been on my radar for a few years but I hadn’t got around to seeing them until now, and they also went down really well with everyone lucky enough to catch them.

Everytime I see The Editors they always entertain, and nice to see The Doves back too.

Final Thoughts

An adult ticket cost £122.50 this year, which you could pay on a monthly plan.  Even if you exclude the Thursday night, it’s about £40 a day – so just seeing a couple of bands a day, you’ve almost certainly got your money’s worth just in bands alone.

If you’ve got kids there is lots for them to do, if you don’t, you can wander around discovering bands and getting chatting to people – either way you really get your money’s worth.

In this day and age I genuinely think that festivals are more important than ever.  We hear a lot about “broken politics” and “fake news” but to me these are just symptoms of a broken society – for example “Boris” allegedly deliberately ruffs up his hair and exaggerates the bumbling fool routine because it makes him more popular with the voters, and ok, it doesn’t work with everyone, certainly not me – but it works with enough people to make him one of our most popular politicians!  The media sensationalise, manipulate and downright lie because it makes them more popular with the readers/viewers who want to be entertained more than informed.  Social media started out as something which seemed quite positive – being able to keep in touch with geographically dispersed real life friends as well as connecting with new people on a similar wavelength, but the reality is that it seems to magnify our differences and has people constantly bickering but never changing anyone’s mind, and we’re all frazzled from the continuous back and forth.

Camping festivals are one of the few places that still bring people together and help us focus on what unites us, and being without luxuries we take for granted such as solid housing, a comfy bed and a hot shower, we learn to appreciate them, if only for a day or two.

I’m not suggesting the worlds problems would be solved by everyone going to a festival for a few days and staying off Facebook, but taking a step back, learning to appreciate what we have, focusing on what’s important and bonding with other humans and trying to see their point of view, is certainly a step in the right direction.

Anyway, Bearded was only a few weeks ago and already I can’t wait for next year!


Words + Pictures: John W. King

Update: I previously said that there were 100 unsold tickets, but have been reliably informed that they all sold out!