I briefly considered writing this entire review in the style of Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ (“As I walked through the shadow of the valley of Skipton…”). I’m not entirely sure why, beyond the fact that the track played, somewhat incongruously, directly after Nope’s set on Sunday afternoon, and I proceeded to enthusiastically recite the first verse while exiting the tent (much to Nicholas Burman’s profound embarrassment). Either I take way too much pleasure in making Nick cringe, or Beacons Festival has warped my mind so much that the line between good and woeful editorial decisions has become impossibly blurred. I suspect it’s a bit of both.
In case you missed our preview (or last year’s review), Beacons has been providing Yorkshire’s best festival experience since 2012, a welcome alternative to events like Tribfest (“The World’s Biggest Tribute Band Moosic Festival”) and Leeds Festival, which is something of a beacon itself for pubescent pyromaniacs. Of course, music isn’t all that’s on offer at Beacons – attractions run from the commendable (an almost unhealthy selection of real ales) to the bizarre (a Peugeot tent. I’m not even kidding. In over a decade of attending festivals, discovering a car showroom in the middle of a muddy field may be the most surreal thing I’ve ever encountered at one).
However, it’s the music that we’re here for, so it’s the music where we’ll begin…
Manchester’s Kult Country have barely begun their set before a fork of lightning streaks across the sky. Several viewers scatter in search of more suitable clothing, but most of us simply shuffle forward into the mildly sheltered area in front of the stage. This turns out to be a smart move, as it gives us a ringside seat for what turns out to be one of the most surprisingly powerful performances of the weekend. Despite frequent apologies from the stage concerning technical difficulties, Kult Country manage to conjure a huge, tumultuous sound that takes on the weather and wins. A stirring run through last year’s ‘Slowburn’ single is a highlight, but the whole set (bar a messy penultimate number) is moodily magnificent. They’re a band I’d love to see get huge, just so I can see them play through a massive soundsystem with as few technical difficulties as possible.
After a period hiding from the rain in the warm electronic embrace of Daphni (whose set seems a little timid to me but apparently turns into something of a banger towards the end) we hit the Noisey tent for East India Youth. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically considering the stage’s name, the sound is far too quiet, making it difficult to fully immerse ourselves in William Doyle’s impressive compositions. While his set at Glastonbury (reviewed here) was utterly captivating, here the sound just doesn’t do him justice.
One band who makes full use of their allotted slot is Melt Yourself Down. While live-wire frontman Kushal Gaya seems ever-so-slightly less full of whatever it is that generally makes him leap around stage like a dog that’s just sat on a scorpion (although obviously not that much – see below), any energy shortfall is filled by the most excitable crowd to date, including a bloke carrying a plastic skull strapped to a massive stick. Somehow, considering the virtually voodoo properties of the band’s music, this seems appropriate.
We then move to the In The Woods tent where circumstances have conspired to create an unexpected situation, namely that I’ve been entrusted at the last minute to moderate a panel on film soundtracks. Having to follow a whisky tasting isn’t ideal, but I think it’s fair to say that for the 30-odd people who remain (or are too drunk to leave) the event constitutes the absolute highlight of their weekend, perhaps their lives (in all seriousness, many thanks to our panellists: Her Name Is Calla’s Tom Morris, The Leaf Label’s Tony Morley, Lime Pictures’ Kate Blakemore and Salford University lecturer/composer Simon Connor – you’re the best).
To the #sadfaces of many a pop fan, Charli XCX didn’t make it on Saturday. Either because she’s far too famous now to go to Yorkshire or because something went wrong with the contract, depending on who you talked to. No matter though, because Joanna Gruesome were ready to fill the synth-pop void – oh wait, no they weren’t. They did deliver an ace blast of vitriolic punk though. Last time I saw them was in a black box in a warehouse space in Blackheath, and it was actually pretty impressive how their live show translated to an entertaining performance on a festival stage.
Later on in the Noisey tent, TRAAMS brought their brand of trendy-yet-laddy indie vibes to a more-than-up-for-it audience. The likes of ‘Flowers’ have an instantaneous, immature appeal which in this sort of environment was hard to respond to in any other way than getting involved and getting sweaty. Galaxians were up next, but didn’t manage to inspire quite the same excitement, and after the electro fun of Friday night seemed a little flat (although everyone who’s seen them this summer has had nothing but kind words, so maybe it just wasn’t the night for us to make a first acquaintance).
Saturday was all about Jon Hopkins though. The ket-tech producer/DJ has a reputation so grand that he was bordering on musical royalty for a lot of the punters here. The slow, winding, pulsating beats of his material worked themselves into almost romantic visions, as glo-light balls bounced across the heads of the audience and a few hundred wired eyes peered at each other through flashes of light. If I’m being honest I can’t remember many of the details, but as with all the best music it delivered a feeling, and a feeling I could happily repeat every Saturday night.
Thanks Nick. Sunday’s memories are fortunately far sharper, thanks not least to the invigorating sound of Girl Band providing not so much a rejuvenating cup of aural java but a much-needed session of primal scream therapy. While the set doesn’t quite reach the heights of their incendiary show at the Shacklewell Arms recently, it’s still light-years beyond what virtually any other guitar bands are doing at the moment. Forcing a thrillingly repulsive sound out of their instruments, they create a noise that is simultaneously aggressive and laconic, unpredictable yet regimented, energising you and pulverising you all at once.
Best of all, there’s no posturing, no shapes, no unnecessary affectations and no fashionable clothes (beyond frontman Dara Kiely’s rather natty shirt ‘n’ sweater combo, they sport the sort of stuff you’d wear when off school with fake flu). They simply seem 100% focused on playing their instruments as well as possible, which is how it fucking should be. And guess what? It works. From Daniel Fox’s bottle-wielding bass lurches and Alan Duggan’s fearsome bolts of distortion to Adam Faulkner’s pounding drum kit destruction and Kiely’s dry wit and screaming fits, they hold the audience rapt while barely looking at them. New track ‘Um Bongo’ adds an effective touch of tender fragility, while ending the set with 30-second punk blowout ‘The Cha Cha Cha’ is a master-stroke.
From the shortest track of the festival to the longest, as Nope embark on the half-hour odyssey that is ‘Walker’, a monolithic statement of intent. Revolving around a single riff via a series of breakdowns, freakouts and noisy washes, it somehow manages to hold your attention throughout. Imagine if 30 minutes was the standard length for a track? That’d filter out the non-committed musicians pretty quickly. It would also be an absolute nightmare, as very few bands possess riffs as mighty as Nope’s, nor have musicians capable of playing them with such exuberance. They somehow have time for a wavier number afterwards, just to help bring us all back down to earth.
Someone I’d never consider bottling, partly ‘cos I’d never fucking dare to, is Mark E. Smith. He may be getting on a bit but I bet he’s still got a lethal left hook. Unfortunately, even his diminutive but intimidating stature isn’t enough to frighten off Hurricane Bertha (the tail end of which is rampaging through the site), and during The Fall’s third track water starts leaking from the top of the Main Stage tent. The sound is cut shortly afterwards, and while Smith seems determined to remain onstage (while the two drummers carry on with the song regardless), it’s to no avail. Curse you Bertha.
Apparently the band do eventually return for a rousing version of ‘Mr. Pharmacist’, but by then we’ve mournfully departed to see the next best thing to Mark E. Smith – a man shouting about being Mark E. Smith. Yes, it’s the Fat White Family playing live favourite ‘I Am Mark E. Smith’, and while they may not actually be Mark E. Smith (in fact, they sound particularly Bad Seeds-y on this occasion), they’re better than watching someone attempt to fix a leak in a big top. They’re better, too, than they were at Glastonbury, and in increasingly grim weather they warm the cockles of those in attendance with filthy renditions of ‘Touch the Leather’ and ‘Is it Raining in Your Mouth’. Special mention to keyboardist Nathan Saoudi, who’s wearing a coat that looks bigger and warmer than most people’s duvets. We could’ve done with some similar apparel later on…
It’s Neneh, of course, who makes it truly special though. Her tangible enthusiasm rubs off on the crowd straight away, and the energy levels and musical quality remain stratospheric for the rest of the set. At one point a guy we’ve been camping with crowd-surfs to the front; Cherry is so delighted when she spots him that she invites him up onto the stage for a dance (he actually acquits himself admirably considering the many eyes upon him (see blurry photo below)). She ends with an updated version of ‘Buffalo Stance’ which manages to lose little of the original’s appeal while adding some pepped-up keyboards for a sparkling finish.
Taking down the aforementioned tent in gale force winds the next morning is also a whole lot of fun (if I ever meet the person who invented pop-up tents I’ll endeavour to show them, in as visceral a way as possible, how something being easy to take out doesn’t necessarily count for much when it’s ridiculously difficult to put back in). Still, even a hurricane can’t blow away the amazing memories (or, occasionally, lack thereof) that Beacons left us with last weekend. For as long as they keep putting it on, we’ll be spending most our lives living in a Beacons paradise…
Kier Wiater Carnihan & Nicholas Burman