With a spectacular setting surrounded by hills just outside Skipton, on the fringes of the Yorkshire dales, the Beacons calls itself a ‘Boutique Arts and Music Festival’. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but it certainly has a relaxed and comfortably chilled atmosphere Friday to Sunday, August 16th to 18th. It’s not the place to go to see household names or TV show winners or faded pop stars with careers to resurrect trying to reassert their credibility by slumming it ‘round the farm circuit.
This is an event aimed at people who like music, who take music just a little bit seriously and who like to hear new and surprising things, but it’s also aimed at those who just want to have a good time. It’s somewhere to come if you want to hear the next big thing and go back home and impress everyone with your extensive knowledge of new music, but if you were just looking for a great festival to head off to with your mates to drink beer and eat pie and peas (this is Yorkshire after all…) and sit on straw bales and let a little bit of music drift by, well Beacons would be good for that too.
There were lots of critically acclaimed performers, prize nominees and prize winners, lots of people who may be on the verge of being huge – ‘the stars of tomorrow’ as they used to say on some show or other – and a range of music that encompasses grime, rap, punk, rock, folk, country, blues spread over six stages. Three of the stages are exclusively devoted to dance music on which I am entirely unqualified to offer any opinion, but there were a lot of people dancing exuberantly so I guess it was pretty good and in the year in which The Guardian announced that dance had finally toppled indie as the main staple of the music fest, it seems pretty clear that this is the way forward.
There was plenty going on outside the music stages, of course, with an arts area containing gallery spaces, fancy dress fabrication, lectures, screen printing and magazine making and roving entertainers, hoop artists, guerrilla soft core pornography and tent blessers. There was also a cinema tent that hosted a Q&A with Shane Meadows, but entry required removal of footwear and this was further than I was prepared to go. To paraphrase the immortal Sam Fox, the boots stayed on, so we didn’t get to see any films or ask intelligent questions of any film directors. Instead we visited the ‘Vegetable Olympics’, where I proved to be remarkably adept at pitching new potatoes into wellington boots. It’s a useful skill to be aware of.
The main stage, sponsored by Loud and Quiet Magazine, was housed in one of the two large big tops that dominated the main area. It boasted an impressive stage lighting rig, which we were told (by one of the bands – I’m not sure which) had previously seen service with JLS. This being a festival for proper musos, the assembled company dutifully booed the stage rig as if it were a spy sent by the Simon Cowell organization to undermine the credibility of the festival.
A smaller tent (which could have done with being a lot bigger – there were frequently a couple of hundred people listening from outside, even in the rain) housed the You Need To Hear This Stage and offered a range of bands from indie through to punk. The smallest of the stages – the ELFM Stage – featured mostly acts from the Leeds-Bradford pub/open mike circuit.
On Friday the weather gods were kind and as we arrived there was a good noise coming from the YNTHT Stage, so we ducked inside and caught the second half of a set from Battle Lines, a Leeds-based four-piece with great rhythms and big riffs who are not afraid to veer into pop when it suits them. Lead singer Carly Humphries switched between a breathy delivery reminiscent of Alison Goldfrapp to belting them out rock and roll style – it’s a fine start to the weekend and we stuck around and catch the first half of the next band up, Paradise.
They’re from London and billed as a duo but I could count at least five so they must have bred. Probably best known for last year’s “Endless Wave” single, they have a sound packed full of big synths and harmonies, and songs that start small and then build and build and keep on building as they add layer on layer of sound. They went down a storm. The programme said they’re playing, “tropical smacked out fuzz pop.” So there you go.
These two half sets inaugurated a pattern that was followed for the rest of the weekend. Half a set here, half a set there – we got to see relatively few full sets because we were always off to another stage. We didn’t want to miss anything and that means we missed a lot.
Next up on the main stage Fun Adults. They’re from Leeds (that city’s buzzing music scene was well represented at Beacons) and their music was an intriguing blend of acoustic and electronica – finger style guitar with overlays of synth and chilled folky vocals that seemed to veer almost into Islamic harmonies. It reminded me a little of Blue Jay Way with added angular percussion. They’re a band to watch out for.
By late afternoon the arena was starting to fill, the bars were packed and the fancy dress disco dance off was in full swing. We threaded our way between packs of penguins, Tellytubbies, women with three heads, half-naked people. Some of the half-naked people were in the fancy dress dance off. Some of them were just half-naked. Scooby Doo was taller than I had imagined. This was a festival that’s so cool, nobody except me worried about looking stupid. I kept my jacket on to match my boots.
We decided to pay a visit to the smallest stage – the ELFM – before the headliners arrived so we headed up there, but it was a surprisingly long way from the main arena. As a conscientious correspondent I had a long list of bands and performers that I was planning to see and write about, many of them on this stage, but it was pretty clear that in order to catch any set at the ELFM, I’d have to abandon at least one and probably two sets on each of the stages in the main arena, so reluctantly this was our first and last visit to the ELFM, but we did hear some excellent acoustic country from Georgette Hilton who finished with a fine cover of The Pistol Annies’ “Hell on Heels”, and then a nice set from King No One, winners of this year’s Centre Stage competition with their melodic eighties influenced indie-pop.
Then it was back down the hill towards the main stage, stopping on the way to visit Esben & The Witch, who turned out to be the highlight of the day, big, dark and echo-y – their gothic sound drew a big crowd. They also marked a second theme for the weekend – the number of exceptional quality female singers fronting bands including, among others, Lulu James, a soul singer from the North East, who kicked off an evening of dance orientated sets on the main stage. She’s got a great soulful voice (check out her SoundCloud page, especially “Be Safe”), backed by electro beats and world music rhythms and enough sassiness to get the crowd singing along on “Until the End of Time.”
The next two acts marked the beginning of chill out time – made up firstly of Vondelpark’s dreamy synth pop and then Ghostpoet delivering a set of laid back beats. It was his second year at Beacons and it was noticeable that his sound has developed a louder, harder edge over the intervening period.
Last up and rounding the day off was Bonobo – appearing with a full band and Szjerdene on vocals. Local boy Simon Green had the main tent packed and dancing into the night as we snuck off, exhausted.