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 are 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.
Friday night it rained. Saturday it rained. Not enough to turn the site to a mud pool or create huge slides, or cause an outbreak of bonding between sworn enemies, just enough to make things miserable. Of course people still set about having a good time same as Friday, but it was much more difficult in raincoats and wellies. A special mention goes to the enterprising people who chose to use the seating bales to build a castle roofed with umbrellas, and have their own private party inside.
The main beneficiaries of the rain were the acts who were on early on the main stages. If it had been fine they might have found themselves playing to a gallery of a few dozen, but this time all the music stages were packed from early till late.
If Friday was heavy on dance-orientated music, Saturday was about folk. Most of the performers we caught on the day either borrowed from folk or owed a debt to it in some form – from the deliberate stylings of Stealing Sheep and Local Natives to the trippy guitar jangle of Temples.
We started with Royal Blood in the Loud and Quiet Stage. There are a lot of guitar/drum duos around at present, some better than others. It’s a format that offers a path into the music industry for the less popular kids because you only need one friend to form a band. Or your girlfriend. Comparisons to the White Stripes are the inevitable lazy journalists reaction to them, but in fact these guys do sound like the Stripes at their best. Their single, “Figure It Out”, is on their Soundcloud page – you should listen to it. It’s great.
A half hour was them spent with Amateur Best, the new name for Joe Flory (previously known as Primary 1) – really pretty tunes, heartfelt and romantic and sweet and the best bugle solo of the entire weekend; then we piled into LAQ for North Londoners Wolf Alice – big guitars, great vocals, powerful stuff. Once again it was a big sound with a great female vocalist that set the stage alight and the crowd shouting.
Back on YNTHT there was Bill Ryder Jones, formerly lead guitarist with The Coral and now a solo purveyor of minimalist tunes and film scores (although he has a band with him this day). Unfortunately it was just too wet to stand and listen for long and too crowded to get under cover, so we decided to spend the rest of the day at the main stage where Stealing Sheep were starting their set accompanied by The Harlequin Dynamite Marching Band. This was the only main stage performance by a marching band in the whole weekend and the more welcome for its scarcity value. Stealing Sheep are a Liverpudlian folk trio whose songs are a unique blend of folk harmonies and electronica – there’s a nice video of them playing “Blue Peter” on You Tube – you can’t get cooler than that.
Unless of course you’re channeling pure sixties psychedelia straight into the Yorkshire Dales like Temples who, having done well to recruit the young Bob Dylan’s hair, delivered a spectacular set of trippy, swirling pop rock. It’s almost impossible to count all the influences you can hear in their songs – it made me think of The Kinks, The Monkees, The Band and of course The Beatles. Fabulous.
Melody Prochet of Melody’s Echo Chamber is a French songwriter whose album made it into the top ten albums of 2012 in the NME and she was next up. Very much an unknown quantity, many members of the audience had their programmes out to check on the potted biography section, but it didn’t take long for her to win the crowd over. Her songs are hazy and ethereal, and (and this is really old fashioned thing to say) desperately pretty.
Headliners for the Saturday were Los Angeles based Local Natives, who arrived on stage and took the venue by storm – delivering the highest energy, intense set of the day. Described in some parts as psych folk the band’s set consisted mostly of tracks from their recent Hummingbird album (QRO review) and their sound, big, joyous and noisy had the crowd cheering along. They’re a band with the happy knack of forming a rapid engagement with their audience and then letting the emotional content of their songs shine through – not an easy thing to do on a festival stage in front of an audience of tired wet people who in most cases are unfamiliar with the material. Great stuff. We stayed to the end of the set, and then resisted the siren call of the bass booming from the dance tents as we headed out……. stopping only to take in the tail end of a set by punk legends Wire, still looking great and angry and riding the crest of a wave following the success of their 2013 album Change Becomes Us. A bit of real class to end the day.
By Sunday exhaustion had set in. But on the plus side the sun was shining again. Given the past history of the Beacons, which became a mud slick last year (QRO recap) and was rained off in 2011, to have got away with just one damp day in three was a triumph.
To celebrate we spent a lot of time in the Arts area, making t-shirts and drinking tea and admiring people, until it was time to head over to listen to some very sweet tunes singer songwriter Steph Stephenson on the ELFM stage. (that bit previously where I said we never went back there, that was a lie…)
Hookworms on the LAQ proved to be one of the highlight of the festival – an explosive mixture of echoing vocals, huge riffs that roll on and on, great drumming and then extended feedback loops which create a strange, uneasy atmosphere until the band kick in again really loud. This was the first time I’d seen them and I shall be keeping an eye open for shows near me.
Afterward we did the unthinkable and sneaked off site for a couple of hours to eat excellent fish and chips in the car park of Tesco’s in Skipton. Non-stop glamour. Then it’s back to the soundface with Splashh on the LAQ – expansive psychedelic surf rock that booms round the marquee, with loads of reverb and a sound that reminds you that one of the best things about being a musician is that you’re allowed to stay in bed all day.
Danny Brown is a man who sounds really angry. I’d heard XXX a couple of times before the festival and I’ll admit to being unconvinced, but live the man was a phenomenon – sometimes he seemed like a man possessed, full of energy and improbable, spastic rhythms and dark surreal humour, in love with words, the rhymes just seemed to spill out of him indiscriminately like the verbal equivalent of automatic writing.
After the quick fire venom of Danny Brown it would have been good to find somewhere quieter, but failing that we went along to catch the end of a set from Savages that has been described elsewhere as the best of the festival, and from what we saw I wouldn’t want to argue. They’ve had a good year, with Silence Yourself (QRO review) performing well in the charts, and lead singer Jenny Beth has amazing stage presence, aloof and vulnerable at the same time, while the band deliver high power art-house post punk of a high order. I had previously noticed that another publication had described their performances as “frottage inducing,” and as the tent got uncomfortably crowded we decided to withdraw before things got any stickier.
Which left headliners Django Django in the L&Q – a full house full of anticipation and they didn’t disappoint with a set full of bouncy psychedelica that had the whole place dancing (and, for “WOR”) jumping up and down in unison. The band took the opportunity to announce that after several months of endless touring they were taking a break. Perhaps they needed a rest, if so they weren’t the only ones.
So to sum up Beacons 2013? I learned a lot. I saw more great bands than I can remember, most of whom I wasn’t familiar with before. Many of the new bands I saw were good enough that I shall be seeking them out on MySpace or SoundCloud or even in the good old record shop (probably Jumbo in Leeds). I had a great time. I learned that I need to take better notes. I learned that I need to take better care of the notes I do take. I had excellent fish and chips in Skipton. I learned that I’m not as fit as I thought and that I need a really good short lens.
And I’m looking forward to 2014 already. Thanks to all involved for a really great weekend.