Beautiful Days 2017 had a line-up I could not resist. The festival is organised by the Levellers at Escot Park, an estate near Exeter. It is a pretty setting, hilly and green, at least at the start. Mark Chadwick from the Levellers said on Sunday night that they have yet to have a dry festival in the fifteen years they have been running it. Folks come prepared for this though and nobody bats an eyelid at the mud.
I am often asked why I keep going to festivals in England. I have to say, having been to festivals in many countries, that nobody does festivals better than the English. The well-established ones are really well organized and the people are so up for it. They dress up, take the weather in their stride and are genuinely interested in the music.
Beoga's Eamon Murray commented on this: "Day three and you're still standing. Fair play for pacing yourselves". He added that if this had been Ireland, people would have got wasted on 24 cans of warm lager on the first night and then have to go home as too sick to continue. A few hours later Ian Lynch made a similar remark. This could be just the Irish self deprecating sense of humour, but I definitely believe there is something to it. Plus playing across the water seems to bring out the best in the Irish acts.
There were unfortunate clashes, even with only two main stages (there are five smaller stages in addition). I missed Eliza Carthy, Therapy?, Lau and the Lightning Seeds. Getting between stages was quick enough, and getting near the front was easy too. BD advertises itself as a family-friendly festival. This works fine. Families and the chair brigade sit further back, so if you want to be among non-chatters who listen to the music, you go further to the front.
I had a surreal half hour standing among very serious (and smelly!) Sisters of Mercy fans as I inched closer towards the stage to attempt to get front row for Frank Turner. This was easy enough because the Sisters of Mercy brigade was huge and they vacated a lot of space afterwards. Festival juxtapositions can be very amusing. I will never forget the flower girls waiting for Mumford & Sons at Glastonbury getting the shit scared out of them when Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds burst onto the stage!
The Sisters of Mercy had the stage bathed in smoke. It took me about twenty minutes to realise that the baldy guy in the white (white!) top was not a roadie scurrying about but was in fact Andrew Eldridge. Scary when someone is so not what you expect them to be. They finished with 'This Corrosion', which I knew, so I was in the right place...
The BD verdict:
Kíla played a superb set, helped by very good sound. I thought overall the sound in the Big Top (second stage) was better than on the main stage. Rossa Ó Snodaigh was missing from the line up. They talked little and played as much as they could fit in - fast trancey stuff, melodic slower ones, and songs sung by brothers Rónán and Colm. I need to add that Kíla are the most photogenic band around. I enjoy taking photos at concert, but I often need to take quite a few photos to get one good one. With Kíla it's point, shoot et voilá - cooler than rock stars!
I had a tough time deciding between numbers one and two. I think Kíla only won out because it had been a year since I had seen them, and it was almost as if I had forgotten how utterly brilliant they are, whereas I had seen Lankum a few weeks ago. I have been following them now for two and a half years and I am still as excited as when I first discovered them. I can't wait for that new album, which apparently is ready. None of this "play-the-hits" stuff from Lankum. They opted to play a ten minute droney Donegal polka which I had never heard them play before and it was fantastic. True artists. Bonus point for Ian's new haircut.
As a long-time fan it is wonderful to see the Waterboys go through a mid career renaissance. Mike Scott has jokingly said that the Waterboys have had as many line up changes as the Fall, but I love the fact that there is some stability in the camp again. They may have lost David Hood, but with drummer Ralph Salmins and the amazing Brother Paul on keyboards (looking more like Brian Eno every day) there is more of a band feel than there has been ever since they 'lost' Anto and Trevor. There were quite a few heritage-type acts on the BD bill, but the Waterboys are far from that. In fact I thought the newer songs ('Still A Freak', 'Rosalind', 'If The Answer Is Yeah') were the strongest. 'The Whole Of The Moon' sounded tired, but they finished with a killer version of 'Fisherman's Blues'.
FRANK TURNER & THE SLEEPING SOULS
There is a Dutch expression that translates as 'comparing apples with pears', and that is a little bit what I am doing here. A good few of these acts I saw for the first time. What would Frank Turner have to do the 51st time I am seeing him that would make him my number one? Vary the setlist more I guess, but folks who only see him once a year of course want to hear the big songs, just as I enjoy the Levellers - who I only see once in a blue moon - playing 'The Riverflow' and 'Another Man's Cause'.
Frank and the band put on a fantastic show, with a really fast-paced start. Highlight for me was his beautiful new song 'Be More Kind', which he has said may become the title track of his new album. Great audience involvement with the circle pit and a crowdsurf from Cahir's father, who had to surf towards a lamp that an audience member had brought (as you do), then to a little boy on his father's shoulders who he had to high-five, and back to the stage. It's those things that really bring the show to life. First encore was a lovely cover of the Levellers' 'Julie'.
I had seen Beoga at Cambridge recently and enjoyed them so much that I went again. Beoga are a top trad act and those fast jigs and reels that build up always do it for me. Add to that Niamh Dunne's singing, Eamon Murray's jokes and you can't go wrong. I got to the tent early for this one and witnessed the most professional soundcheck ever. I never realized that when a band uses in-ear monitors each instrument has to be checked against each member, so that is at least 25 checks, and three of the band sing as well... They kept working systematically with a finger in the air gesture that I presume meant 'more'.
PAUL HEATON & JACQUI ABBOTT
The Beautiful South were one of those great singles bands that you just don't seem to get anymore (as singles are gone). I have a copy of 'Carry On Up The Charts' that I am very fond of, so I had a suspicion that this was going to be great. I watched this from the barrier since I was there anyway for the Waterboys. Paul Heaton comes across as a somewhat grumpy, fidgety man. Jacqui Abbott on the other hand seemed super nice. They both have extraordinary nice voices and Paul Heaton is really the modern day Ray Davies. He has written so many great songs. It was a superb gig. They played some newer stuff as well, and finished with the biggest singalong of the weekend, 'Caravan Of Love'. That was a real moment.
An unfortunate clash meant that I had to leave Damo early to get in position for the Waterboys. This was a great pity because he was in flying form. I caught 'Chris And Stevie', one of my favourites, but left during 'Busting Outta Here'. Damien's slot was extended as Songhoy Blues were a no show, so I missed even more than anticipated, including Eliza Carthy guesting.
Most festival goers will agree that there is always a moment where you get a bit emotional. Probably a combination of realizing that you are having the best of times, mixed with tiredness, alcohol. During the intro of 'Only You' I suddenly felt tears coming down. I was 15 when that song came out and still did my own charts every week, and I remember I loved this song at the time. I had never seen Alison Moyet live. She has an amazing voice. She was accompanied by two guys who stood behind desks with keyboards, very 80s, quite minimalist but really effective. The tent was packed for this show and everyone seemed to love her.
I distinctly remember when I first came across Ríoghnach Connolly, singing at a pub session in Portlaoise during the shortlived Worldfleadh. She has toured with the Afro Celt Sound System and does trad beautifully (she plays the flute as well), but she was at BD with her Manchester funk outfit Honeyfeet. It was amazing to witness how the Big Top filled up as they played (not due to rain at that time). I bought their CD. The merch tent at BD was quite poor. I heard that the organisation takes a 20% cut. Honeyfeet got around this by having an acrobatic dancer leap about the audience with CDs. This worked well.
A friend had alerted me to Dubioza Kolektiv from Bosnia. I had listened to them and realized this is precisely the kind of band that can get a jaded festival crowd jumping. They played in the rain but many on the BD forum declared this the highlight of their weekend afterwards. The band talked about Brexit and divisions in their own country in that typical Eastern European accent, where they drop definitive articles in places they should be used and vice versa. Their lyrics are like that too ("Our music is for free, you can download MP3"). They played 'I fought the law' ("This was not written by Clash").
We live in different times. Looking at the write ups on bands I didn't know in the programme I read about a band who had several of their songs playlisted for Radio Two. Imagine that being your main claim to fame... Moon Hooch at least came recommended by an Iggy Pop quote: "I'm telling you, these guys are cool". They are former buskers from Brooklyn who play dance music in a most unusual set up: Drums, saxophone and a guy on a variety of exotic brass instruments.
The Levellers always headline on Sunday and they make sure that they are programmed later than the other stages, so everyone ends up watching them. I stood up on the hill, so I got the full effect of the lasers, flares and fireworks. I used to have 'Levelling The Land' on a cassette and those lyrics are still taking up space in my brain. Their songs have positive messages ("There's only one way of life and that's your own"; amen to that) and the fiddle playing was particularly lovely. They finished with, what else, 'Beautiful Day'.
The Eskies played early in the day to a full tent. They have a genuine frontman in Ian Bermingham, who commented that they are still at the stage where they peek around the curtain and go, "Shit! There's people here". Their music is hard to describe. Some kind of klezmerisch gypsy oompah, but it is infectious and perfect for festivals. It has to be said though that all the acts that I saw both at Cambridge and at Beautiful Days got a bigger reaction at Cambridge.
Séan McGowan comes recommended by Billy Bragg and Frank Turner and that was enough to guarantee him a big crowd too. I had seen him before accompanied by long-time collaborator Dean on guitar, but this time they performed as a four piece. It sounded great. Séan was endearingly chuffed with the reception he got and pointed out that his parents were in the audience.
I had long wanted to see Rhoda Dakar, but she was always a clash victim. I finally got to see her as she played the Main Stage and she was very good indeed. A ska singer, formerly with the Special AKA, she had a great band with her, highlighted worthy causes in between songs and seemed to be really enjoying herself too.