As relatively seasoned reviewers, the FFA attendees at the 9th incarnation of Bearded Theory maintain that this fabulous event is still the festival to beat. Year upon year Bearded Theory simply gets better and, in the round, continues to be one of the very best quality and value events on the festival calendar.

Bearded Theory is a wonderful weekend and the biggest compliment I can pay is that this festival remains the benchmark by which this reviewer judges all others. It simply is that good and FFA found virtually nothing that was anything other than first class. We were knocked out by last year’s event and doubted it could be bettered (Read the FFA Bearded Theory 2015 Review) but Bearded proved how wrong we were. 2016 was an absolute cracker and arguably the best Bearded yet.

The sell-out crowd make it all of course; they are an excellent bunch and are as diverse and eclectic as the entertainment. Indeed in many cases – they ARE the entertainment. This crew are prepared to leave their musical prejudices at the door, give everything a pop, get involved and, well, simply have a great time. Our experiences of the stewards and security staff were absolutely first class, and a particular big-up to the good folks on the Disabled Camping field who did an outstanding job. The site looked lovely with some neat installations, the funfair was packed, the stalls, bars and food outlets uniformly decent and competitively priced, and the kids entertainment excellent. Not only is the large dedicated kids zone a great hang-out for youngsters of all ages, but Bearded even offer 350 kids the chance to attend an OFSTED approved Bearded Theory School on the Friday! This is a wonderful initiative and gives parents an opportunity to take the kids to a festival AND keep schools happy by applying for a day of absence as ‘education off site’. The kids get to learn everything from field crafts to rapping and we hear it’s a fantastic day. Everyone wins! Bearded even had a stage side BSL Signer for many of the headliners; truly everyone is welcome and catered for at Bearded!

All this does not happen by chance of course. It’s all part of the value and ethos of innovation and continuous improvement that underscores everything this festival does. Every year sees further tweaks to improve the festival – be it site design, organisation, or process, and the results are there for all to see. As a 10,000 capacity event, it’s by no means the biggest – but certainly one of the best.

Just as a for instance – Bearded remains one of those few events where they still permit alcohol to be taken freely into the arena. The bars were still bouncing of course, but it’s just a small example of the freedom and flexibility that Bearded offer their paying punters and it’s no wonder there is such fierce crowd loyalty to this festival and why it consistently sells-out year on year.

The weather was glorious most of the weekend (bleedin’ freezing at night mind), and Bearded has expanded in recent years to encompass the ‘early arrival’ Thursday evening as part of the festival proper with around half the arena zones open and artists of the calibre of Dub Pistols plying their trade. All this for the ticket price of £97 is an absolute bargain.

Musically, the arena offered four main locations, with plenty of pop-up events and music café’s to expand options even further. FFA had a ball, and in a packed line-up here are just some of our favourites. If you were lucky enough to attend you’ll have your own favourites and opinions – this is ours;

We would have loved to review the mighty Dub Pistols on Thursday night – but such is the pull of the band, and such is the numbers now arriving Thursday – we couldn’t get near the tent. Great crowd reaction and the boys did look and sound ok from the nearest bar tent if that helps at all!

Friday we enjoyed the sunshine and crowd-watched most of the day but with some fine musical highlights including the brake-neck punk folk banjo malarkey of the excellent Roughneck Riot and the equally dynamic punky beats of The King Blues. Stars of the show though have to be two stalwarts of the festival scene; those bands that you just know, whatever the circumstances, will always deliver. Yes, I’m talking about you Reverend and the Makers, and you, Levellers. The Rev’s were, as always, in fine form and McClure is a past master at whipping up a crowd – the finale of ‘Silence is Talking’ had the place bouncing. The Levellers closed the main stage with a fine set, even with one or two slightly iffy moments. ‘Riverflow’ and ‘Too Real’ really hit the spot. The confetti shower finale was a nice touch. Overall we found the sound quality across all the stages pretty much on the button, but maybe the Decibel Police were monitoring Derbyshire that night as the sound volume for Levellers in particular appeared to be set to ‘mute’. No matter – a class act in any circumstances. Some splendid beats from Subgiant and Chris Liberation and Stirling Moss sent us home happy bunnies.

Saturday the Celtic folk-rock of Skerryvore was an absolute delight and they got well deserved support from a roasting afternoon crowd. Purple Lights impressed FFA. Difficult to categorise, and in a crowded music scene, all the better for it. With pleasing ambient backbeats interspersed with some splendid Psy Rock amongst much else, this was a fascinating trip, and for a two piece, mightily impressive. These talented guys are ones to watch. Go hunt them out.

More old stagers in the shape of Wilko Johnson and Billy Bragg were next up. The warmth towards Wilko was palatable and the crowd were buzzing from the first note. This is not simply sentimentality for the great man – the bloke delivers R&B fuelled rock of the first order. Never underestimate bassist Norman Watt-Roy in the Wilko success story. The guy is one of the best bass players around and the synergy between the two make the air crackle. So it proved at Bearded. Bragg was Bragg. Hugely entertaining, a fine singer-songwriter and accomplished orator, Bragg received countless ovations for articulating things that need to be said. Whatever your politics a great hour well spent.

Public Image Limited. What can I say – arguably set of the festival in this reviewers ‘umble opinion. Lydon was never anyone’s fool and the man is intelligent enough to ensure he surrounds himself with fine musicians. Overlay that with constantly evolving rework of older material intertwined with a hard underbelly of DnB beats, and the material sounds as contemporary now as the day it was written. Now even more larger than life, Lydon dominated the arena with an awesome presence. A powerful, musically accomplished performance. Excellent.

Talking of excellent – Jack Savoretti was rather wonderful over on The Woodland stage, whose chilled late evening vibe matched Savoretti’s relaxed, Latino flavoured soundscapes. A pleasure to witness such a huge talent in such intimate surroundings. Splendid stuff.

Sunday was pure indulgence kick-starting with Kangaroo Moon. This was a truly genre defying performance. Folk, psychedelia, funk, world, and the odd jazz break thrown in for good measure. Hugely entertaining from a bunch of extremely talented musicians. Mad Dog Mcrea got a great reaction from the main stage crowd before Bad Manners ripped it apart. It was absolutely kicking. If PIL were best set of the festival than Bad Manners were surely best audience reaction. They found the pulse of the crowd and had the main arena rocking. Slot in a guest appearance by Max Splodge leading a cracking sing-a-long of punk classics, and this was the best crowd I’ve witnessed at Bearded for many a year. Astralasia, psychedelic trance masters, rarely disappoint, and their set in a steaming Magical Sounds tent, was well, a bit of a classic with Pracownik excelling with some rather wonderful spacy psy guitar overlays.

Squeeze were splendid. The Difford / Tilbrook combo still works a treat and the band were excellent. The old songs have not dated, their delivery was superb, and Tilbrook’s voice still as wonderful and emotive as ever.

Late replacements on the bill Asian Dub Foundation did not disappoint with a powerful and dynamic set. Visually exciting and fine musicians, the relevance of lyrics from classics like ‘Oil’, and particularly ‘Fortress Europe’ were not lost on a responsive crowd. Great atmosphere.

So there you go. Life is all opinion, but if you are looking for a small-medium sized festie then Bearded Theory is up there with the very best. Next year’s 10 year anniversary bash is likely to be awesome. You have been warned!

Article & Snaps by Barrie Dimond