REVIEW : The Beat-Herder Festival 2015

Strips of blue punctuated an otherwise steely sky, as we were greeted by the festival’s now familiar rallying call, ‘Herd ‘Em Up’, spelt out in 5ft letters, when we joined the small, snaking queue of traffic arriving late one Friday morning in mid- July. The site rolled around the gentle slope in front of us, still a bustle of activity, as final preparations were made for the weekend’s worth of antics that lay in wait.

It’s hard not to be impressed by just how beguilingly beautiful the setting for Beat-Herder is. Nestled in between the portentous Pendle Hill and the emanating Easington Fell, a patchwork of lush green undulates all around, whilst a wild sky sweeps expansively above, a tableau of ever-changing colours, as greys melt into blues whilst oranges bleed into pinks. The site itself manages to retain a feeling of intimacy and inclusiveness, despite having expanded both the number of stages (now at fourteen) and capacity (up to 15,000) since they started out back in 2005. And with this being the festival’s tenth anniversary, they had truly gone all out.

The Fortress, an impressive 30ft high castle structure housing a 70ft square courtyard-come-dancefloor, was where the weekend really got started for us, for I was opening the stage as part of the Manchester-based DJ trio, Hold It Down. I clearly can’t review the set objectively (I thought it went well, as we played out a flurry of dirty breaks and wonk-riddled house, just in case you were wondering), but the experience was incredible. The staff manning the stage, in particular Sarah and François, were superb and really looked after us; much love to them all! As we chatted behind the scenes, you could hear people shouting for the music to start, so we knew there were a few out there, and were pleased to be greeted by a good fifty or so when we finally took to the booth. From the opening kick drum onwards, a steady stream of smiling, happy faces flooded in until, before we knew it, the place was filled and going bananas. The crowd was easily one of the best we’ve played to and it was a privilege to be a part of what was such a special weekend.

Once we’d collected ourselves somewhat, we ambled on over to Stumblefunk, a small tent adjacent to The Fortress, where the Stumblefunk Brown Stars were already rinsing out a healthy barrage of skewiff bass lines and thunderous drums to get your groove on to. From there, I made the short trip to the brand new Jagerhaus, a substantial wooden structure that looked like an abstract take on a ski chalet, to catch the whimsical, lo-fi pop served up by Hooton Tennis Club, a band who are clearly on fire at the moment, their live set testament to the fact that they clearly deserve the praise currently being lavished upon them.

The Smokey Tentacles was our next stop, a tented shisha lounge that offered somewhat of a little less frantic soundtrack to proceedings. I say a little less, for we were there to see the fabulous Rumjig, a band whose melting pot of styles sees them incorporate everything from blues to drum and bass, folk to salsa, soul to ska, and all sorts in between, crafting a spellbinding set that swept all who were there along with the infectious joy they brought to their performance. Magnificent!

There was really only going to be one way to continue the joyous mood we’d been put in at this point, and that was to head to The Beat-Herder Stage for Basement Jaxx. Being the main stage of the festival, the band played to a field full of people ready to party, delivering in spades. Their good-times sounds, marrying the worlds of carnival and club together in perfect harmony, was matched only by the explosion of colour and revelry they bring to the stage, the atmosphere filtering through the masses as they plied the crowd with their hits, resulting in a truly celebratory atmosphere.

With day having now turned to night, we finished off our evening with a trip into Pratty’s Ring, an arena seemingly carved out of the very-earth itself, for Dutty Moonshine, who pummelled those who were there with infective bass lines and swing-based melodies, creating jubilant pandemonium out on the dance floor. The collective were also joined by the very talented Dog’s Pocket, one half of The Chicken Brothers, who tore out some scintillating scratches over the top of the mayhem that ensued. A great way to finish what had been a wonderful first day.

I’ve got to admit, the first part of Saturday passed in a bit (oh, ok, a lot) of a blur. In order to try and get things back on track, we based ourselves in the Toil Tress at first, a small copse that is transformed into a magical enclave of beats and treats for the weekend. The Farmer and Father Funk helped rouse our spirits with some rambunctious, funk-fuelled breaks that soon had our toes-a-tappin’ once more. From there, it was a short stumble to The Beat-Herder Stage for The Mouse Outfit, a nine piece hip-hop band whose delightfully thick grooves compliment the heavy yet often amusing flow of their highly accomplished MCs. Perfect sunshine vibes!

After enjoying a necessary and tasty sustenance break from the excellent and varied stalls plying their wares (a delectable selection of stuffed pancakes, curries and paella was swapped around our crew and wolfed down in no time), we were ready to go again back at the main stage for The Freestylers. And it turned out to be a good job that we refuelled when we did! The capers continued aplenty, as The Freestylers unleashed a thrilling torrent of breakbeat based brilliance, quickly turning the field full of people into a limb-flailing mass of elated faces. We stayed were we were for the slick and polished soul of Motown legends, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, who submitted classic after classic to the captivated audience, even finishing off their final encore with a wonderful Marvin Gaye tribute. It’s a true pleasure to see such a collection of consummate musical maestros do their thing, and seeming to have as much fun as the crowd in doing so.

It was then time for The Parov Stelar Band, who were one of the stand-out highlights from a weekend brimming over with such delights. Adding that live element to his electro-swing output draws out the true vivacious nature of Stelar’s booty shaking gems, and the enraptured chaos that ensued all around me was testament to that. Despite this, it didn’t stop me sneaking off to the Beat-Herder and District WMSC, a fair approximation of a working men’s club created under canvas, half way through the set to catch a good chunk of The Fire Beneath The Sea, a thirteen piece band who’s hip-hop centred music manages to incorporate a wealth of genres to craft some irresistibly joyous music, soaked in positivity and just out-and-out merriment! Between the two of them, they managed to carve a broad grin across my face that wouldn’t depart for the rest of the night!

From there, we wound our way into the trees, through an inauspicious looking door and down a gloomy passageway that twisted it’s way out into Julie’s Barn, a small room with a lit up dance floor that was rammed with revellers going bananas to the most glorious disco. The mixing was non-existent, but nobody cared as they jived away to some of the most sparkle-tastic sounds I’ve heard in a long time!

It was difficult to leave the good natured debauchery of Gay Paris (as we’d discovered it had been christened for the weekend by the masterminds behind Julie’s Barn, Collective Nonsense), but leave we did, for a trip to the redeveloped Trash Mansions was on the cards. For the tenth anniversary celebrations, Beat-Herder had upgraded the Trailer Trash stage from a huge tent, to a giant courtyard, resplendent with a fountain, mansion facade DJ booth, and two slightly unnerving-yet-hilarious gyrating robotic pole dancers, complete with CCTV camera heads. It looked fantastic! As we entered through the gates, Rob Bright had the place in the palm of his hands, a delectable blend of exquisite house and techno poured forth from the speakers. The staggeringly wonderful sounds continued when Maurice Fulton took to the decks, treating us to a flawless selection of squelchy, funk-riddled bass lines, pounding beats and seductive rhythms. I danced until I could dance no more, reserving just enough energy to stumble back to my tent for another satisfying snooze.

Waking up to find that the continued threat of tumultuous weather had once again been staid meant that Sunday was already off to a good start. The Beat-Herder Stage was my first port of call, to check out K.O.G. and the Zongo Brigade, who shook any semblance of slumber from me with their glorious melding of West African rhythms with funk, soul and reggae, crafting an irresistible groove that induced me to shake slightly more than a shimmy! A quick trip to the Toil Trees for Mr. Scruff saw the eclectic maestro serving up his usual blend of grin-generating gems, ensuring that this wouldn’t be the last time we cavorted in the copse that day.

Smoky Tentacles was were we staggered to next, to take in the charmingly dazzling sounds of Lyons and La Zel. The pair perform as part of The Fire Beneath The Sea, but as a duo they combine the stunning vocals of La Zel with the alluringly awesome grooves of beatboxer/guitarist/flautist/MC Lyons to create a stunningly beautiful sound that just oozes with soul. Crazy P on the main stage followed, with their scintillating concoction of dazzling disco, effusive electronics and perfect pop making sure every rump was relentlessly rocking from start to finish.

Another trip to Smoky Tentacles was required to catch the jazzy melodies and soaring, soulful vocals of Kalika (aka Jules and Ed from Rumjig), who put as many tears in eyes as they did swings in hips with their elegantly enchanting tunes. Afterwards, a short stroll across site found us in The Fortress, which was as rammed as ever for the turbulent torrent of tremendous techno that bounced out of the speakers from both Justin Robertson and Dave Angel, as they implored us to ignore any notion of aching limbs in favour of cutting lose just one more time, a notion few inside found too difficult to follow.

As the end of the festival loomed into view, we made our way back to the main stage for that night’s headliners, Leftfield. We were just in time to catch what turned out to be a breathtaking firework display by Optimum Fireworks. They were so spectacular that, at the end, you could hear cheering and clapping break out all across the site. Leftfield took to the stage hidden behind tall screens that saw a range of lights bounce of them throughout the set. They played music predominantly taken from their new album, ‘Alternative Light Source’, and, whilst I felt a few of the songs went on a couple of minutes too long, they entertained the crowd with a range of tantalisingly well-textured techno grooves that, whilst still embracing that familiar Leftfield sound, demonstrated that you don’t always need to be innovative to remain relevant. A superb way to close what was stunning weekend.

If you’ve not been to Beat-Herder, then we can’t recommend it enough. And this review barely scratches the surface of the plethora of wonders that are on offer throughout the weekend and across the site. Honestly, we loved it so much that we’ll be dragging everyone we know along with us next year. It really is everything you could want from a festival and then some! Herd ’em up!