Located on Sawley Farm in deepest darkest Lancashire and in the heart of the spectacular Ribble Valley, Beat Herder has carved out a reputation as one of the finest and most unpretentious boutique festival in the North. In its eleventh year now, the festival has amassed a devoted band of fans and regular attenders who come every year to worship at the feet of the ghetto-blaster laden sheep which is the festivals distinctive icon.
The success of the festival is no mean feat considering that the event receives no corporate sponsorship or backing and is run entirely independently. What then exactly is the key to the festival’s appeal and longevity? I rather optimistically donned some shorts, sunglasses and perhaps more wisely packed my waterproof poncho in an attempt to locate the beating heart of this northern gem.
As my train snaked through the rolling Lancashire hills towards Clitheroe, I reflected that perhaps part of the festivals magnetic draw is the organiser’s decision to cap ticket sales at 12,000 tickets. In an age of consumerist greed and EDM excess, Beatherder’s anti-corporate stance strikes a note with many, whilst helping the festival maintain an intimate friendly vibe. Indeed as I arrived on a rain-ravaged Friday night, I felt welcomed by the kaleidoscopic hotpot of sights and sounds that greeted me despite the ominous clouds gathering like Damocles sword above my head.
After catching a rather subdued set of predominantly new material from 90’s indie Gods James (A last minute replacement for Primal Scream) and a stomping set of vibrant electro grinders from Digitalism, I decided to head straight for the iconic Toil Trees stage. Set inside an illuminated pine tree woodland, the stage hosts many of the events dance artists, acting as both a visual reference point for revellers and the festivals electronic heartbeat.
As night descends the Toil Trees springs to life with paths lit by incandescent globes and lined by micro stages or sound systems such as Hotel California and The Garage (A selection of retro vehicles strewn along the pathway, kitted out with a sound-system and in car decks). The addition of these smaller stages adds to the intimate nature of Beatherder. It is easy to get lost in the intoxicating sounds and find your self-hypnotically drawn inside these smaller arenas. Crucially these systems also provide a platform for the talented local artists, resident DJs and performers who provide the backbone for the festival.
As I gradually made my way through the trees and the increasingly sticky ground I was greeted by the slightly surreal sight of Derrick Carter at the centre of the copse, blasting out US house and tracky disco to a thronging mass of dancers. Whilst normally this sound would seem more at home in a New York nightclub, it nevertheless had the desired effect in this slightly unusual setting. The crowd of bobbing heads were locked under this master-of-classic-house grooves spell and he seemed to be having a hell of a good time despite the now torrential rain (so much for the sunglasses).
Following on from Carter was Dirtybird head honcho Claude VonStroke. Adorned in a quite majestic sequined gold jacket and joined on stage by an entourage of dancers dressed in full American Indian head gear, VonStroke launched into the type of bass fuelled jackin’ house which has become his trademark. The energy levels notably upped with Von Stroke dropping a succession of Dirtybird bombs, culminating in his vocoder-led monster ‘The Rain Break’ which invited us all to go ‘walking in the rain’ (as if we needed any encouragement) A sense of fun and spectacle pervaded the set and the Dirty Bird crew seemed to find a perfect home for their wobbly and wild house aesthetics.
Next, I decided to check out some of the smaller stages so I headed back down to Hotel California to see The Whip’s Fiona Daniel’s cooking up a storm with some astutely selected house and disco. Finally, I made my way across the site to the imposing Fortress, a medieval construction, which would not have looked out of place in King’s Landing (in fact it even featured some mechanically operated, Targaryen style, fire-breathing dragons). Here I witnessed Mr C (In for B.Traits who had earlier withdrawn due to illness) closing out his three-hour extended set with a series of acid house classics and rare underground cuts. A fine way then to conclude the evening, before heading back to base camp, sodden, weary but elated.
Saturday was a time to shake off sore heads and don ridiculous outfits, for this is traditionally Beatherder’s fancy dress day. An integral part of the festival, each year a letter is selected from Beatherder’s name for the fancy dress to be themed around. This year it was ‘R’ and after a sunny start, the fields were awash with rainbow warriors, Ron Burgundy’s and robots of all shapes and sizes. A slightly unhinged party atmosphere developed as the day went on. Part Notting Hill Carnival, part Timothy Leary experiment; it all added to the sense of magic, surrealism and quirky humour that makes the festival such damn fun.
Taking advantage of the brief interlude of hazy sunshine I decided to head off to the Stumblefunk stage. Perhaps here lies another fundamental factor in the un-commercial feel and success of the festival. The Manchester based, free party collective, have been associated with Beatherder from the start and their sound system typifies the party spirit and celebration of local talent which is seen across the festival. This generous spirit creates a communal feel, which other festivals could learn from. Food and drink prices are kept sensibly low fostering an inclusive atmosphere where punters feel they are not being exploited but rather are part of the Beatherder family.
After having my ears rinsed out and headache firmly quashed by a slick set of drum and bass classics from DJ Bowsa, I headed through the deluge back over to the Toil Trees to hear one of the most hotly anticipated sets of the weekend from Marshall Jefferson. By now the Toil Trees resembled a primordial swamp as the rain lashed down, but Jefferson did not disappoint with an energetic set of jackin house peaking with his own legendary cut ‘Move Your Body’ and the ever-anthemic ‘Strings Of Life’. As the evening began to draw in German house legends Booka Shade took to the main stage to bring their teutonic-techno stylings to the gathered masses. The duo announced early on, that as it was the 10th anniversary of their seminal album ‘Movements’, they would be playing a special set. And so we were treated to ‘Body Language’, ‘Mandarine Girl’ and an epic version of ‘In White Rooms’ set to some mesmerising and intense strobing visuals.
Following the heavy overnight rains; Sunday brought welcome relief in the form of sunshine! Mama Jerk and The Lady Fingers were on the main stage early, bringing some brilliantly bonkers French-infused folk and ska-laced blues with them. However, it was a day for milling around in the now glorious sunshine, encountering all manner of strange performance artists along the way, as the mud finally began to dry out. Over in the Toil Trees, Mr Scruff instigated a limbo dance during his set of disco, dub and funk. Led by several men scantily clad in cavemen outfits, the competition resulted in several less flexible competitors ending up face down in the mud.
The Stumblefunk tent again hooked me in as we lazed to the sounds of Ken Evil’s thoroughly enjoyable Bowie tribute set, followed by a truly superb performance from Manchester’s Honeyfeet. If you get a chance to see this group who defy definition (folk-hop, barrel-house pop, cowpunk reads their bandcamp blurb) then do so. Vocalist Rioghnach Conolly owned the stage with her sultry, soulful and intensely powerful vocals backed by a seriously funky horn section. They induced a euphoric and rapturous reception from the crowd, bringing the house down with the likes of ‘Buried My Husband’ (a track laced with enough funk and soul to make Mark Ronson jealous.)
Finally, it was left to Nordic disco cadet and all round space synth-wizard Todd Terje, to round off what had been a fabulous day. His live set was an ever-building basilica of retro synth sounds that stopped off for the impeccable 80’s synth-wave heaven and disco drive of ‘Dolerean Dynamite’ before the ecstatic finale of ‘Inspector Norse’. There were other delights; James Holroyd (one of house music’s best residents and unsung heroes) spinning a wonderful set in the cosy confines of The Snug; the monocled glitterati of The Illustrious Society and the nostalgic humour of the District Working Men’s Social Club.
As I was dragged back to the car for the journey home I was left to reflect. Ultimately it’s not about big names, big numbers or big egos. Beatherder provides a barmy, bizarre and odd shaped event that defies expectations by being a non-conformist, yet carefully curated festival wrapped in a family friendly wooly blanket. There were plenty of rumours flying around that this years’ festival would be the last and that corporate sponsors were moving in to purchase the site. Perhaps it is a testament to the legacy of the festival so far, that these rumours were provoking passionate responses and concerns from its fiercely loyal fans. Let’s hope the organisers can keep their sheep on the ground (groan) and continue to herd em’ up next year!