Things Learned At: Beacons Festival
, August 29th, 2013 20:37
Sophie Coletta sees Detroit come to a field near Skipton as she braves the Yorkshire rain for East India Youth, Danny Brown, Theo Parrish, Julia Holter and Yafet Bisrat, a rapper from Leeds
Photographs courtesy Matt Colquhoun
There’s nothing like an hour of yoga and a cup of tea to restore the soul
After a horribly overdone Thursday evening that consisted of nothing much to occupy ourselves with other than to put our tent up and get hammered in a large white Donna Summers-blaring marquee named The Social, we head across the campsite at 10am on Friday to the Into The Woods tent, to indulge in some early morning yoga. We’re coaxed into various contortions by learned instructor Sarah Blenkhorn as her two young daughters run amok between grimaced bodies of varying levels of experience – myself with all the grace of an arthritic panda, while a girl in front sits nonchalantly with her face on the floor for virtually the entire session. Regardless of talent, it’s amazing what sixty minutes of regulated breathing and clawing for your toes while listening to infantile squeaks of ‘Mummy, mummy can I have a Ribena?’ does for the psyche, and as we emerge blinking into the blinding light an hour later, the wire wool feeling has been well and truly shaken from our bones.
Bigger isn’t always better, unless it’s the Noisey tent
One of the highlights of last year’s Beacons was the Impossible Lecture tent, which in 2012 saw a mélange of curated chaos, including an almost naked man named Paul Young spinning around the central tent pole whilst singing ‘Wuthering Heights’ in a terrifying falsetto; a semi-bemused, semi-terrified audience looking on as he writhed around on the floor screaming, "Where the fuck is Heathcliff?" over and over again. This year, Impossible Lecture is situated at the bottom of the campsite, and instead of wandering in accidentally on route to your tent, you have to make a detour, which means during our only brief visit all we get to see is a pleasant languorous cover of Britney Spears performed by an eloquent blind lady on Sunday afternoon. It’s a little disappointing and the atmosphere inside seems a lot more formal than the ‘do come inside and slump on this mottled plastic sofa whilst we all swig from a bottle of whisky at 11am’ communal ambiance of its previous setting. After trawling the Internet post-homecoming however, I am pleased to learn a whole host of madness ensued throughout the weekend in our absence, with reports including a congo to Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’, the showing of a short film depicting a lamb regenerating into more lambs backed by a mash-up of Enya’s ‘Sail Away’ and The Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ and an unnamed man, very possibly Paul Young himself, shouting, "This is fucking art" and "David Cameron’s coming," to absolutely no one in particular.
We rise on Sunday for an alarm-worthy early afternoon performance from East India Youth, who smatters the dusty back of Noisey’s aptly named ‘You Need To Hear This’ tent with an apocalyptic wave of braying electronic indulgence that does far more than the free samples of Kopparberg on offer next door to rouse the senses and obliterate our bleary-eyed demeanor. It feels a little belated, writing encouraging sentiments about Will Doyle on a site that has already championed him so fervently, but without harping on for too long, I too would probably have ‘remortgaged my soul’ if I had the capability of getting his music out there.
At 3pm the audience for Doyle’s set is at a reasonable equilibrium, however later on in the weekend for Wire, Savages, and Fucked Up, the tent’s small capacity means people froth out the side, leaving revellers to stand like uninvited house party guests on a front lawn, peering in through the side opening and listening to the muffled surge of noise that leaks out from its vinyl sides with a forlorn look in their eyes.
When it comes to Julia Holter, who plays in the crowded EMFL tent in the campsite on Saturday, spatial constrictions aren’t so much of a setback as a blessing. It’s the perfect location for the intimate, self-contained delicacies of Holter’s low-key, pensively-constructed electronic compositions, and as the thunderous sky above hammers down torrential rain onto the roof of the tiny tent, she invites the seated crowd to shuffle forward even closer.
The intensity of Holter’s voice live is startling, it carries itself far above her own synth chords and both the string and percussion of her accompanying band, pausing only to make wry interval remarks about the weather and to cast a beaming smile that signals the end of each track. It might be something to do with the fact I lose all sensation in the lower half of my body two songs in, due to sitting crossed legged for a prolonged period, but at times it’s somewhat of a dizzying communion.
If you build it, he will come
Locally, Beacons is becoming well known for its unscripted interludes, which usually occur during the evenings, after the crowds are ushered to bed for early sound curfews, and, unwilling to be confined to their tents for the night, take to creating their own entertainment. Last year it all got a little Orwellian; two festivalgoers dueled on camping chairs atop a two storey high pile of rubbish, the winner leaping and crowdsurfing off a section of Portaloos before being carried off into the sunrise by an adoring crowd chanting, "King of Bins" in an ever-disconcerting monotonous hum.
This year, it's a subdued atmosphere that emerges as darkness envelops the campsite, and as we stroll the peripheries hunting for something that’s not sitting in the gloom of our communal tent being forced into intense political deliberations with people we’ve known for less than 24 hours, we stumble across a small crowd gathered around a selection of glowing Ikea lampshades near the entrance to the campsite.
Here, we find several members of Bradford trio The Mexanines jamming away on a saxophone and trumpet, to yelps of delight from the fast growing surrounding horde. There are repetitive cries of "play Joy Division, play Joy Division", followed by a furor of idiotic guffawing, but then Yafet Bisrat, an aspiring graphic designer from Leeds, steps forward fearlessly, begins spitting bars over the top and the heckles are reduced to frantic clapping and the slapping of hands against instrument cases. It sounds too good to be improvised, as my friend doubtingly points out, but I chat to Bisrat later and he assures me he’s only just met the others. "I just need someone to battle!" he shouts excitedly over the jazzy instrumental still playing beside us.
Dampness only sets in when you stop moving
As anyone knows, rain is an inevitable occurrence at UK festivals, and even as the Leeds–Skipton train trundles us towards our destination on Thursday afternoon, bulging dark pockets of cloud are already hanging pregnant over the skyline, awaiting our arrival. We’re taunted for a while with momentary blue skies, but the heavens open on Thursday night and carry on sporadically throughout the weekend, saturating clothes and sleeping grounds, but never spirits.
Although I feel like I’m going to be chasing an elusive John Talabot live show for the rest of my life, both he and Ben UFO provide much needed dance-inducing segments that play into the semi-early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning. The rain holds off for James Holden’s excellent open air set on Sunday night, the sound from the truck he plays from just managing to avoid the disorientating no man’s land behind it, where noises from three different stages amalgamate in a strange, too many YouTube tabs open kind of way. It’s an area we happen to be sat in when SBTRKT plays Pusha T’s ‘Numbers On The Boards’ during his DJ set, and instead of leaping up immediately we sit bemused for a while, wondering whether the sound of chopped cowbells are all just figment of our imagination.
You can take a girl out of Newcastle…
It’s still startling to hear Lulu James slip seamlessly from an incredible cavernous Grace Jones-esque howl into a vivacious Geordie lilt, and she does just that mid-song over on the Loud & Quiet stage on Friday afternoon as she attempts to initiate an elaborate sing-along with the crowd halfway through her set. Despite admitting to having acquired several shards of glass in her foot from the previous nights antics, she sashays around the stage in her glittery hood like we’re in a throbbing club slick with perspiration, not a muddy field just south of the A59, playing a selection of brilliant self-penned soul anthems, sensual groover ‘Closer' finding its place amongst a flurry of slick, unheard cuts from her forthcoming debut album.
Welcome to the Yorkshire Dales, twinned with the Motor City
In a recently released documentary filmed in 2009, Detroit rapper Danny Brown talked about the motives behind his debut album The Hybrid and the influence the city had had on its conception. "We’re the blue collar working city man," he said, taking a long drag from a cigarette as he gazed out of a nearby window that looked out onto his hometown. "It wasn’t about trying to be extra tough; it wasn’t about none of that. It was about having a good time and celebrating what Detroit means."
Of course there are virtually no parallels between the churning, populous American snow-covered city Brown strolls around in the film and the small North Yorkshire market town of Skipton and its 14,000 residents. There’s certainly nothing industrial about Heslaker Farm, and I have no doubt that the majority of the swarm of people that fill it this weekend have never set foot in Detroit, but there’s certainly a sense of celebrating the influential city, within the lineup at the very least – natives Brown and producer Andrés as well as Detroit legend Theo Parrish have all crossed the Atlantic to make an appearance this weekend.
Brown plays in the Loud & Quiet tent early on Sunday evening. It’s packed, but not quite to the edges, and Brown’s vocals are a little muffled; we’re forced to worm our way forwards through the crowd to relieve our ears. His distinctive strangled yelp becomes louder, but it’s still hard to hear his lyrics completely, his convoluted verses of the witty and depraved often lost somewhere between the stage and the first couple of rows behind the barrier. It doesn’t stop the familiar "Blunt after blunt after…" chorus echoing emphatically around the crowd though, and when the hypnotic Britney-sampling cut ‘Toxic’ loops over the sound system, two gentlemen next to us; one wearing dungarees and a fur hat, the other in a vibrant African tunic and Raybans, begin an elaborate slow-motion Russian folk dance, swirling around the space that opens up around them and kicking their legs out in front of them with admirable gusto. Ultimately, Brown’s showmanship prevails; here is a man capable of making a crowd go nuts with no aid of a hype man, simply by closing his eyes, sticking his tongue out and raising the horns. I’ve certainly seen wilder, sweatier shows from him, but you can hardly call this mellow.
We dip in and out of Parrish’s five-hour back-to-back set with Andrés all Sunday evening, and by 10pm the movement under the Resident Advisor canopy is noticeably clumsy; there’s a lot of tired legs and sleep-deprived minds on the dancefloor. All that ceases however, when the scuffling percussion of ‘Flowers’ fades in during the culmination of his set, and the dancing highlight of the weekend concludes in about seven minutes of unadulterated entire-body body movement that puts any desultory foot stomping and hand pumping to shame. Quietus writer Tristan Bath recently described Parrish as a "sculptor rather than a painter", and it is under these terms that the Detroit hero excels, coalescing tracks together with impeccable ease, obliterating boundaries between genre, passing the controls to Andrés and receiving them back again without a hint of urgency. It all ends a little bluntly with Parrish being denied a fateful ‘one last tune’ at 11pm – (Seriously, are people actually allowed to tell him that?) and after countless calls of elongated ‘Theeeeeeo’s the dejected crowd eventually slink out of the tent and into the night.
It’s better to burn out than to fade away
Trudging back to the campsite on Sunday evening brings about that familiar sense of impending doom as the festival draws to a close. You’re desperately trying cling on to the last moments of enjoyment before you’re awoken on Monday morning to the sound of festival staff blowing whistles and informing you that you are to leave the campsite imminently. It’s in these dying moments that everything you hate about music festival culture is thrown to the back of your mind. It doesn’t matter that you’ve gained a curvature in your spine from sleeping on top of all your belongings each night, that you’ve been woken each morning by a man on his knees launching the contents of his stomach onto the patch of grass just next to your head behind a thin layer of tent fabric, or that you haven’t drunk any water in four days. It certainly doesn’t matter that you’ll undoubtedly spend the next week feeling like someone’s scraped out your organs with a plastic fork and filled you with cheap toothpaste. Right now, all of that is irrelevant, because it’s 4am and we’re here to discuss Bertrand Russell on top of a hill whilst a girl dances around with a boom box blasting out Outkast’s ‘Ms. Jackson’.
It’s become apparent over the course of the weekend that there is no such thing as an archetypal Beacons attendee, and it’s truer than ever when looking around at the large crowd that surrounds us here, an entire cross section of a generation; goth kids in creepers, hippies with dreadlocks, boys in tracksuits, girls in expensive looking vintage clothes. Snippets of conversation drift by; a young man from South London – his band have recently been signed – is talking about the gentrification of Peckham; how he used to regularly accompany his mum to a local fish market when he was seven. "Now it’s a bloody tapas bar. Tapas!" he exclaims. Another young man wearing Scandinavian knitwear is starting a new job as a primary school teacher in the North East in a couple of weeks. He holds out a powder-smattered palm and asks if anyone want the last of his MDMA. I catch a familiar glimpse of Yafet Bisrat from earlier, dancing away in his blue Berghaus coat as rain sprinkles from the sky, and happiest of all; a man in a fur coat, leaping around with a shopping basket of carrots atop his head.
A steady flow of people weave in and out of the maze of tents on their way to join us atop the highest point in the campsite, arms waving in the air like old friends. There isn’t a phone in sight; no battery is made to last this long. These are the parameters of human narrative we long for when at home, in the real world, where strangers are threatening and shameless posturing is rampant. It might be chemically enhanced, but surely this is real human existence in its unbridled, unshowered form. No Instagram, no Twitter, no Snapchat, no Vine, no glowing portals ready to destroy the skeletons of conversation at any given moment. The sky is beginning to shed its darkness, becoming a vast bleeding hue of pink above our heads. Dawn is imminent. There’s a groan as the music momentarily stops. There’s some urgent fiddling with the boom box before the opening bars of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Bootylicious’ play out and there’s a loud roar of approval. The dancing continues. Who needs tomorrow? Tomorrow can wait. Can you handle this?