The best thing is that all the while you’re there there’s a sense of bonded intimacy in the air, a kind of barely perceptible fug of the shared secret that is Beacons festival. You wake up and poke your cottonwool head out of your tent, and you catch the eye of the people camped next to you and you rub the ground-in glitter off your face and give them a nod, and you’re both thinking “yeah, we know about this.”
Or someone else in the crowd catches your eye as you break out your most expressive dance moves, and they grin at you and wink because you and he both are there. It’s in the quiet sense of being at ease that gathers in the main arena field during the day like silky smoke trapped between the hills of the Dales. It’s about getting it, about being open and honest and it’s about being able to keep a secret. And, ah shit, I’m telling you about it.
Your visit begins with an exhausting wait. This is a serious downside compared to last year – for some reason every person coming into the festival is having all their bags searched. It takes a few minutes per person, so the queue is infuriatingly slow. Let’s talk festival atmosphere shall we: I can understand that at certain festivals they want to be checking what’s coming through. At somewhere like Leeds Festival they really don’t want to let any glass or contraband through because some absolute knobber is going to make trouble with it. Beacons 2013 didn’t have these stringent checks, and there were no problems at all. It’s festival policing by consent — if they’d treat people like they trust them then they’ll live up to it. I’d be lying if I said the bag searches and pat-downs didn’t diminish some of what is essence in Beacons. Sort it out eh.
Thursday nights are for drinking. Everyone’s eager to start their festival and so every time the MC finally lets some music play in the bar tent everyone goes wild. Calm yourself down, meet a few people and enjoy a few beers which, the Facebook page for the festival boasts, include “pints of Amstell for only £4!”. It may be a fine example of self-sabotaging sarcasm in advertising; if that was going to happen anywhere, it would be at Beacons.
You’ve had a drink, so you want some food. If you were preposterously wanky enough you could enjoy Beacons just for the craft ale and the fine dining. I’m convinced that outside of Worthy Farm there isn’t a tastier venue. Vegetarian curries, glorious chilli fish and chips, artisan burgers, tacos, paella — there’s a stall for everything and everyone. It’s usual at a festival to have to make difficult choices about which bands you’ll go to and which you’ll miss out on; Beacons is pretty unique for making you face those same decisions with the food vendors.
You drink and eat and you wake up on Friday morning, and it’s early because you’re not used to sleeping in a tent yet so you sit on your own for a while reading the programme to spot bands that look interesting. While you’re sat there eating an apple and reading the sun swings out from behind the hills and it’s one of those perfect mornings where you have nothing to do and all the time to do it in, and the camp site wakes up slowly and the noise from the people around gets louder and gradually rouses you from your chair to face the day.
There’s a new outdoor stage this year, which for a festival in the Yorkshire Dales is pretty bold. It nestles at the top end of the arena field, and on the Friday you grab a cappuccino and a salted caramel brownie and listen to one of the folkier and acoustic bands that the stage plays home to.
Charlie Straw plays a decent set, mixing standard singer-songwriter jangling guitar with blues rhythms and Mississippi backwater cool. I’m never sure about the authenticity of an Englishman rocking that sound, and where the dividing line between influence and appropriation lies. That he’s wearing what looks to be a cross between bed linen and a poncho also muddies the waters, but really he’s one of the first acts on and you should really stop worrying about these things, tap your feet and enjoy your coffee.
British Sea Power are playing at the main stage and you join the many people in the circus-style tent who’re sat watching the band play along to From The Sea To The Land Beyond, a collection of archive films showing the Britain of yesteryear. It’s beautiful and mesmeric and arouses a patriotism for a nation you don’t identify with and a nostalgia for times you never knew. Waves rise and empires fall, sandcastles are built at Brighton and rain lashes down at Blackpool. Lifeboats bob in stormy seas. Factories raise their chimneys and fall into ruin and decay. All the while the band plays on, unbroken, they too facing the projected film. The crowd around you are curiously quiet, and you know that they too are under whatever strange and emotive spell flows from the stage. As it ends you emerge blinking from your contemplative appreciation, and wander unsteadily back to your tent to get some drinks in for the evening’s main bands.
You’ve been looking forward to Submotion Orchestra. They lead with your favourite song (a bit of a mixed blessing, as you’d love for them to end on it), and you fall backwards into the deepest, moistest and warmest chill-out you’ve ever heard. The deep harmonic fluxes have the crowd swaying together in an unconscious fusion of moment, mood and movement. Darkness is falling outside and the stage lights make the smoke hang red and solid in the air. Even if you didn’t know it you’d feel it: something is coming.
One of the advantages of a smaller festival is that when bands change over at one stage you can nip across to another, and so whilst you wait for what’s to come at the main stage you catch Melt Yourself Down. Mixing jazz, funk, afrobeat, and Moroccan influences theirs is a pacy, breathless and infectious sound. You dance along and mark them down mentally as one of your top discoveries of the festival, then it’s back to the main stage.
Daughter persuade you that you live in a world full of the most desolate and perfect beauty. The ethereal vocals make your soul ache and fall away, only to be picked up by thundering drums and carried onwards. You feel every breath across your tight chest and every prickle when your eyes brim with tears. You smother your friend in an involuntary hug, and at times the stillness of the crowd lends the atmosphere of a church. This is everything that you might hope dying would feel like. When you think back it’s all a beautiful blur of transcendent experience and connection. You love, unrestrained.
Saturday morning comes as though that had been its intention all along, and you wake up with last night’s glitter and face paint rubbed all over your face and sleeping bag. The trip to the toilets isn’t dignified but this is the kind of place you feel comfortable looking such a mess because right now every else does too and it makes you feel like you belong. Sagging guy lines slap against the sides of tents in the wind. Upturned chairs hold a salute to the revelry of the night before. Human cows sit crosslegged, chewing the cud of last night’s experiences.
More friends join you on short-stay tickets in the afternoon and you power your way through enough alcohol to pickle a small elephant. Clouds rush across the big Yorkshire sky in a signal of bad weather to come. That’s tomorrow though and you feel your face and neck redden in the sun. The arena field looks joyful in the sunshine and you wash your lunch down with a blissfully cool blueberry icecream cone, before heading for more music.
Glass Animals are playing on the main stage, and their woozy sound is a perfect fit for your mind, still tired from the night before. You sway from side to side to the evidently R&B influenced-bass lines with a goofy, vacant smile on your face. The sound is whimsical and light, and there’s an earthy, organic undertone to a lot of their samples that resonates wonderfully with the smell of trampled damp grass under the main stage tent.
As you head back towards your tent you pass the outdoor stage and you’re brought to a halt by Beaty Heart. Playing a joyous mashup of West Indian steel-band, African beats, wild and wonderful sound effects and carelessly excitable vocals, Beaty Heart are like Vampire Weekend off the leash of that band’s New York musical upbringing. Up at the front there’s some amazing and happy dancing going on, which even the official event photographers can’t help but join in.
The unexpected bits are always some of the best at Beacons. You never know what’s around the next corner, and no matter how cool, hip and musically connected you are you’ll still end up finding a tonne of new bands and new musical sounds to explore. And it’s not just music either. Beacons is a festival where art is at the forefront of the experience. While you’re watching Beaty Heart you notice a man with a bizarre contraption of brass instruments on his head dancing along in the crowd, and when you’re flicking through your programme later you realise that he’s one of the artists in residence who’s wearing one of his sculptures out amongst the throng.
Then it’s back in the glitter and the flowery headdress and the neon facepaints, and into Nightmares on Wax’s well-crafted set. Starting out with some soulful electro-hip hop the set wanders off through electronica-infused reggae, trip-hop, downtempo beats and crosses the finish post with some stonking acid house that carries the same style of beats as the rest of the show. You notice that there’s been a build-up all the way through, each song faster than the last, more intense, and then you’re aware that everyone around you is bouncing on the beat. Damn, how did they sneak that one past you?
You checked Jon Hopkins out before you came to Beacons, and enjoyed the downtempo variations you’d heard on YouTube. You’re anticipating a Bonobo-like experience, and it starts that way. Then dozens of brightly coloured beachballs bounce out on top of the crowd, changing colour every time they’re hit. The crowd goes wild. Then the sound does too.
The beat kicks in and doesn’t take prisoners, the tempo hitches and you’re on a thrill ride, safety bar locked down keeping you in place until the end. Rhythm flows down Hopkin’s arms and his movements at the decks are hypnotic, his arms twisting as he mixes on the fly, undulating up and down like a human oscilloscope. Beat follows beat, relentless; heads bounce, uninterrupted. You dance, unrestrained.
You stumble from the main tent as the set finishes in a rumbling explosion of rapturous applause, leaning on your friends for support. Your head’s full of bassline and you stumble your way across the field as drizzling rain lit by strings of warm lights floats in the air and lavishes a thousand pinprick kisses on your arms, cold as glass. You make your way for the comforting maternal glow of In The Woods, a carpeted performance tent. It’s not full yet, and everyone slips off their shoes and you collapse onto a beanbag, leaning against a sofa.
Ex Easter Island Head start their performance, a continuous hour-long piece of music performed on upturned guitars and perforated with notes from a glockenspiel. Time dilates in the warm gloom, the heady smell of a thousand socks disappearing behind the sharp scent of cigarettes, cloying cigars, joints and menthol, and that unmistakable but indescribable odour of human beings together in a place. Here everyone sits, or lays, and strangers lean against you. The music plays on and it’s the perfect resolution to the night of rhythm and rave. The fingers of your mind unwind and furl out like petals, your head turned to bask in sound.
On Sunday it rains. It rains like it’s worried it might never get the chance to do so again. You wear plastic carrier bags as socks inside your ruined shoes. You make your friend a waterproof sweater vest with a binbag and some ingenuity. Your tent has leaked and it’s agreed not to spend the night, so you pack up in the rain. Socks and soiled cutlery squelch onto the pile of rubbish you’ll be leaving behind. The same as last time you feel you’re leaving a bit of yourself behind too.
Your shoes are thick with mud and water as you dance along to The Wytches’ dark psychedelic surf rock. It’s an ominous, brooding sound delivered with thrashing intensity. The menace which underlies their original take on ‘surf-psych’ finds itself well-situated as rain lashes down ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Bertha. Aural poetry meets place.
And that’s it isn’t it: the transaction of music is one in which both the artist and the audience collaborate to create. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart play a great set but you’re leaving after and it’s wet outside and a weekend of partying takes its toll and so the comedown and the circumstances transmogrify the band’s efforts into something that hits you like a sledgehammer to the gut. You dance along mutedly, and your eyes brim over with tears to the music and you’re not now embarrassed to admit that you get a bit of bottom lip trembling going on.
A stranger notices and tells you they like the flowers in your hair. You thank them and give them your garland necklace before you set off for the car, to leave the festival behind. It’s an exchange of goodwill and love with someone you don’t know. It’s everything that Beacons is: intimate, significant, honest. It’s strangers, compassionate. It’s you, unrestrained.