Beautiful Days 2015 @ Escot Park, 21 – 23/08/2015

BD-2015 theme R1Heading down the A303 among what seems like every caravan in the South West is probably not the most sensible idea in the world. A typically frustrating up and down speed limit is accompanied by a constant change between single and dual carriageways, and it doesn't make for a nice drive. Then it starts to rain. Who'd  have thought that it's August, and that we're on route to the 13th edition of the wonderful Beautiful Days festival.

It's drizzling as we arrive, and it's obviously done more than that overnight. The tents populated by Thursday arrivals are covered in raindrops; last night's barbecues drowned out while the masses slept. The site is beautiful, a mass of colour in the foreground of a magnificent stately home, rolling through the Devonshire countryside. There are children and families everywhere, something the festival prides itself on, having been shortlisted for just that no fewer than 9 times by the UK Festival Awards, winning once in 2011. This gives the site a welcoming and homely feel, but it's evident that this is anything but your average festival.

Passersby are overheard wondering how their mates are getting on at V Festival, which is taking place at the same time. Upon starting Beautiful Days 12 years ago, founder Mark Chadwick stated that although it wasn't a deliberate ploy to hold the event on the same weekend as V, he was glad they did as "the ethos of the festival is (the) antithesis of V" - a grass roots festival all about the music, with no corporate sponsorship or interference. Chadwick explained that: "The whole reason for doing it is that many festivals are shit. They just haven't got that right element of cultural exchange. We're trying to get that 'weirdness' back into festivals, which is the whole point of doing it ... as soon as the corporate hand sticks its tiniest bit in, they're fucked." I couldn't have put it any better myself.

There's only one way to start your weekend at Beautiful Days 2015, and it's with Chadwick's band, festival founders The Levellers, who open every year with an acoustic set on the second stage, named The Big Top. We wander over to find there's no room in the tent, such is the popularity of the Brighton 6-piece, so instead we sit on the grass outside and listen in. The band have been on an acoustic tour this year, and sound excellent in this format, throwing in a few lesser-heard tracks to the delight of the masses. We take the opportunity to next head over to The Main Stage for Aussie folkster Kim Churchill, an artist I first saw support Billy Bragg in 2013. Churchill combines traditional folk acoustic work with harmonica, stomp box and various percussion, and sounds superb in the large arena.

Later in the afternoon, an explosion of energy is heard coming from The Band Stand, a small stage that hosts mostly acoustic acts as well as open mic sessions. Said explosion is coming from Phat Bollard, a folk-skiffle band who spend their time busking around the South West. They play a highly entertaining and amusing set which includes their YouTube hit "Millionaires" - a stab at people who are against giving small change to the homeless yet happily spend a fortune with tax-dodging corporations such as Starbucks and Amazon. It's truthful, it's thought provoking, it's often extremely NSFW, and it's a perfect festival set.

Heading back to The Main Stage, next we are mesmerised by Slamboree. A 10-piece explosion of colour who include circus performers in their stage craft; they flow through genres from balkan folk to techno. The vocalist's powerful voice is backed by drum and bass beats, and it echoes around the arena. Slamboree are the very best in festival entertainment.

After picking up some quite frankly amazing Tibetan food and catching the end of celtic-meets-funk band Peatbog Faeries, we find ourselves in The Big Top once again as the rain starts to come down. We're not quite sure who the swelling crowd is gathering for. The answer to our question is Jack Savoretti, who plays one of the most enjoyable sets of the weekend backed by his talented multi-national band. Savoretti is one of those musicians who's worked very hard for nearly a decade, and is finally getting the recognition he deserves when his 4th album burst into the chart's Top 15 this year. He reminds me a little of Paolo Nutini, with some George Ezra thrown in for good measure, and an infectious and charming stage manner. One to take away from the weekend, for sure.

It's now The Big Top headliner time, and as many flock to The Main Stage to see Happy Mondays in the rain - which, according to campsite chatter, isn't made up for by quite a poor set - we await the start of a fascinating prospect; Rev Hammer's Freeborn John performed live. A concept album based on English radical John Lilburne's battle for freedom of worship and speech during the Civil War, it's a part-gig, part-theatre production, with some Civil War reenactment. Originally recorded 20 years ago, it was performed live for the first time 10 years ago at Beautiful Days and this anniversary performance certainly feels special. A plethora of special guests including Rory McLeod, Maddy Prior and members of Levellers also make this rendition very memorable.

Rising to sunshine at a festival is always welcome, and after a morning wandering the site and taking in the atmosphere, we head to the Big Top for Bristol-based singer songwriter Gaz Brookfield. We barely fit into the tent, with a crowd probably verging on 1000 people gathering to see the festival standout. Taking us through a set of favourites, Brookfield is visibly taken aback by the size of his crowd, but certainly rises to the occasion, doing himself plenty of favours and picking up some new fans in the meantime. Staying put once Gaz has finished proves to be an excellent decision, as Hobo Jones & The Junkyard Dogs take the stage. A 'skunk' band (skiffle-punk, apparently!), they entertain by playing well known covers such as Green Day's "American Idiot" and Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" on their guitar, banjo, mandolin and washboard.

Despite the downpour and thunderstorm that goes off during Hobo Jones' set, the sun shines once again as we head to The Main Stage, this time for The Skints, the finest purveyor of ska and reggae on the UK scene today. This East London quartet have toured with the very best, and you can tell; their stagecraft is exquisite and they have the tunes to back it up, with tracks from their recent release FM sounding particularly good. The sun doesn't last for long, however, and we soon dive into rain again, but the crowd stays strong and sticks with the band, who do their best to force the sun back out.

Next on the agenda is Swedish 12-piece and Grammy nominated  ska and electronic outfit, Hoffmaestro. They successfully get the whole arena dancing to their antics on The Main Stage. Mixing some dubstep and more upbeat sounds into their ska foundation is something many bands attempt to do, but few get it right. These guys nail it, and are quickly a band I note to see again, should the opportunity arise. I stay put for sub-headliners Idlewild, a band I missed earlier in the summer at 2000trees and one I've been assured are an excellent watch. The Scottish rockers open with the anthemic "Collect Yourself", the opening track from their recent 8th studio album Everything Ever Written. For a band that enjoyed their greatest success over 10 years ago, Idlewild are still a live force to be reckoned with and take us through an impressive 14 track set.

However, if Idlewild are a force to be reckoned with, then tonight's headliners are a force of nature. A runaway train of a live band travelling at breakneck speed, Boston's finest Dropkick Murphys take the stage to chants of "Let's Go Murphys!". "The Foggy Dew" by festival favourite Sinéad O'Connor plays on the PA before the band tear into their set like it's their last. Favourites old and new surface, with a few tracks taking a different edge to before, such as a slowed down "Citizen CIA" and an extended "Rose Tattoo". After fitting 21 tracks into an hour and 20 minutes, the band are gone, only to return to the faithful for an encore consisting of a cover of Sham 69's "If The Kids Are United" and their biggest hit, "Shipping Up To Boston".

Sunday at any festival is a strange atmosphere; the hangovers of the previous night, the anticipation of yet another great day, and the impending reality that in 24 hours, it'll all be over. Not so at Beautiful Days 2015 however, as tonight is the night many have been waiting for; the night that The Levellers close the festival in all of their full-band glory, followed by a firework extravaganza.

Bristol's She Makes War provides our first stop today, and Laura Kidd's gloom pop solo project proves a popular choice following a tour with the festival founders last year. This set is also only the second outing for She Makes War's new look band, who sound wonderful on The Big Top's stage. Venturing back to The Main Stage for Cali ska-punks Mad Caddies, who are promoting Dirty Rice, their first full-length in 7 years, the high school buddies show why they've been in the game for almost two decades. Their performance of fabulous antics and fun also demonstrates they're an unbelievably tight unit.

Sticking with ska now, we head to the front of the Main Stage for 2-tone heroes The Beat, a band who need absolutely no introduction. Ranking Roger leads the band onto the stage, introducing his son Ranking Jr. and daughter Miss Saffron as vocalists during the set. All the hits are there, from "Ranking Full Stop" to "Mirror In The Bathroom". their progressive message stays as relevant today as it was in the 80s when the band first rose to prominence.

With a little gap to negotiate, we return to The Main Stage for the last two acts of the weekend. Sub-headlining are festival favourites Gogol Bordello, back for the third time at Escot Park. Lead by the enigmatic Eugene Hutz, the band don't fall below 100% for the entire hour they're on stage, performing party music tinged with skirling violin riffs, and roots in both traditional Eastern European music and the first wave of punk rock.

Gogol Bordello are the perfect warm-up to the main event, and at 9:30pm sharp The Levellers take the stage to what seems to be the entire attendance of the festival. Opening to confetti cannons as they burst into "England My Home", seeing the band perform here at Beautiful Days is probably the best time to do so. As it's their festival, they have an unusual amount of time to prepare their stage show, to incorporate confetti cannons and toilet roll guns and pyrotechnics, and the crowd lap up every single moment of this first class performance. All of the hits are in the set, with Laura from She Makes War joining the band on stage for "This Garden". The fireworks finish the night off literally with a bang, and people trudge back to the campsite one more time, a victorious feeling in the air.

Beautiful Days 2015 is a remarkable festival, one of a dying breed in the 21st century where the onus seems to be on having the biggest names, the brightest lights, and shouting the loudest. There aren't an abundance of big names here, you don't see Vodafone or Radio 1 everywhere you go, and that's a wonderful thing. This is a festival done the way festivals used to be done, and many could and should learn a lot from the set up here at Escot Park. The 2015 edition has been a stellar one, roll on 2016.


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