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Eleven years in and the near-legendary Beautiful Days festival is still a beacon of independence in a sea of cattle-market capitalism. We know this because their website proudly states: ‘HAS NO CORPORATE SPONSORSHIP, NO BRANDING & DOES NOT ADVERTISE’. We also know this because the festival is still under the watchful eye of The Levellers. A band who have vehemently stuck to their political guns for twenty five years. That’s what real anarchists do.

So to the music. Always a mixed bag and always underscored by a broad leftist bent, meaning that you won’t see Gary Barlow here any time in the near future. We arrived Friday afternoon to a gloriously sun-kissed site, to find THE SELECTER in fine fettle, imbuing their timeless 2-Tone ska with a deeper understanding of the genre’s traditions, and with Pauline Black looking the picture of ageless cool. But it was a reinvigorated ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT who provided the first of the weekend’s highlights. I used to adore their soulful Southern political hip-hop but that was in 1992. All reservations disappeared in an instant, however, as the band’s mighty bass drop and social positivity reached out to everyone; ‘People Everyday’ sounding as fresh and relevant as it did two decades ago.

She may be a pariah in certain parts of the world but, here in tolerant Devonia, SINEAD O’CONNOR is iconic and inspiring. Her bold (and bald) defiance, her sensitive confessions, her incredible voice, all present and correct and turning a cider-fuelled throng into a tearful hug-me mush. And she opened with an astonishing cover of John Grant’s ‘Queen Of Denmark’. Kindred spirits, indeed. So we popped our heads in to see what ex-Slit, VIV ALBERTINE, was up to and decided it was not very much other than scratchy, disjointed new wave that didn’t translate well to a quarter-full marquee. It was a million miles from CLANNAD’s uber-windswept, ethereal Scottish feather-folk. If you’re stupid enough to believe in God and want to know what music they play in heaven, it’s this.

It’s Saturday!
Weekend compere, John Robb, did a quick head change, Gummidge-style, and introduced his own band, GOLDBLADE, with tongue-in-cheek grandeur. They haven’t changed much in twenty years (if anything they’ve regressed) but it’s all part of the gameplan: to use ’77 punk rock shapes to affect social revolution, or at least a little singalong. It works insomuch as you can’t help singing along to the likes of ‘Riot’, even if the spectre of cabaret lurks just around the next corner. BROTHER & BONES’ two-drummer folk-blues went down a storm, and even live-electronica ensemble, 65DAYSOFSTATIC, held their own amongst all the ardent analog-ians; but it was Oz punkabillies, THE LIVING END, who took things up a notch or five with a relentless barrage of ’50s rock’n’roll fed through the modern punk mangle.

Not that THE LONG HILL RAMBLERS would know or care, immersed as they are in the delicate and harmonious workings of bluegrass. Way too polite though. One for the middle class country boys and girls, then. Equally as sublime but far more accomplished, folk trio, THE STAVES proffered delicate all-sister harmonies and beautifully simple songs, like First Aid Kit with an English heart. Then it was a slow stroll past PRIMAL SCREAM (never liked ‘em, too much dour-faced self-importance) to the Bimble Inn for an inebriated MAD DOG MCREA. They were on top form, doling out Irish folk rock to a packed tent full of people whose sole purpose was to find the soundtrack to their ale-sodden jiggles. Job done.

It’s Sunday!
It was refreshing to see and hear a slice of good old roots-rock earnestness here. Step forward Londoners, ELECTRIC RIVER, and their none-more-Gaslight-Anthemic majesty, pumping out solid riff after solid solo with Chris Rogers’ rootsy croon the icing on a bittersweet cake. Bedraggled and determined as ever, CITIZEN FISH united all the hedgers with their punk steady observations and Dick Lucas’ maniacal, Kermit-like dancing. Always a pleasure. While ’60s ska legends, THE SKATALITES, were underwhelming yet still triumphant. John Robb in conversation with HOWARD MARKS might’ve been interesting if they didn’t talk about drugs. But they did. Of course they did. They had no choice. I guess Howard Marks is a talentless bore unless he’s babbling on about his lame drugsploits. Next!

Festival highlight alert: it could only be IMELDA MAY and her sensual, sinful rockabilly revue. Probably the greatest trad rock’n’roll band I’ve ever seen in my 31 years of watching live music. Stunning. And Imelda’s ample retro charms are heightened by her ability to make it all look so simple. Even the ukulele-accompanied cover of Blondie’s ‘Dreaming’ was enough to make you tremble. Which left THE LEVELLERS to wallow in the glory of their self-made event. Well, I assume that they did. I left to drive home because my plantar fasciitis was hurting so much from all that hilly, stony walking about. Sorry Levs. I’m sure nobody noticed. Oh, and thanks for a fantastic fest, once again. Sterling, once again.

Words: Backbone
Photos: Nick Sharratt and ‘The mystery snapper!’