Review: Beat-Herder

The popular Ribble Valley music festival gets better and better

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“There’s something really special about Beat-Herder,” declares Grinny Grandad’s frontwoman Alanna Lyes to a relaxed Saturday afternoon crowd warming up for the evening’s frivolities at the festival’s main stage.

Looking around at the groups of people entering the arena clad in sequins, glitter, leopard print, bright wigs and leg warmers, I’d say Lyes has a point. There is something special about the small festival where thousands return year after year, just to let go and be who they want for a bit.

It’s fancy dress day today. Every year the organisers dish out a letter from the word ‘Beat-Herder’, inviting festival-goers to get creative and dress up as anything they can think of beginning with the given letter. This year it’s R. So far Coronation Street’s Roy Cropper has walked past draped in a “Roy’s Rolls apron” and brandishing a baguette on a stick. Elsewhere there are Romans and Rubix Cubes, rollercoasters and ringmasters. Rainbows seem to be in vogue, with at least 20 spotted before 2pm. One woman has decided to say no to convention and come as a unicorn, which is fine. We’re at Beat-Herder, where anything goes.

For one weekend a year Dockber Farm in Sawley, Lancashire, is transformed into a haven filled with strange nooks and crannies, including a curiosity shop selling roadkill transformed into headbands, a hidden swimming pool, and a forest of tall trees decorated with lights.

The festival has come a long way since its inception in 2006, when 1200 people congregated in the wooded area called Toil Trees and danced away at a small arena stage. Now Beat-Herder has 16 additional areas for music, 14 bars, more than 40 stalls and fairground rides, and the site is growing every year.

I’m sure everyone who attended the festival will be spending this week swaying on their office chairs and grinning to themselves about their own Beat-Herder experience, but for me the festival truly kicked off on Friday with a set by Slamboree. A collective of circus performers fronted by vocal powerhouse and snake artist Kathika Rabbit, the audience was putty in their hands, obeying Slamboree’s commands to take part in an energetic dance routine filled with shoulder shakes, Bollywood-inspired hand gestures and twirls across the grass. It was the perfect warm-up for a weekend of forgetting yourself, and of course I didn’t miss a beat.

Later that night a huge crowd gathered for a DJ set by Basement Jaxx. The band’s last visit to the Ribble Valley was in 2015, when they performed with vocalists Vula Malinga and Sharlene Hector. Malinga and Hector were missing from the stage this year, but Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe got on just fine regardless, delivering a mix of crowd-pleasing dance and pop tracks that kept everyone moving.

One of the best things about Beat-Herder is that it’s small enough to feel intimate, but at the same time there’s plenty to see. Throughout the weekend the festival’s diversity was reflected in the variety of different artists who took to the stages: Groove Armada, Hot 8 Brass Band, The Sugarhill Gang, Dub Pistols, Krysko, Gina Breeze, Paul Taylor, Craig Woolstencroft, Sonny Fodera.

The festival and its attendees are a broad church, but if there’s one act who managed to pull in the masses it was Saturday night’s Toil Trees headliner Hannah Wants. I’ve attended Beat-Herder four times and I’ve never seen an act pull in so many people. The forest was fit to burst as the self-taught British house DJ commanded the stage, with teenagers two-stepping next to 60-year-olds decorated in glitter and glow sticks. To say Hannah Wants smashed it is an understatement – her set proved that the hype that’s surrounded the DJ since she arrived on the scene is more than justified, her Beat-Herder crowd stood testament to that.

I didn’t think anyone would be able to top Hannah Wants’s Saturday set, but the festival saved the best until last. On Sunday, after an annual four-hour annual set by Mr Scruff that just got better and better with every hour, Sister Sledge took to the main stage to bring the festival to a close. The Philadelphian disco legends’ entrance was preceded by a firework display that left people speechless, and soon after it was time for sequins and the seventies, as the band played all the classics – He’s the Greatest Dancer, Thinking of You, and of course Lost in Music, which was given a fresh twist with vocals by the late Joni Sledge’s son Thaddeus Everett Whyte.

The band’s long-time friendship with collaborators Chic meant they could pinch a couple of tracks from Nile and co, including Good Times and Everybody Dance, do-do-do… you know the one.

Of course the set was rounded off with a crowd-thrilling performance of We Are Family, which had a group of friends in front of me linking arms and doing the can-can together. It was just pure joy – music that everyone knows and gets people dancing. A perfect Sunday set that made the heartbreak of the festival coming to a close just a little bit easier.

Beat-Herder, I really didn’t think you could get any better. But this year proved you have so much more to give. See you in 2020, and every year after that.

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