The bar gets ever higher for this grassroots wonderland, which began as a one-night woodland party and scaled up over the years to a fully fledged three-day festival.
Created in the make-believe land of Beat-Herdershire (known on any other weekend as Sawley in Lancashire) the Beat-Herder festival has its own Working Men’s Club, Parish church, main street, manor house and pub, all packed with their own absurdist twists.
Pole-dancing robots at Trash Manor; the Beat-Herder prayer on the wall behind the church’s raving pews; and a plea to party like it’s 1973 plastered around the WMC - everything in the Beat-Herder universe (including all the safety info) is beautifully and comedically on-brand.
The bill, however, is serious stuff, taking the festival’s rave roots and branching them out to encompass dance music of all flavours. Psychedelic trance, dub, techno, house - it’s all happening on site somewhere, if not in the main arena then in some tucked away space disguised as a hotel, a house, a laundrette or a 19th Century gentleman’s club.
Through a tunnel labelled ‘The Beyond’, a steady stream of explorers find a network of miniature arenas, bars and clubs each fully committed to some theme or other, whether it’s a giant boombox, an 80s aerobics video, or a full-on hallucinogenic experience. The Fortress is a flame-belching military-style haven for those who want to go hard, punters occasionally queueing to get inside. But the only real hint of over-capacity hassle happens ahead Macky Gee’s set in grass amphitheatre The Ring on Sunday night.
First rumoured to be cancelled because of the sheer number of people trying to get in, Macky Gee is instead stealthily postponed until everyone has calmed down or headed to The Fortress for Stanton Warriors instead.
Relatively new venue The Factory is an impressive two-level structure with a balcony, booths and a stage, and some sort of truck in the middle of it because why not. It’s also the backdrop for two of the weekend’s most universally accessible highlights - DJ Yoda’s hip hop mash-up, and The Shodigy’s live covers of all your favourite 90s dance classics.
Over in the Toil Trees - site of the earliest incarnation of Beat-Herder - things are a little more chilled out. Mainstay Mr Scruff plays his annual five-hour Sunday afternoon set, which is a must for those still standing and wanting to wind down rather than tap out.
With so many scaled down venues to explore all over the site, the main stage is never uncomfortably rammed, even with heavy hitters like Basement Jaxx, Rudimental and Groove Armada to bring everyone out of their nooks and crannies. The pumped-up jazz of electro-swing troupe Dutty Moonshine Big Band is the perfect mood for the Saturday afternoon sunshine, and following it up with New Orleans’ Hot 8 Brass Band is a stroke of brilliance.
The only mildly disappointing set of the weekend is The Sugarhill Gang on Sunday. Maybe this is a personal thing, but there’s a lot of stopping and starting, loads of chat, and a constant flow of instructions to follow. It’s just too much work for the day of rest.
But all that’s soon forgotten by the time Sister Sledge hit the stage for a note-perfect and utterly joyous final hour. Kicking off right after the festival’s epic firework display, this pinnacle performance of the weekend brings what seems like the whole site together to scream along to disco classics they didn’t even know they knew.
All told, it’s another triumph for the Beat-Herder crew, who continue to maintain the festival’s independence, low bar prices, and unnecessary but ingenious details over profits and an easy life. Next year they’ve added an extra day to the whole affair, but no doubt it’ll still feel like it’s over far too soon.
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Words: Kate Wellham