The organisers of the inaugural Black Deer Festival’s wanted to bring a rebel flavour of the deep South to the High Weald. They put on six stages showcasing Americana acts with stateside bands like Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and The Americans mixed withlocal talentlike Sam Palladio and Passenger and plenty of big hitters, upcoming talent and interesting others. The genre’s culture, cuisine, and clothing was strongly represented across the sideshows and stalls. Laid back basking in unbroken sunshine, wafts of downhome cooking and guitar twang hanging in the air, admiring muscly vintage motorcycles I felt they delivered big time!
The festival was held within in Britain’s oldest enclosed deer park, the site nestled in one of the Weald’s natural amphitheatres, flanked by rolling parkland this bowl contained proceedings and naturally drew you through the site and towards the main performance stages, but with lots of opportunities to get yourself side-tracked by rodeo skills lessons and tanning talks or craft American ale and a low ‘n’ slow barbequed beef bap. The Look was a kind of Western shabby chic, for example the Roadhouse with its closeboarded exterior, the log built LiveFire stage, Haley’s bar like a travelling western circus tent or the Bedouin black canvas of Papermoon stage. Clusters of straw bales dotted the site, encircling firepits and braziers, and providing excellent perches for people-watching and late-night conviviality.
I’d heard Americana described as the sound of a radio station you can listen to all day long, perhaps on some epic road trip or on the porch of a rural shack. A sort of sustainable listening, as opposed to easy listening. It turned out the certain feel good ambiance from the mellow vocals, rolling rhythm section and plaintive guitars. was a pretty much perfect soundtrack to a weekend of sunshine festivalling. The relaxed, upful vibes soothing in the heat of the day, and good feeling transcendent music from the likes of Iron & Wine for the long midsummer evening. I loved the effervescent CC Smugglers and Texan ‘trashgrass’ band Whiskey Shivers Saturday night hoedown. The Webb Sisters vocal and harp versions of ‘Always on my Mind’ and the Tracy Chapman hit ‘Baby can I hold you’ had me sentimentally crying into my beer, a trick they might have learnt touring with Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty. Elsewhere Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band’s raunchy take on ‘Shady Grove’ at the Roadhouse’s veranda stage was outstanding, and Rev Sekou at the Ridge Stage, what a show that was! The diminutive dreadlocked Arkansas civil rights activist and pastor bringing his Pentecostal preaching to Black Deer through the medium of delta skank and hand signals. His was a close second only to my stand-out performance of the weekend from the veteran bluesman Eric Bibb. There was a Satchmo-style charismatic amiability to his voice, and he had an incredible backing band which included a drummer who had played for Nina Simone for almost two decades. It was magnificent.
The best thing about the festival for me though was the Cookout competition. A full-on carnivores carnival, with categories and a Grand Champion. Half a dozen or so teams had entered, and their barrels, briskets, reverse flow offset smokers and Argentinian style grills were set up in a compound by the. The most impressive was Brisket and Barrel’s trailer-mounted double-barrelled affair, self-made from repurposed gas bottles. It looked more like a submarine than a BBQ. The competition went on all weekend, with the teams given certain cuts to prepare for judging by an expert panel on the LiveFire stage, in between talks on-hog butchery or leatherwork. Samples were shared amongst the audience, many of whom, like me, were drawn by the pungent aromas permeating the festival. The taste and texture of the meats were absolutely out of this world, the venison kebab entry was by far the most flavoursome I’ve experienced up to now. I was so pleased for my favourites Brisket and Barrel when Dr BBQ announced they were the Grand Champions and would be going home with a Weber Smoky Mountain cooker, no doubt that will by now be pimped-up and road ready. Something to look out for.
My only grumble, the main stage sound was sometimes too bright for my taste. I found Kiefer Sutherland’s set jangly and almost unbearable at close range, and had to beat a retreat from Passenger’s festival finale performance, for fear of driving with a really annoying ringing in my head. I must say for Iron & Wine the sound was crisp and clear, with plenty of bottom end from cello and double bass to immerse in for that ride into liminality. And abandoning the main stage and Kiefer had a big upside, in that I discovered Rev Sekou, so all’s well.
Overall Black Deer was a well done festival. The location, just outside Royal Tunbridge Wells was easy to get to by road and rail and approach to site was reasonably straightforward. The site was well kept and didn’t degenerate from slightly shabby to untidy. Camping was spacious and not overly far from the parking. Live in vehicles had their own less slopy area, segregated from the tents. There were upgrade options for those who wanted them, the fancy camping area looked cool and cosy, and for those with 35 quid burning a hole, a posh loo option. This seemed pointless as the tardises were adequate. Badged security patrolled the campsites and controlled access via a bag search tent, they were by and large polite and friendly and seemed competent. All the acts turned up and ran more or less to time, and despite a really decent attendance and the wonderful weather there was still food, drink and clean loos to be found on Sunday evening. I thought the whole thing worked rather well, and so did most others I spoke with.
Eric Bibb, a bluesman with nearly 50 years in the service, told his audience the secret of a great festival is “About the vibe and feeling the music good.” Black Deer certainly had vibe. The quality of the curation and broad audience of Americana music made a big contribution to that, as did the Festi Feng Shui, and the American weather made the weekend memorable. I really do hope that the organisers take the chance and run it again next year, their first was a great festival.
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