Black Deer Festival got some great reviews in its inaugural year. Billed as a festival of Americana and Country, a glance at this year’s lineup suggested the label covered a fairly broad church. For someone who doesn’t live in or near a major conurbation it provided an opportunity to see some appealing international acts who tend to play limited UK shows, often only in London. I was looking forward to it.-
Set in Eridge Deer Park south of Tunbridge Wells, in Kent, first impressions were of an idyllic spacious site in open rolling countryside. Having parked and set off toward the campsite and arena, the only real downside to the festival’s location soon revealed itself. Walking over the brow of a slight rise it became apparent that the site was a long way down a significantly steep hill. Watching numerous hired trolleys packed with belongings tumbling over as they attempted to negotiate the incline actually became slightly amusing but this was nothing compared to the sight of the wheezing, perspiring mass of humanity as they attempted to lug their belongings back to their vehicles at the end of the weekend. Maybe the event should come with a health warning for the physically unfit.
I hadn’t realised before arriving but the arena was only partially open on Friday, with the main outdoor stage only functioning on Saturday and Sunday. Still there were four other tented venues to keep us entertained together with a small campsite stage featuring local performers. Wandering around getting my bearings the first act to impress was William Crighton. He was hard to ignore with his booming Australian voice, huge beard and sheer stature; he must have been over two metres tall. Playing solo there was something impressive about his raw, direct delivery. Certainly enough to tempt me to watch him play a second set on Sunday afternoon.
Ethan Johns is a musician I’ve admired for some time. Renowned for his production work and instrumental prowess on a plethora of alt country and rock albums there’s also something really appealing in his laid back vocal delivery and I thoroughly enjoyed his solo acoustic set on Friday afternoon. He created just the right ambience as we sat and soaked up the sunshine. Sadly his electric set with The Black Eyed Dogs later in the evening seemed to dilute rather than enhance his talent.
Refreshed with a beer after Mr Johns, I headed for The Ridge Stage, the largest open on Friday, for an encounter with Canadians, The Sheepdogs. They may exhibit country leanings in some of their recorded output but live they evoke the spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers with a muscular guitar driven sound. I saw them play two great sets over the weekend put perhaps the strongest image is of five of them crammed onto the back of a golf buggy, heading off to play on Saturday night, clutching multiple bottles of Jack Daniels and Southern Comfort. Sunday saw them all permanently wearing shades. I wonder why!
Wandering back into the sunshine I took a walk among some of the stalls and found several artisans displaying and plying their trades. There were baskets and bowls being made from cotton rope, a banjo maker, custom designed guitars and even a guy making a surf board. I’m not sure of his “Americana” links but it was intriguing to keep returning to watch his progress over the weekend. As a family festival there were the inevitable kids area (more on that later) together with “adult” activities. Being Americana themed these weren’t typical fare like fairground rides. No, we had tuition in lassoing which led to predictably hopeless attempts by punters to master the skill. There was a mechanical bull to attempt to ride, while axe throwing proved extremely popular.
It was time to sample some more music, specifically Kris Kristofferson who played early on Friday evening. To be honest, having watched his Glastonbury main stage performance from a couple of years ago on TV, I wasn’t expecting much. I was to be very pleasantly surprised. Playing in a tent to maybe a 1500 people he seemed much more relaxed and within his comfort zone than on a huge stage and was obviously enjoying himself. I was surprised by how many of the songs I knew and as his set progressed, many in the audience began to sing along; not raucously or especially loudly but in a hushed and almost reverential tone. It was a special gig.
The Roadhouse area and stages curated by Desertscene were like another world; a festival within a festival. Surrounding the area we had corrugated metal walls and a tiny acoustic stage looking completely at odds with the rest of Black Deer’s pastoral feel. It had its own merchandise stall while numerous classic motorcycles and American cars dressed the area. Inside, The Roadhouse Stage, dimly lit with its own bar and a capacity of around 500 saw some truly powerful performances from Desert Rock luminaries like Brandt Bjork, co-founder of Kyuss with Josh Homme, and Yawning Man. There were raw blues rock from Texan duo, Left Lane Cruiser and stoner rock from fellow Texans Duel. It was a great venue, light years away in feel from the atmosphere for pristine country pop bands like The Shires.
Musically, Saturday brought an abundance of riches. Early afternoon on the main stage, Jessie Buckley delivered a tremendous set. I haven’t seen Wild Rose so can’t comment on her acting abilities but she’s a great singer. Yes, she was backed by a band of crack musicians and most of the songs were covers taken from the film but she possesses a voice and charisma that really shine through. I suspect she’s a name we’ll hear a lot more of in the future.
Next up were Alabama 3 (acoustic) continuing the ongoing wake for the recently deceased Very Reverend D Wayne Love. Unsurprisingly they dedicated Woke up this morning to him during an emotional set sprinkled with humorous and self depreciating banter. Personally I thought they were great but they angered a minority who’d stayed around after the much more clean cut Jessie Buckley. A couple a women repeatedly voiced their displeasure to security complaining about language and reference to drug use during and between songs. Needless to say A3 carried on regardless.
It had been several years since I’d seen Justin Townes Earle and Ryan Bingham and I was looking forward to both. In the event, each had changed in ways that left me with mixed feelings. Justin Townes Earle was up first, beaming smile and wearing shades in the early evening sunshine. The smile and upbeat approach stayed throughout this set. Where had the glum, miserable Mr Earle gone? Although a long way from the artist I recalled he was never the less really enjoyable. The same could not be said for Ryan Bingham. The numerous tattoos still bore some testament to his simplistic outlaw country beginnings but this was now a dapper man playing mainstream commercial country. It has apparently brought him much more financial success but 15 minutes was more than enough for me.
Saturday brought two exceptional performances. One of my reasons for being at the festival was Fantastic Negrito. For months I haven’t been able to stop playing his “Please don’t be dead” album with its powerful blues rock laced with gospel, soul, occasional funk and social comment. What I hadn’t bargained for was his live performance; the man is the ultimate showman. All I can say is that he delivered the best live performance by anyone I’ve seen for a long time. Tellingly, I wasn’t alone. By the end of his set the tent was bulging and he received without doubt the best audience response of the weekend.
Closing Saturday, main stage headliners Band of Horses were almost as impressive. Those solely familiar with their recorded output were no doubt expecting country tinged songs with some sweet harmonies. Anyone who’s seen them live knows that sweetness and harmonies are banished to the fringes and what you get is a great American rock band. So it was on Saturday night. It’s fair to say that it was all a little too much for some in the audience with more country / melodic preferences as the crowd noticeably thinned during the first 30 minutes or so. For those of us who stayed on it was a real treat.
The festival made concerted efforts to cater for young people. It had its own “Young folk” enclave with a plethora of activities ranging from workshops in screen printing, sowing and guitar, to tree climbing and a long zip wire. There was a stage for young performers with their own silent disco on Saturday night and awards for those who participated in the most activities over the weekend.
After two days of hot sunshine, Sunday brought a change; much more cloud but hot and humid. There weren’t as many people in attendance and the day didn’t scale the musical peaks of Saturday but it was still thoroughly enjoyable.
Watermelon Slim and Daniel Antopolsky are both American septuagenarians. Both also began recording careers in the early 1970’s only to “disappear” for decades. Watermelon treated us to some delicious country blues on dobro, even breaking into dance at one point. Antopolsky, recently dubbed, “The lost man of country,” was a touring and writing companion of Townes Van Zandt; saving his life in 1972 following a heroin overdose but then walking away from the music business for over 40 years as a result of the experience. Much more introspective with an emphasis on lyrics, he was none the less engaging.
Other Americans dominated the Ridge Stage on Sunday. All were talented and enjoyable but mostly played within their own genres without really adding the spark of originality. The youthful Jerron Blind Boy Paxton, a real talent on both banjo and guitar, took us back to the country blues of the 1930’s. Lucero from Detroit, celebrating their 20th anniversary as a band were accomplished purveyors of blue collar rock, very much in the vein of early 1990’s Bruce Springsteen albums like Lucky Town. Larkin Poe, sisters from Atlanta Georgia, managed to rise above the pastiche. Musically reminiscent of blues / rock bands of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, they brought much more energy to the stage and (this is certainly not PC but never the less true especially if you’re a male hetrosexual) an undoubted visual presence.
Every festival has food on offer; some with more variety and quality than others. For Black Deer, eating was clearly in integral part of the event. Culinary choices were not widely international; focused mainly on food from the Americas. BBQ, smoked and clay baked meats were prevalent, although a couple of pizza outlets and vegan choices were in evidence. More significantly, there was a whole area, “Live Fire” devoted to food, boasting its own stage. Here, there were well attended cooking demonstrations on Saturday while Sunday was devoted to a “Cook off” competition with five professional teams participating.
The main stage on Sunday was dominated by British performers but before I get to them special mention must be given to The Dead South. Like The Sheepdogs they’re Canadians playing music sourced south of their border. I’m not especially a fan of bluegrass but this band brought more energy to the genre than anyone I’ve previously seen. In the USA they’re apparently known as Mumford and Sons evil twins. I can see the reasoning but they’re intrinsically acoustic and far more energetic. I can’t see myself buying their recorded product but would definitely go to see them again.
Billy Bragg is one of a kind and it had been too long since I last saw him. Repeatedly questioning the validity of his presence at a “Country” festival while gently but repeatedly rebuking his pedal steel guitar player, he had lost none of his skills as a raconteur while continuing to write politically and socially perceptive songs. Without overt political sloganeering, songs like, “World turned upside down” and, “Why we build the Wall” clearly imparted his message. I mustn’t wait so long before seeing him again.
As for others in the British contingent on Sunday, both The Shires and Yola were enjoyable and drew enthusiastic responses from decent crowds. The latter has a great voice and could probably achieve equal success as a soul singer if she chose. It’s a simplistic perception but looking around as their performances progressed I increasing got the sense that Black Deer had actually attracted two distinct elements to its audience. There were country fans that seemed particularly drawn to British acoustic based performers like The Wandering Hearts, Jessie Buckley, The Staves and the above while others had come for the edgier, less mainstream and often louder transatlantic contingent. This isn’t meant as a criticism, it’s to the festival’s credit that it can offer a degree of diversity which opens ears and eyes to new horizons.
As I departed, making my way up what seemed an even bigger hill to my car, I tried to gather my thoughts on the experience.
Was Black Deer a success? Undoubtedly yes! I’d thoroughly enjoyed a feast of great music in beautiful surroundings at a very well run event. The numbers coming through the gates were apparently double those of 2018 and the site certainly has capacity for expansion, but hopefully not too many more; it would lose some of its charm and character.
Would I go again? Definitely.
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