21 June 2019 (gig)
19 July 2019
“I missed the start of the Sheepdogs as Alix was taking lasso lessons” I overheard as the Canadian rockers shred through an impressive Southern Rock set. It’s the first of three showings over the space of three different days, on various sized stages, playing a very similar set, and this seems to be common for a number of acts at the Black Deer Festival.
Situated just a few miles outside of Kent’s Royal Tunbridge Wells in Elridge Park it’s advertised as a three-day Americana music gathering, but I quickly found along with the lasso lessons, axe throwing, rodeo bull riding and BBQ lessons/competition that it’s very much more, and also extremely family friendly. With an area solely dedicated to the younger music fan with music and activities that would quite happily bring out the inner child of even the most hardened festival goer. I’m sure I’m not the only “adult” that wanted to partake in the harmonica lesson session.
With a capacity of around 10,000, Black Deer is not an overly large festival, but it still lays on numerous stages all within easy walking distance. The main stage isn't running on the Friday, but the Ridge stage plays host to the iconic Kris Kristofferson with the late Merle Haggard’s band “The Strangers” and I’m confused as to why he didn’t have a more prominent slot over the weekend. It does demonstrate as to how many country music fans can you fit in a large tent at 6:30pm on a Friday afternoon (a lot it seems), all worshipping the living legend as he effortlessly serenades them. “This may be our last good night together” sings Kristofferson, “Please don't tell me how the story ends”. It was an extraordinary performance but being in his later years, it almost seemed like a fond farewell.
The Supajam stage is a welcome inclusion and throughout the festival it hosts daily in-the-round singer/songwriter sessions showcasing predominantly British artists. Along with old stalwarts such as Ethan Johns, the extremely talented Irish Mythen is popular with the appreciative audience (another artist to play multiple slots) and duo Ferris and Sylvester are also a nice addition. Earlier in the day it boasted Emily Mae Winter playing moody Americana with lots of character and charisma. And Is that Dan Beaulaurier From Norton Money that I spy guitar slinging alongside her with his Gretsch?
A highlight of the first day was Sam Morrow playing Haley’s Bar and giving everyone within earshot a quick fix with some funky blues country. He’s definitely one to look out for in the future, and hopefully on a larger stage. The night was aptly closed out by the never disappointing Hayseed Dixie who had the crowd singing along to all their Dirty Deeds.
On the second day, the main stage is open with Jessie Buckley filling in for the absent Marcus King Band. The likeable star of the movie “Wild Rose” entertains with music from the motion picture but sadly lacks the charisma and presence to be worthy of the upgrade. This is the opposite for the following Alabama 3 in what I originally thought to be an ill-chosen slot, but their chilled out acoustic set worked well in the afternoon sun. They were also a humorous comparison to Justin Townes Earle (son of country rocker Steve Earle), who although extremely talented, clearly has some father issues that he likes to constantly express during his set.
On the other stages Rosanne Reid impresses, whose musical resonance is akin to a relaxed Melissa Etheridge. Fantastic Negrito prove why they are a Grammy winning artist with a classy blues set. And Americana poster boy Ryan Bingham is exceptional as he elegantly guides the audience through his back catalogue. A real highlight of not just the day, but the whole weekend, in stark comparison to the unremarkable Wandering Hearts on the main stage, and Saturday headliner Band of Horses, who although very good at what they have to offer, begs the question to be asked “Is this Americana?”. It’s also repeated the following day with the inclusion of statesmen Billy Bragg. He entertained and was undeniably welcome to those of certain political leanings, but possibly could have easily been replaced by the likes of rising (and more relevant) talent such as folk rocker Frank Turner who would have been more in keeping with the genre.
Luckily the third and last day is also host to some of the real high points of festival. The Sheepdogs with their third (and final) set really come into their own on the main stage, and the out-of-nowhere involvement of Daniel Antopolsky sets the bar on what’s to come. The latter being known as the missing man of outlaw country pleases with a country blues set and many likable tales including contemporary Townes Van Zandt. He’s not the only blues on offer and is followed by early roots enthusiast Jerron Blind Boy Paxton who wins over many a new fan with two almost back-to-back sets albeit on different stages.
The considerable talent continues with the US country punk rock poetry of Lucero with unbelievably their first UK festival performance. They more than fulfil their big live reputation bringing their own set of travelling fans whose energy is infectious and leads nicely to Larkin Poe. The Nashville-based sisters storm through a rocking roots set of not only their own compositions but a few carefully chosen blues standards such as the staggeringly fine “Preachin’ Blues” by the late Son House. This is certainly blues for the modern era. Raw sophisticated harmonies with the dirty low-down sound of a lap steel. They’re a breath of fresh air compared to the highly polished country pop of The Shires who later close the main stage (and the festival), a hugely popular choice on both sides of the Atlantic.
Luckily the weather stayed warm and fine throughout and that always helps with the success of what was generally a great weekend of music. Noteworthy also for not just the sense of friendly community and culture but also its sustainable efforts towards the environment with the insistence of reusable plastic cups. It felt secure and well run with most stages running on time. It could be argued that the acts on the main stage may be described as safe and pedestrian, but there was such a variety of choice (right down to the heavy stoner blues rock of The Roadhouse stage) that would keep many an Americana fan happy, if not dancing to the country music DJs that run late into the night. Personally, I’ve discovered a few new acts and been happily surprised by others. I’ll be watching the line-up announcements for next year’s Black Deer festival with interest.
Next year’s Black Deer Festival runs June 19th¬–21st 2020
Early Bird Tickets Available www.blackdeerfestival.com/tickets/