A Night to Remember: Saturday night at Black Deer Festival 2019

I hope you will forgive me, dear reader, in that my ‘Night to Remember’ is in fact, a whole day. Like Guy Lincoln’s post, my ultimate americana gig moment came as a trio of artists, and like Keith Hargreaves’ experience, this was at a festival. Since the moment Black Deer Festival opened its gate in 2018, I’ve been an enthusiast. I am an avid festival goer and attend at least three festivals every summer, not including one-dayers. This one is special. My ‘Night to Remember’ is Saturday at Black Deer Festival 2019.

This was my second Black Deer rodeo, and I’m wondering if perhaps the first one was an outlier, and perhaps the organisers (and the punters) had got lucky. After a decent Friday, I am emerging from my campervan with trepidation and a reusable plastic cup full of warm festival cider. The night before, I had seen Lonnie Donnegan’s son play at a bbq: an act that was going to be hard to beat given my fandom. The second-day lineup was full of names I didn’t know, but that was no bad thing, and one big name: Kris Kristofferson. Wandering around with a tummy full of tacos, I hear a noise like Nick Cave with a dobro coming from a marquee and headed in to see what’s going on.

An Aussie man the size of a mountain, beard longer than Jesus’, standing on stage dwarfing a National guitar that looks like the instrument has been dragged behind a bus for ten clicks. He tells a story about growing up in somewhere we, nor most Australians, have heard of, but the stories are all familiar. His voice is like the anger of a two-year-old confused by life, and the cool sadness of an octogenarian resigned to their last sunset. He sings about his girl, Julianne, and I cry. He sings about absentee parents, days being stoned with his brother in a white Centura, and I cry. He breaks into a cover of ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda‘, a song about the soldiers returning from Gallipoli, and everyone cried. Afterwards, we all left the tent blinking into the sun and running for beer refills and portaloo breaks, feeling like our souls had been pulled out, washed in tears, and neatly folded.

An unknown amount of time in the sun passed, and an unknown amount of ciders were drunk. Finally, with eagerness, I’m stood on tippy-toes looking through a sea of heads and raised mobile phone cameras at the same stage. A leathery legend walks on stage and, smiling, clears his throat. His gnarled hands hold an acoustic that looks like it’s been loved longer than I’ve been alive. He is accompanied by an excellent and patient fiddle player who frequently takes the lead when arthritis gets the better of Kristofferson’s playing. He is warm and friendly and seems genuinely happy to be here playing. We laugh at his jokes, we sing along to the classics, we swell with joy at hearing ‘Me and Bobby McGee‘, we think it can’t get any better than it is until it does. Kristofferson steps back, and he tells us about his life. He alludes to the alcoholism he’s fought, the women he’s been with, and the lifestyle he’s led, and he looks happy. His tiny eyes set into his weathered face look up through the stage ceiling to God, and he says a silent thank you that we all hear loud and clear, and he sings it, his throat and hands barely able to, his 2006 song: ‘Thank You for a Life‘. I felt twelve years old hearing this eighty-three-year-old recount the blessings of a complete life, and I felt affirmed and in awe. I didn’t need to hear any more music that day, but the festival went on!

I have never been a fan of headliners. Usually, I’ve seen them before in a smaller, more intimate venue, or they are an overrated band I’m not into. At Black Deer, I spend my evenings in The Roadhouse, which showcases ‘the desert scene’: desert rock, grunge, stoner rock and the like. That Saturday, sixties legends The Groundhogs were playing, and it turned out they had never stopped. They played the best guitar I’d seen at the festival so far (keyword: so far), and the ancient hippy rockers looked incredibly pleased about it. They had toured with John Lee Hooker, The Rolling Stones, and Champion Jack Dupree in their heyday and they were still rocking it and singing for peace. I might have been a little drunk and euphoric by that point, but I went up to Tony McPhee, who was bedecked in tie-dye, badges and denim older than my mother, after the gig and said a thank you, quietly and simply, at least I hope it was.

I saw Radio Moscow after that, which topped off the night, and there was yet another day of the festival to go.

Black Deer 2021 still has tickets available.

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