After three years Black Deer was back. The relief and the excitement were palpable throughout the weekend. It felt like a special occasion and so it proved to be. The inclusion of artists like James and Jake Bugg suggested a move to broaden the festival’s appeal beyond its core Americana audience. It probably helped to sell some day tickets but the majority of those in attendance seemed to fall into the usual festival categories: firstly, you have the serious music fans meticulously plotting their way round the various stages in order to catch at least a part set of their preferred acts and comparing notes with thos similarly inclined. Then you have the more general music fans who will find a nice spot (usually near the main stage) and stay there all day taking in whatever is served up to them. The next category is the perennial festival-goers, for whom the music seems almost incidental, as they hang around the arena area, perhaps occasionally catching an act that one of them had an inkling were quite good, but mostly drinking festival beer and buying cheap straw cowboy hats. Lastly you will encounter the campsite dwellers, usually in large social groups, who seem to stay permanently in their fold-out chairs encircling a stove and taking it in turns to cook yet more bacon. There is no need for them to go to the arena because they bring their own, usually totally incongruous music with them, which they kindly share with anyone else camping within fifty yards. I had the pleasure of such neighbours who treated me to a mixture of the delights of 1980s heavy metal interspersed with snatches of punk rock – ‘Hurry Up Harry’ with your breakfast anyone?
In my observations of the Black Deer punter, I discovered a new category too – the local. I overheard someone telling their friend that other than Van Morrison they had not heard of any of the other acts on the bill, but they wanted to support the event “because it was local”. There was certainly a large predominance of estuary English at the event. I heard very few wider regional accents so decided to do a totally unscientific investigation into the Black Deer attendees. I asked a few people where they were from and why they came to Black Deer. Kate and Joan from West Sussex were very much in the serious music fan category. Mel and Tim from Gravesend told me that Americana wasn’t really their kind of thing, but they loved the festival having worked here in previous years and were just chilling out around the arena – but thinking about seeing the Waterboys later on. My theory that most visitors to the festival were London and south-east based seemed to be holding water as I spoke to people from Southend, Hove, Hertford and Croydon. However, other than Kate and Joan I struggled to find anyone that were there exclusively for the music. Then my theory was blown apart when I spoke to a gentleman patiently awaiting Wilco’s performance. Andreas had come with his family from Erfurt in Germany because it was the only chance to see Wilco in Europe this summer. Oh well best leave the sociological stuff to the experts. I guess in the end everyone was just there to have a good time.
Being firmly in the music nerd camp, my plan was to see as much music as possible, taking in a mixture of established favourites and new names. As we’ve already noted, each person approaches a festival from a different angle, so if I didn’t see your particular favourite then I’m sorry. There were a number of acts that I didn’t get to see myself and would very much like to have done so. These included Kentucky songwriter S.G. Goodman who appeared in a spot billed as “To Be Announced”, James Walbourne’s new project His Lordship which clashed with Israel Nash and Emily Barker who was on at the same time as the Felice Brothers. Those disappointments aside I was lucky enough to see a great number of fabulous artists over the course of the weekend. It was also very pleasing to see that former AUK ‘Twang Factor’ contestants Chris Fox and Phil Hooley had also made it on to the Black Deer bill.
Each day the Ridge Stage (effectively the festival’s second stage) hosted a ‘Songwriter Session’ first thing. AUK readers will be familiar with the format and Friday’s line-up was Imelda May, Emily Barker, Caroline Spence and Irish Mythen. The session began with Imelda May absent, caught in traffic. Nevertheless, we were treated to some excellent and contrasting approaches to songwriting. Irish Canadian songwriter, Irish Mythen’s loud and rambunctious approach appealed to much of the gathered crowd but for me the more subtle and delicate approach of Caroline Spence won out. Having a taste of the excellent Emily Barker at least in part compensated for missing her full set later in the day. Imelda May made it to the stage part way through and quite frankly I’d have been happier if she hadn’t. She delivered just one song, read two poems, and talked too long. Oh well, three out four ain’t bad as the song doesn’t go.
Caroline Spence reappeared 30 minutes later on the same stage to deliver her own set drawn largely from her excellent new album ‘True North’ and its much-lauded predecessor ‘Mint Condition’. A hushed tent listened intently as the combination of well-crafted songs and an exquisite voice held them spellbound. The inconspicuous presence of her regular British guitarist C.J. Hillman added a very conspicuous layer of texture to the solo performance witnessed at the earlier Songwriters Session. It’s a shame it didn’t last longer, but for 45 minutes it was near perfection. Spence, with a genuine excitement in her voice spoke about how great it was to back playing in the UK again after being unable to visit for so long – a message that would be repeated many times by many artists over the next three days.
The day had started with the forecast of very high temperatures being quickly realised, but emerging from the tented Ridge stage, the full force of the early afternoon sun was quite intense. There were signs of burnt bodies already looking rather sore but for the most part people seemed to be taking sensible precautions. I headed over to the main stage for the first of only three visits all weekend. The attraction was the Felice Brothers, big AUK favourites and winners of our ‘Album of the Year’ for 2021 with ‘From Dreams to Dust’. They opened with ‘Jazz on the Autobahn’ the outstanding track from that album, and never looked back. A good set selection and genuine showmanship soon pulled in the more peripheral members of a good-sized mid-afternoon crowd with ‘Whiskey in My Whiskey’ in particular lifting spirits and inducing that proven barometer of festival breakthrough – large scale audience participation.
Next up was Israel Nash, described in the festival programme as a “Texas genre-bending rock ‘n’ roller” Nash has certainly utilised a variety of styles on his albums over the years, from the folksy sound of some of the early records to the psychedelic soul leanings of 2021’s ‘Topaz’. At Black Deer he delivered a scintillating set leaning far more towards a full-blown rock show than the more nuanced sound of his recorded work. This is the essence of live music. If you want to hear the recorded versions meticulously recreated, you should probably stay at home and slap the vinyl on your turntable. The live experience is something quite different, it should have heart, soul and spirit and Nash delivered in spades and then some – an awesome performance and highlight of the day…so far.
Foregoing James on the main stage I had a brief look at Foy Vance, who wasn’t really for me, before heading to Haley’s Bar to investigate the Ozark Holler Hootenanny. I probably need to explain here that the US state of Arkansas was using the festival to promote itself -‘The Natural State’- as a place to visit for fans of music and nature alike. As part of that effort, they had sent over three Arkansas musicians and songwriters to illustrate the point. They set up an area within the arena for the ‘Arkansas Porch Sessions’ which featured one of those players three times a day for 20 minutes. Each also performed full sessions on various stages across the festival. However, the aforementioned Hootenanny was the only time that they came together to perform. Jude Brothers, Dylan Earl and Willi Carlisle were supplemented by various guests including Stephen Harms (Native Harrow), Holly Carter and Lady Nade and played a variety of songs with origins in their home state. All three were terrific and clearly having a ball, as were the audience members who were being richly rewarded for having eschewed the headliners in larger areas of the festival in favour of something infinitely more fun. In fact an absolute riot of fun, and some damned fine music too. A brilliant way to end the first day and a genuine festival highlight.
Following the searing heat of the previous day it was nice to wake up to a somewhat cooler morning. The musical day once again began with the ‘Songwriter Sessions’. The format was proving very popular – how else could you pack out a stage at midday? Today’s session featured Cam, Lady Nade, Kezia Gill and Robert Vincent. Nashville country star Cam impressed with her stripped-down versions, warm conversational manner, and stunning voice. She clearly has real talent; however, I was reliably informed that her subsequent full show was glitzy and overblown. Why do talented people follow such a path when they could be carting an acoustic guitar around pubs and folk clubs barely making a living? Kezia Gill seemed quite in awe of Cam, possibly with good reason. Lady Nade started off with two songs about grief, which whilst quite moving, didn’t really capture the vibe of the event which was a bit more light-hearted. AUK favourite Robert Vincent provided, if not the best voice of the quartet, then definitely the best songs, although I’m not sure how his self-deprecating joke at the expense of his hometown of Liverpool, would have gone down back home or indeed with our esteemed AUK editor.
Inspired by the previous night’s Ozark Holler Hootenanny I changed my original plans and headed over to The Roadhouse to see Willi Carlisle. His solo show was pure genius, part folksinger, part storyteller, part comedian. It’s fair to say that most of the crowd sitting out in the afternoon sunshine had never heard of him and probably were there for the spot as much as the entertainment. Within minutes Carlisle had them all eating out of his hand and hanging on his every word. After an hour he received a huge rousing ovation. If there were such a thing, he would win my ‘Discovery of the Festival Award’ hands down.
A second and third visit to the main stage came with consecutive performances. Firstly, Courtney Marie Andrews a name much loved and celebrated within the UK americana community. When she came on stage it was noticeable that she appeared to have undergone a bit of an image makeover. The plain (in a positive rather than derogatory sense) everyday appearance was replaced by a rather flamboyant outfit coupled with a new hairstyle. It gave the impression that she is being prepared for a move beyond her folk-country roots and for a tilt at a wider market. However, as long as the songs and performances hold up, does it really matter? Her set was bedevilled by sound problems, particularly with an over loud and reverberating bass. Nevertheless, the performance was good and Andrews, like others, seemed genuinely thrilled to be back in the UK where she is warmly cherished.
Forty minutes after Courtney Marie Andrews vacated the stage a large and expectant crowd welcomed Wilco on to it. For many here, this was one of the moments that they had been looking forward to most. To say that the band played a crowd-pleasing set would only scratch at the surface. Every song was greeted like it was the big one that fans had been waiting for. Jeff Tweedy seemed genuinely excited and moved by the level of adoring adulation that was being bestowed upon his band and joined the long list of performers expressing their delight at being back. He and his band were in scintillating form. Here was a band incontrovertibly at the height of their powers and quite possibly the best and most creative rock band in the world right now. Simply awesome.
One of the beauties of a festival is that you can go from seeing a well-established act on a large stage to something altogether closer and more intimate, in the time it takes to walk across a meadow. Last stop this evening was Haley’s Bar for The Great Americana Songbook: A Celebration of The Band’s ‘The Last Waltz’. Led by Robert Vincent and his band, a series of festival guests were brought on stage to recreate that celebrated night in 1976 with each in turn in turn delivering songs from the original performance. There were many fine performances but William Crighton’s rendition of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ was particularly memorable. Everyone was having a ball, a ball that was brought to an abrupt halt when the music stopped for an announcement that the festival was closing down early with immediate effect due to a severe weather warning and in particular the threat of lightning. This applied to all stages and as I made my way back to the campsite in the rain, I mingled with those exiting the main stage where they had been watching erm…The Waterboys. Around half an hour later there was an almighty storm with both spectacular lightning and ferocious thunder over the site completely vindicating the organisers’ decision.
Waking up on a bright Sunday morning the site showed no evidence of the previous night’s weather. The ground remained firm and had absorbed the rainfall and soon the morning sun dried the damp to the extent that when I reached my first port of call, I was able to sit on the grass to enjoy probably the best known of the three Arkansas visitors Dylan Earl. His combination of honky-tonk country and storytelling went down well with a surprisingly large noon audience. The whole Arkansas link-up was a massive success. All three acts pledged to return to the UK again soon, so I would strongly urge anyone to note the names and look out for future dates. You’d be in for a treat.
Sunday’s Songwriter Session was slightly later than on previous days as it had been preceded by a gospel concert. This was rather fortuitous really as it allowed me to worship at the alter of Dylan Earl without having to forego any of the session. The Sunday guests were Native Harrow, John Smith and William Prince. Bess Atwell was also billed but was absent – we weren’t informed as to why. William Prince, a First Nation Canadian went down a storm with his dry wit and absorbing songwriting. John Smith was also able to work the crowd with his engaging personality and humour. AUK has often discussed the extent to which British acts can perform Americana music authentically and convincingly. To these ears Smith pulls it off better than most. Native Harrow impressed more through their wonderful playing and singing than by magnetic charisma – singer Devin Tuel admitted to feeling nervous and partner Stephen Harms tends to hog the backlight anyway. However, following on from them, William Prince remarked “great – a vocal acrobat and an acoustic guitar shredder – thanks for humbling me”. The remark was of course tongue-in-cheek but also captured their performance perfectly, technically superb but perhaps a little short of character.
Impressed by his cameo in the Songwriters Session, many stopped on to catch William Prince perform a full set just 25 minutes later. A large man with a large presence, Prince didn’t disappoint, and numbers swelled as passers-by were drawn in by what they heard. His gentle playing and low-key delivery emphasised the subtle emotion of his songs which were listened to in total silence. Even though he thanked Britain for being the first country outside of Canada to truly embrace his music, he seemed genuinely moved by the level of the love and appreciation that was shown to him.
Having also seen Native Harrow perform at the Songwriters Session, I made my way over to Haley’s Bar to also catch a full set. Supplemented by a drummer this time the duo performed a largely up-tempo set of self-penned songs. The nerves seemed to have dissipated and Devin Tuel’s stunning voice seemed to have a greater warmness to it when surrounded by a greater variety of instrumentation with Stephen Harms switching seamlessly between guitar and keyboard. Harms, a multi-instrumentalist, is one of those musicians who with his relaxed and laid-back style, makes everything look simple and effortless. Their soulful approach to folk music is uniquely beautiful but also leaves you yearning to see how it might sound with a full band, one capable of recreating live, the polish and elegance of Native Harrow’s recorded work.
Irish duo The Lost Brothers are known for their Everly Brothers style vocal harmonies but there is much more to them than that. The quality of their songwriting is just as impressive, something that is sometimes unjustly overlooked. Those not reserving their place for Van Morrison were treated to a quite impeccable show which highlighted both strengths and also the subtle beauty of Mark McCausland’s guitar playing.
By the time that the Lost Brothers had completed their slot, Van the Man was in full flow as I made my way towards The Ridge for my last two festival artists. As his familiar tones drifted across the early evening cool, I thought of that local lady who said that Morrison was the only person she knew of at the festival. I hoped that she was enjoying her moment. I thought of previous times I’d seen Van myself and how good he was capable of being – and how bad. Ultimately though, despite his formidable back catalogue and his influence on and importance to popular music, I couldn’t help feeling that he had undermined all of that with his toxic Covid anti-science extremism along with alleged anti-semitic songwriting in recent years. I had no desire to normalise or legitimise the man’s views and quite apart from that there were better options available.
The first of those options was Hiss Golden Messenger, the name under which M.C.Taylor conducts his business. It turned out to be one of the best sets of the weekend. Taylor incorporates a myriad of genres and styles into his music to produce what I can best describe as funky psychedelic roots jams. After a weekend of beautiful music and songs, it was nice to have something that you could lose yourself in and freak out to. The usually uncommunicative Taylor was another artist clearly enjoying himself and making no secret of it. He performed with zest and zeal, giving everything accompanied by his superb band who managed to achieve that rare feat of being both loose in feel whilst at the same time actually tighter than a submarine door.
A large number of people expressed some frustration with the timetabling of The Dead South against the Drive-By Truckers in the same time slot at the end of the festival. I’m sure that many would have very much liked to have witnessed both. To an extent, and as alluded to previously, clashes and difficult decisions are part and parcel of the festival experience. However, some clashes are more obvious than others, and this is perhaps one that probably could have been predicted to cause some disappointment. If you turn up to an Americana festival, you probably want to see the biggest Americana names and both bands fall into that category. The Drive-By Truckers comfortably got my own personal vote and not because I was already comfortably ensconced at the stage at which they were performing. They delivered a blistering and impassioned set on what was the last night of their month-long European tour, a tour which Patterson Hood at the end stated had been the most rewarding and reaffirming time that they had enjoyed in 26 years together as a band. He then revealed that he was having to cancel a planned further two-week stay for a family vacation because his father-in-law was seriously ill and probably wasn’t going to make it, before then dedicating the final song to him. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Black Deer 2022 was a genuine triumph. The combined emotions of relief and euphoria at its return gave it an additional glow and sparkle reflected in the artists’ performances and audience reactions alike. The challenge now is to reproduce that vibe in future years. It is to be hoped that the organisers can fill the bill with enough big Americana names to sell tickets, thus avoiding the need to draft in non-Americana acts to draw in a broader crowd from the locality. The appeal of Black Deer is not entirely dictated by the names at the top of the bill though. Events like the daily ‘Songwriter Session’ and one-off collaborations such as the ‘Ozark Holler Hootenanny’ and ‘The Great Americana Songbook’ would only be possible within a festival environment and all attracted good crowds. Most stages seemed fairly well attended and some of the smaller and emerging acts attracted a lot of interest from enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans. Americana as a genre (however you define it) does tend to have an addictive hold on its followers, many of whom are quite obsessive about it. Black Deer understands that and caters to the nerd in us. Additionally, it plays an important role in introducing new names to the more casual fan, turning observers into participants, particularly the young, who are sometimes conspicuously missing from Americana gigs at your local venue. This is frequently even the case when the performers are relatively young themselves. To survive and thrive, Americana needs to win over new young supporters. Events like Black Deer can only aide that process.