This year’s Black Deer was the fourth since it began in 2018 with an enforced break in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. It seems a good time then, to take stock and reflect on how Britain’s leading festival of americana and country music is doing. Certainly the 2023 line-up created a lot of interest and excitement amongst americana fans, although this was subsequently tempered slightly by the withdrawal of Lucinda Williams from the bill. Nevertheless, there was still plenty to savour over the course of the weekend.
A carefully constructed and symbiotic bill provided a good balance of americana and country acts, supplemented by a few very welcome more literate and thoughtful alternative rock acts such as Kurt Vile and Midlake, plus some names perhaps designed to encourage a slightly broader audience such as The Pretenders and Richard Hawley. However, those who wished to stick to a stricter diet of pure americana found more than enough to keep themselves occupied across the various stages.
Inevitably, there are going to be a few grumbles about favourite artists clashing – it would be simply impossible for that not to happen and its part and parcel of the deal when you buy a ticket. It’s perhaps more positive to look at it the other way round – if you are having difficulties choosing what to see then the organisers are clearly doing a very good job in booking the right acts.
The festival takes place in Eridge Park, Kent which is the family home of the Marquess of Abergavenny and has been owned by that family since 1448. It is also listed in the Domesday Book when it was under the ownership of William the Conqueror’s brother Odo. Henry VIII used to hunt on the estate, and it was also a favourite venue for royal and aristocratic shooting parties from the 1800s with Benjamin Disraeli a frequent participant. More usefully, it remains Britain’s largest enclosed deer park. However, the said creatures are removed for the duration of the festival and security is very strict in not allowing glass on site for fairly obvious reasons. As well as being quite historic, these rather grandiose surroundings also lend themselves rather splendidly, as the owners might intone, to a festival location.
Outside of the music, there are the usual stalls, bars and food outlets offering fairly standard festival fayre at the usual high prices. Kids (although there didn’t appear to be too many of them) are well catered for with a range craft and adventure activities on offer, with the Superjam Backyard Stage providing a hub for older kids to hang out and get involved in both musical and non-musical activities. The Live Fire Stage was worth a visit and always seemed very busy. Here barbeque and cookery demonstrations could be watched at close quarters via the festival’s only big screen. It also hosted hot dog eating and chilli eating competitions for the brave, gluttonous or plain stupid to participate in.
Despite the various counter attractions, most people were primarily interested in the music. Friday’s Main Stage attractions included Far from Saints the side project of the Stereophonics’ Kelly Jones and Kurt Vile and the Violators who delivered a well-received set of guitar led indie-rock. Both played to decent sized crowds in the early evening sunshine. Concluding the evening with a typically energetic and crowd pleasing set of stirring R&B tunes from Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats which have propelled the singer to much greater success after many years of treading water as a folk-songwriter. Rateliff has a great voice and a magnetic stage presence. It’s hard not to like him and very few in attendance would begrudge him the eventual success that’s come his way.
If the Main Stage was bereft of anything obviously fitting the americana billing, it was certainly evident elsewhere. Kicking off proceedings on the Ridge Stage was the excellent Dylan LeBlanc. Facing the obstacles of an early set at 12.05pm, beautiful weather outside of the covered second stage and many still finding their way into and around the festival, LeBlanc delivered an excellent solo acoustic set to a small but appreciative audience. In Haley’s Bar (effectively the third stage) Brennen Leigh played a wonderfully entertaining set employing only her heavenly voice, some impressive acoustic guitar playing and the stand-up bass and backing vocals of Melissa Carper. After a short break the roles were then reversed as Melissa Carper delivered her own high-quality exhibition of her songs supported and backed by Brennen Leigh. Both artists most recent albums are excellent and those that chose to catch their respective sets were richly rewarded. Jamie Wyatt was beset by a few technical problems which seemed to irritate her resulting in her set not being the fun and free-flowing event that she produces at her best. Nevertheless, there were some good moments and her new songs sounded strong.
Back over at the Ridge tent an impressive line-up of This is the Kit, Bonny Light Horseman and Midlake saw the evening out and left many wrestling with those festival clashes – not being able to be everywhere is most inconvenient. This is the Kit put on an excellent show of songs both old and new. The sound was a bit harsher and edgier than some previous live shows where Kate Stables’ band have sometimes employed a softer, bordering on whimsical approach. The slightly more abrasive sound worked well. Both Bonny Light Horseman and Midlake attracted good crowds and didn’t disappoint those that eschewed the attractions on other stages.
The successful link-up with Arkansas Tourism was repeated again this year with afternoon sessions each day on the Arkansas Porch from the returning Dylan Earl, Willi Carlisle and Jude Brothers, joined this year by Bonnie Montgomerie. The four also rounded off Friday evening in Haley’s Bar with the very popular ‘Ozark Holler Hootenanny’ where each took it in turn to sing original songs as well as covers by such Arkansas luminaries as Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and Jimmy Driftwood.
Another fine sunny day with people seemingly determined to make the most of it in view of a rather less promising forecast for Sunday. Black Deer this year made a commitment to gender equality and the equal representation of women across the festival stages. Today the Ridge Stage was turned over totally to female artists beginning with a songwriter session featuring some of the artists appearing later in the day. Following on from that there were individual performances from the excellent Simeon Hammond Dallas, and the equally wonderful Angeline Morrison. The evening then saw performances from Kyshona and Amythyst Kiah and culminated with the extraordinary talent of Allison Russell.
Disappointingly, some of those performances were quite thinly attended. This could be put down to a number of factors; firstly, with rain forecast for the following day people preferred to be outside in the sunshine, secondly there were strong line-ups on the other stages with for many, more familiar names. Thirdly, and linked to the previous point, whilst Black Deer’s equality policy should be applauded, they might need to give more consideration to the standing and drawing power of the women that they place on to a large second stage if they are not to undermine their stance. Whilst those scheduled are all outstanding artists, they are possibly less well known to the Black Deer crowd than some other artists that played the same stage on the other days. The previous day This is the Kit and Bonny Light Horseman, both fronted by women, had attracted large crowds to the same stage. The following evening Joanne Shaw Taylor and Patty Griffin also attracted good crowds to the Ridge Stage.
Saturday’s Main Stage line-up pulled in good crowds from early on as people jostled to position their fold-out chairs in the best vantage points. Birmingham folk singer Katherine Priddy opened up performing well, but inevitably her soft acoustic folk sound, and thoughtful and literate songs were lost on all but those that had gathered at the very front. Definitely one to see in a more intimate setting. Following an unremarkable set from Welsh rockers Cardinal Black the crowd at the front began to swell in preparation for a mid-afternoon performance from perennial americana favourites Calexico who produced a typically polished performance which managed to get joints, stiff from a night under canvass, gradually moving again with their infectious rhythms. Next up were the Teskey Brothers from Melbourne, Australia. Earlier that day I had overheard a conversation in one of the bars between a man with a broad Yorkshire accent and two Australians. The Yorkshireman was heaping praise on the Teskey Brothers saying that they were the main reason for his attendance at the festival, whilst ironically the two Australians stated that they didn’t rate them very much. The Yorkshireman’s point of view seemed to be shared by many on site as the band attracted a large and enthusiastic crowd to hear their brand of soulful blues-rock.
With her 2023 Grammy Award, the name of Bonnie Raitt has been brought to a wider and younger audience. So it was that a mixture of long-standing fans, the simply curious and a good number of name-tickers gathered for her much-anticipated appearance. Each would have been impressed by her highly polished set. Surrounding yourself with such clearly accomplished musicians can sometimes over-sanitise the resultant sound making it appear too clinical, but this was far from the case here as a genuine warmth and sense of enjoyment permeated her set. Fans old and new lapped it all up and would have left happy. Only most of them didn’t move at all, but instead awaited the appearance of headliners The Pretenders. With James Walbourne’s aggressive guitar playing giving them an edgier sound than might have been expected they began with a run of lesser-known songs that seemed to leave one or two a bit twitchy and impatient for the hits. They didn’t have too long to wait, and the uneasiness was soon swept aside as the band played those songs that they wanted to hear. Chrissie Hynde is now 71 years old and although she is still able to hold a stage, her voice is not the impressive instrument that it once was, but for the most part few seemed to care as long as they could sing along to those hits.
Meanwhile whilst all of this was happening, over in Haley’s Bar a good and varied bill provided a very satisfying alternative for those not beguiled by the big names elsewhere. A hugely entertaining and impressive set of traditional country music from the Canadian born and now New Zealand residing Tami Neilson went down a storm and she in turn seemed quite overcome by the warmth of the reception that she received. Also warmly received was the set from Cheshire singer-songwriter Ian Prowse and his band Amsterdam. Prowse is a ridiculously under-recognised talent and it was good to see him get at least part of the recognition that his talent deserves. Much the same could be said about Liverpool’s Robert Vincent who put on a great show of top-drawer songs, great melodies and absorbing stage banter delivered with his usual dry wit.
Following two days of sunshine Sunday saw a change in the weather with overcast skies early on turning to showers and then torrential rain. Many took advantage of the dry morning to pack up early ready to depart later in the day. Amanda Shires and Brandy Clark escaped the worst of the weather with early appearances on the Main Stage but by the time Lukas Nelson appeared the rain was falling and despite a good set many drifted away to seek shelter elsewhere. Steve Earle was on good form with his solo acoustic set but played mainly to Earle diehards and loyalists as people continued to drift away home. Certainly, the numbers for Earle and Sunday’s other headliner Richard Hawley were way down on those that had packed the Main Stage on Saturday night. This was a shame because like Earle prior to him, Hawley put on an excellent show thoroughly enjoyed by those that stuck around.
The rain helped to swell numbers in the covered stages to the advantage of performers like Drake White, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Patty Griffin on the Ridge Stage. It was particularly good to see the latter performing at a UK festival, a songwriter who perhaps hasn’t had the credit and recognition that she is due this side of the Atlantic. Meanwhile in Haley’s Bar sets from Jarrod Dickenson and particularly Bella White were among the day’s highlights.
There are a number of variables that can have a huge impact on the festival experience as a whole. The weather being one over which little control can be exercised. However, with seemingly larger numbers this year (especially on Saturday) there seemed to be a general consensus that not enough toilets were available and those that were available were not emptied or cleaned frequently enough. Hopefully the organisers will take note for next year.
The scale of the site means that nothing, including the campsite, is too cramped which adds to the relaxed atmosphere. However, it did seem an unnecessarily long walk to the campsite from the car parks. In the hot sun some were clearly struggling with moving all their gear between the two places.
Black Deer is a growing festival that has quickly established itself as the premier summer event for americana enthusiasts. Despite a few growing pains and the dodgy Sunday weather, this year’s event was a real triumph in terms of the artists on view, the organisation, and the cool relaxed vibe. Roll on 2024.