Every festival I’ve been to for the last 5 years has ended up as kind of tsunami of varying proportions, and if you believe it’s all evidence of the Gods’ passing judgement on the headliners, then somebody up there must think quite a lot of new americana festival Black Deer which took place for the first time this year in the idyllic surroundings of Eridge Park in Kent. Every stage but one was geared up for whatever the weather held in store but as it happened it could have taken place without a single tent and canopy and it would still have been fine.
The festival brought together the actually two quite different audiences of americana and country fans, but mostly staying on the right side of the divide – there were no line dancing lessons to be found anywhere here. There were however not just musicians but stuff you’d associate with the “americana” lifestyle– custom motorcycles and smokehouse barbecued food to name but two (although there were good vegan options too should Morrissey have made an appearance). Friday was a relatively sedentary affair with just the smaller stages operational although there was a cracking songwriting session which included one of the stars of the festival, Georgia born Sonia Leigh alongside Sarah Darling and Striking Matches. Cattle and Cane provided some light relief by virtue of being very funny (in between their songs, not during them) and Rob Vincent proved that Scousers can also be talented musicians – why has no one ever realised this?
The doors opened on Saturday to the great washed and the main stage with its sloping auditorium space provided a focus for the growing throng of a crowd. Highlights included a genuine revelation of a set by Ashley Campbell with a particularly poignant song about her dad’s Alzheimer’s, and the summery folk-pop lilt of Steve Young. Bennet Wilson Poole proved that whatever iteration the nicest man in americana turns his hand to is always a delight, and Jarrod Dickensen sported one of the best beards of the festival (it was a very beardy festival) and also played two cracking sets. Rebecca Riedtmann played a lovely little set at Live Fire too, one to watch out for. Saturday headliner Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam was as eclectic and brilliant as always although some of the audience seemed to search for livelier haunts as the set went on, which was fine as there were the Whiskey Shivers (“trashgrass” – no me neither) and Johnny Cage just up the slope.
Sunday was the belter of a day weather-wise which worked against some of the artists performing in the indoor spaces although Jamie Freeman managed to get a tent full of people singing about his father’s relationship with booze by 2 in the afternoon which is no mean feat. Sadly crap trains aren’t apparently just the preserve of the British these days and Stu Larsen’s anticipated set was cancelled, but there was enough going on elsewhere to console devotees. The Americans put in a particularly strong showing with a blast of rock and roll perfect for a summer afternoon and Kiefer Sutherland surprised some people by not being a novelty act (although he was a novelty).
Sam Palladio and Jason Isbell bridged the country americana gap respectively with their sets, Isbell having an increasing Ryan Adams like ability to effortlessly move between genres and leave people spellbound. Sadly the headline acts presented one of the great clashes of the festival, with Ginger Wildheart, whose latest album ‘Ghost in the Tanglewood’ is one of the finest pieces of americana you’ll hear all year, going up against Passenger, of whom you’ll be able to say the same of in two months time. I went for the latter and crikey Mike Rosenberg can work a crowd – note perfect and with songs that felt like a series of authentic americana classics that paradoxically shone a light on the sad minutiae of British life for their various characters.
If americana is about the art of storytelling then here’s a poet who takes you with him every step of the way into a journey that can leave you feeling devastated and elated within one song, and with the sweetest melodies too. As he shouted out “Fuck Trump”, fair enough, it’s passé these days, but the crowd roared with approval and made you think, hey country or americana, we’re all the same kind of people.
As a first attempt, Black Deer was bold, creative and most of all a lot of fun – there’s a lot of competition around at the moment but if americana and country are your kind of thing, it’s an early contender for festival of the year. And next year we might even see a black deer.
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