At last last year’s Black Deer Festival, a moment of high drama saw an electrical storm and a huge downpour bring an early end to Saturday night’s proceedings. With just days to go before the first acts take to the stage for the 2023 edition, the sun has finally started shining and the forecast for the weekend ahead is promising, both weather-wise and for the tremendous music we can expect to see. There’s just a handful of tickets left and, if you’re considering a last-minute trip to Kent to see a remarkable line-up at one of the UK’s premiere musical experiences, then don’t hesitate.
Those of us who have had the pleasure of attending Black Deer in previous years can attest that it really is a fine blend of all that makes Americana great and the festival celebrates a broader culture rooted in America’s rich heritage. This takes us beyond the music. We’ll come back to that. The festival is a microcosm of a way of life and there’s a real sense of community and kinship at its heart. From vintage clothing to axe-throwing, custom motorbikes to cooking demonstrations, there are all sorts of activities and sights that link to this culture of Americana. The food, in particular, is something at which Black Deer excels: The Live Fire Stage hosts demonstrations on barbecue cooking, butchery, knife-making and foraging, while the surrounding kiosks serve up plentiful quality food to keep you going throughout the weekend. The Live Fire Stage is also the place to be on Sunday morning, so that you can enjoy The Gospel Brunch.
Black Deer prides itself on being a family-friendly festival and there are certainly plenty of activities to engage the hearts and minds of young folk. They can explore and imagine with Woodland Tribe; during the festival they’ll be helping the children build a tractor, horse and barn, in which there will be a rousing barn dance. More outdoors experiences will be provided by The Great Big Tree Climbing Company and the Outdoor Education Company, who will be bringing their huge climbing wall. A range of craft and workshop activities will also be on offer, from circus skills to tie dye t-shirts, ukulele to harmonica. Parents might enjoy taking their children to the silent disco if they’re looking for a little peace. Storytelling sessions will weave together American folklore and tales from different cultural traditions. A family could easily spend the entire three days engaged in activities designed for its younger members.
The music is so much more than the headliners commanding the main stage. You can expect intimate spaces, like Haley’s Bar and The Roadhouse, and close-up experiences like The Arkansas Porch sessions, in which the likes of Dylan Earl and Willi Carlisle will perform a series of mini-sets while telling their stories. Of course, storytelling is central to the acclaimed Black Deer Songwriter Sessions. The hugely memorable sessions were a real highlight of 2022: Lady Nade, Robert Vincent, William Prince and others took turns to talk about their songs and deliver breathtaking performances. Once again, The Songwriter Sessions will take place on all three days of the festival and we can look forward to artists like Jaime Wyatt, Elles Bailey and Allison Russell giving us a glimpse of their inspiration and songwriting process. The Supajam Stage and area is particularly important, supporting a range of vulnerable young artists with their musical ambitions. As well as performances from Supajam students and special guests, we’ll see on-stage interviews with the likes of Roseanne Reid and Hannah White and song circles that bring together new and experienced musicians.
Speaking of experienced musicians, the line-up is really something. Friday is worth the admission price alone. If you can arrive early enough, you can experience the intensity of Jaime Wyatt and the mournful vocals of Dylan LeBlanc. Into the evening, several tremendous acts will be competing for your attention. Headlining the show and capable of energising a large crowd, Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats will pound out some soaring anthems in their soulful rock style, drawing upon their third album, the excellent ‘The Future’ from 2021. Here, at AUK Towers, we think Bonny Light Horseman on the Ridge Stage may just steal the show thanks to their fabulous songwriting and the captivating voice of Anaïs Mitchell. Another band that showcase gorgeous, characterful vocals is Far From Saints, the all new project fronted by Kelly Jones (Stereophonics) and Patty Lynn – the songs are masterfully written and the combination of their voices is breathtaking good. Also, look out for Midlake, whose melodic folk will be spellbinding live.
Once again, Saturday’s line-up looks huge. The Pretenders and Bonnie Raitt offer timeless, classic songwriting. Raitt’s recent album ‘Just Like That’ demonstrated her remarkable consistency over a remarkable career. AUK-favourite Robert Vincent returns to the festival to deliver his terrifically-written songs that always transfer so well to a live setting. Also performing on Saturday, the huge voice of Tami Neilson, the beautiful tones of Allison Russell and the desert-noir of Calexico all promise to be real highlights. Australian band The Teskey Brothers, featuring the hugely talented Josh Teskey as lead vocalist – his voice has such character, might just deliver the performance of the day. They have a brand new album, ‘The Winding Way’, due out on Friday 16th June – Black Deer will be like a giant launch party.
Sunday is so packed with talent that we can barely scratch the surface here. ‘Big Talk’ from Jarrod Dickenson has been one of the album-picks from 2023 so far and he’ll be performing in Haley’s Bar in the early evening. Lukas Nelson and Promise of The Real are an incredibly tight live outfit; they have performed brilliantly as backing band for Neil Young in the past and they’ve got a bunch of new songs to try out thanks to a new album, ‘Sticks and Stones’, coming in July. GRAMMY-winning Steve Earle will be playing an acoustic set on the main stage while GRAMMY-winning Patty Griffin, another legend of the genre, will appear on the Ridge Stage. Other acclaimed artists joining the festivities on Sunday include Amanda Shires, Elles Bailey, Bear’s Den and Richard Hawley. Across the three days and evenings, there are so many artists to choose from, and difficult choices to make, that the festival organisers must be applauded for pulling together such diverse and important acts; it’s quite a feat.
When the festival is over and the flags are lowered, you can relive the experience with AUK. Look out for a full review and interviews from Clint West and exclusive backstage videos with stripped back performances from compelling artists. In our 2022 review (check it out here), we described Black Deer as a, “…genuine triumph.” And it truly was a fabulously atmospheric return following the cancelled events of those bleak pandemic years. The line-up for next weekend suggests that Black Deer will continue to build on the success of previous years, taking the music and the community to another level. From big stages to intimate spaces, big-name artists to up-and-coming talents, big anthems to delicate, emotive ballads, the festival promises to be a memorable three days full of the finest entertainment. Oh, and the sun is putting his cowboy hat on. Don’t forget your sunscreen.