Review – Black Deer Festival 2024: Guaranteed musical brilliance

Photo Credit: Andrew Frolish

In June, Black Deer Festival returned for its fifth edition although it feels as though it has been around forever.  It has quickly become synonymous with the very best of Americana, finding an enticing balance between all forms of American roots music.  Most music lovers will find something to enjoy from big-name headliners, whose link to Americana is tenuous, to traditional country and alt-folk.

Eridge Park in Kent is a beautiful location for a music festival, with stunning landscapes and the feel of being transported far from home.  For the rest of the year, it’s the country’s largest enclosed deer park.  Unsurprisingly, there’s a distinct lack of internet and mobile phone signal.  While this creates a challenge when making arrangements with friends, it also serves to reinforce that feeling of being out-of-time, of being lost for a little while in a timeless fantasy of a musical community.  Attendees share a love of quality music and a joyful sense of camaraderie.  Beyond the music, there were the usual attractions, from axe-throwing to adventures for ‘Young Folk’.  A good variety of food was on offer, alongside stalls selling vintage clothing. Black Deer is more than a music festival – it is a celebration of America’s rich culture and a way of life.

The last couple of festivals have been affected by significant weather-related issues that were, of course, outside the control of organisers.  This sounds like a minor consideration but, if you’ve ever tried to bale water out of a tent, you’ll know that it can make a huge difference to the experience.  While there were rainy periods this year, attendees weren’t drenched as they were while watching Steve Earle in 2023 (which was still incredible, by the way) and proceedings weren’t ended prematurely as they were during The Waterboys’ set in 2022 due to lightning.  Indeed, by Sunday afternoon, we were bathed in glorious sunshine and the atmosphere and engagement of fans was correspondingly and overwhelmingly positive.

Friday

Bess Atwell, on the Ridge Stage, delivered my first music of the festival.  There was some real power in her performance and a true highlight was hearing the shimmering magic of ‘Release Myself’.  Taken from her brand new album ‘Light Sleeper’, this was glorious live.  Next up, on the Main Stage, Courtney Barnett offered a different sort of energy: strong rhythms, distorted guitars and ripping solos. ‘Walkin’ on Eggshells’ had a great groove and there was a sense of urgency throughout.  Some attendees may have felt Barnett didn’t quite fit under the Americana umbrella but most will have appreciated the quality of the songs and performance.

The festival really went into another gear when The Delines walked out on The Ridge Stage.  The award-winning band put on a tremendous show, opening with the wonderful narrative and smoky sound of ‘Little Earl’, featuring gorgeous keys and trumpet from Cory Gray.  Indeed, Gray’s trumpet and its moody melody would continue to be one of the set’s great strengths.  The trumpet soared to the heavens again on ‘He Don’t Burn for Me’, rising up from Freddy Trujillo’s sustained bass line while Amy Boone’s voice of weary resignation was perfectly delivered.  ‘That Old Haunted Place‘ built up beautifully and was tremendously intense.  Three songs in and the melodious moodiness of The Delines had filled The Ridge tent, captivating a large gathering.  Upbeat new song ‘The Shakes’ gave a taste of what might come on the band’s forthcoming and much-anticipated new album.  Other highlights included the tunefulness of familiar-favourite ‘Colfax Avenue’, the swirling atmosphere of ‘Waiting on the Blue’, which was almost-spoken at times and showcased The Delines’ storytelling qualities, and set-closer ‘Let’s Be Us Again’, a quiet, understated epic of a song, elevated by the backing vocals.

The Delines at Black Deer by Nick Barber

Around the Deer Park, there was something for everyone, from the bright strum and melodies of Steady Habits on the Live Fire Holler Stage to Kezia Gill & Friends at Haley’s Bar.  Gill would go on to perform another great set on Sunday at The Ridge.  But this particular show on Friday was a highlight – the tent was packed and there was a fabulous party atmosphere as Gill collaborated with other artists.  Gill’s performance with Matt Hodges was outstanding – the warmth and character of their voices blended brilliantly.  ‘Heroes and Heroines’, a song of everyday, real-life heroes, was performed with Jade Helliwell.  There was a surging guitar solo and their vocals were as powerful as the heroes they sang of.  SJ Mortimer and Kieran Morgan from Morganway delivered lots of energy and provided a foundation from which Gill’s voice flew.  The audience were fully engaged, clapping and dancing along and the final song, ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ was a triumph.  Gill said that she had had, “The time of my life,” and we could tell – that kind of joy is infectious.

Back on the main stage, Joe Bonamassa, who was the main attraction for many at the festival, produced a stunning set.  A great example of what he can do was ‘Love Ain’t a Love Song’ – it was all heavy drums, swirling keys and extended guitar solos.  His fingers flying around the frets was an incredible sight.  Credit to the Black Deer team for introducing large screens by the stage this year – these were perfect for seeing Bonamassa’s intricate solo-work, bending the strings during this highlight song, which felt like a blues party.  This was followed by the moodier ‘Self-Inflicted Wounds’, full of slow, sweeping, sustained notes.  Bonamassa’s impassioned vocal was just as impressive as his guitar-skills, buoyed by swelling backing vocals that elevated the song to something hymnal.  Throughout, Bonamassa and his band delivered a dynamic, towering performance that was mesmerising to watch.  His fingers quivered over the strings, then burst into nimble movements, generating tumbling notes in hypnotising, prolonged solos.

Joe Bonamassa at Black Deer by Nick Barber

My Friday evening finished in The Ridge tent with Turin Brakes. ‘Sea Change’ was notable for the urgent strum and surging drums as the band put on a commanding performance, balanced brilliantly between power and melody.  The romantic ‘Fishing for a Dream’ had an ecstatic solo as well as an engaging vocal melody and ‘Painkiller (Summer Rain)’ was the inevitable high point in the set, complete with crowd interactions and a delightful feeling that they were enjoying the show as much as the crowd.

Saturday

On Saturday, I headed straight to Haley’s Bar for Jon McLeod’s early set.  His distinctively soft and warm voice, framed with delicate finger-picking, was a perfect way to ease our way into the day.  The next act, Luke Flear, was a total contrast.  He delivered an upbeat, melodic strum with a country rock feel, much to the delight of the sizeable crowd – he appeared to have brought a lot of support with him down from Leeds.  The lighter, brighter tunefulness of ‘Cross the Line’ had quieter moments when his smooth voice came to the fore.  After several songs, Flear moved over to the keys for an affecting rendition of ‘Red Vodka’, his most engaging song, in which his gently tumbling, rhythmic vocal had a touch of grit.  The follow-up was for the country rock fans – ‘Tassels and Flares‘ was a catchy number with lots of hand claps from the audience.  Iceland’s Arny Margret offered up another stark contrast.  Her voice and guitar were both delicate, like an intimate, whispered conversation.  ‘Intertwined’ featured fluttering finger-picking and gorgeously poetic words of loss and heartache.  Another highlight was the subtle melody of ‘The World is Between Us’.  There was an understated dreamy quality threaded through Margret’s songs that transported listeners from Haley’s Bar into some other ethereal place.

Ferris & Sylvester at Black Deer by Andrew Frolish

Then, the crowds started to pack the tent for one of Saturday’s early highlights: Ferris & Sylvester.  Having recently released an early contender for album-of-the-year, the husband-and-wife duo are riding high and many of those in attendance came with high expectations that were more than met.  Opening with the blues-rock of ‘Dark Side’, the energy level was high right from the start.  A dynamic version of ‘Don’t Fall in Love With Me’ followed and the atmosphere was triumphant as the audience chanted along to the repeated lines from which the song takes its name.  Archie Sylvester’s guitar-work is genuinely impressive live and he produced a tremendous solo for old fan-favourite ‘Better in Yellow’.  The groove of ‘Breadwinner’ featured an engaging dialogue between Sylvester’s guitar and the keys.  Part way through their show, Sylvester paused to make a special announcement – a second baby is on the way – a message that surprised Issy but was greeted with much delight by the audience.  With the full-band treatment, ‘Mother,’ was an epic song that swirled and flowed through the narrator’s desperate yearning for a better life.  The distinctive edge to Issy Ferris’s voice, catching with emotion, was superb throughout the set.  The pair play with energy and passion – they bring joy to their audience because of the way they play with joy.  Finishing with a bouncing rendition of ‘London Blues’, they announced that there would be a secret performance on the Caffe Nero Stage and many crowd-members headed over there for a second show.  This was a more acoustic-based performance without a backing band as Issy explained that they were pleased to be putting on an acoustic set as they don’t often do this often anymore and they believe that a song worth writing should sound good in its simplest form.  Even in acoustic form, ‘Burning River’ is a real anthem that was received well in the busy Caffe Nero tent.  A number of songs played previously in Haley’s Bar were repeated during this performance and it was intriguing to see the contrast between the versions, ‘Mother’ being a particularly good example.  In this setting, ‘End of the World’ and ‘Flying Visit’ were particularly impressive.  The latter of these was dedicated to the pair’s son Lucky, who was asleep the first time around in Haley’s Bar.  There was an, “evolving set-list,” that was the subject of good-humoured exchanges. The lovely harmonies of their ‘Wichita Lineman’ cover were sublime.  To take on such a classic takes courage and skill – both qualities Ferris & Sylvester have in abundance.  I’ve seen Ferris & Sylvester a number of times and they never disappoint.  To see them twice in one afternoon, delivering quite contrasting sets, was outstanding.

Ferris & Sylvester at Black Deer by Andrew Frolish

On the main stage, Villagers drew a large and appreciative crowd.  Conor J O’Brien possesses one of the most distinctive voices in indie-folk, a voice that transports us effortlessly into the intriguing lyrical worlds he creates.  ‘Brother Hen’, one of the new songs from 2024 album “That Golden Time”, featured lovely, sweeping keys and an engrossing melody.  This led straight into the classic ‘Nothing Arrived’, which built steadily with surging drums until the song truly soared.  A couple of other old favourites followed: ‘Becoming a Jackal’, which had a strong strum and an understated, restrained vocal that then flowed as the song grew, and the brilliantly melodic ‘That Day’, a triumphant song with a punchy snare drum and a tremendous crescendo.  It was one of the best song-sequences of the entire festival.  The atmosphere was electric and O’Brien performed with great dynamic gusto in the sunshine.

Seasick Steve followed on the main stage, beginning by asking, “Sound alright?” before answering himself, “Yeah!  That sounds pretty good!”  Indeed, it did.  Opening up with ‘Don’t Know Why She Love Me But She Do‘ with a driving rhythm on the guitar, Seasick Steve had everyone with him from the start.  These were infectious good times – people grinning and dancing, fast-paced music, finishing with a flurry of drums.  From his brand new album, he played ‘Backbone Slip’, a driving song with the most amazing groove.  Similarly, the rhythmic ‘Self Sufficient Man‘, had repeated riffs and hypnotic grooves.  The final song, ‘Barracuda ’68’, was another fluent song with steel sliding up and down the frets as the sun set behind the stage; it was quite a moment.

Seasick Steve at Black Deer by Nick Barber

The moments kept coming.  In The Ridge tent, JJ Grey & Mofro delivered one of the festival’s outstanding performances.  I hadn’t been familiar with them before the weekend but a fellow attendee said that the band were the main attraction for them.  One of the best things about attending festivals is following recommendations and discovering new music and I was delighted I saw JJ Grey & Mofro’s set.  It was a party-atmosphere from start to finish.  The energy was boundless, the percussion and rhythms were infectious and the backing vocalists lifted the songs to the heavens. There was a huge response from the crowd to songs like ‘Rooster’ from the band’s latest album “Olustee”– magic fingers, dancing along.  There was a bit of everything: blues, rock, funk and a lot of soul.  The blend of sounds and influences, along with their incredible stage presence, was memorable.  Another highlight from the new album was ‘Top of the World’, which included a superb trumpet solo and was performed with such a lot of joy.  The closing song was the slower-paced ‘The Sun is Shining Down’ from their 2007 album ‘Country Ghetto’.  This was hymn-like and John Higginbotham, also known as JJ Grey, delivered a stunning vocal, full of weary character.  Throughout, Higginbotham and the band played as if they were having a wonderful time – the audience and players fed off one another, which elevated the music to an experience.

JJ Grey & Mofro at Black Deer by Nick Barber

For many, Sheryl Crow was the artist who had drawn them to the Deer Park.  She put on a great show, pumping out familiar hits.  Amongst the first few songs were four tracks from her 1993 debut album,  “Tuesday Night Music Club”: ‘Run, Baby, Run’, ‘All I Wanna Do’, ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and ‘Strong Enough’.  These were stirring renditions with the audience chanting and singing along.  This version of ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ was slowed down, bringing the vocals to the fore and highlighting the excellent keys and bass.  The keys were also central to an upbeat ‘Be Myself’.  Importantly though, this show wasn’t just about looking back on Crow’s stellar career.  She told a story about Lionel Richie telling her not to play new songs, “They don’t want to hear new songs,” before she went on to play ‘Evolution’, the title track and strongest song from this year’s new album.  It was an extended, cosmic rendition, built around swirling chords and keys and solo-work that demonstrated that Crow is still pushing, seeking and experimenting as a songwriter.

Sheryl Crow at Black Deer by Andrew Frolish

The day’s live shows concluded with Dylan LeBlanc in Haley’s Bar.  LeBlanc’s melancholic songs were perfect for a late night in the bar.  His soft, sometimes rasping, vocal was just right for storytelling over his strummed guitar.  ‘Lone Rider’ from 2019’s “Renegade” was particularly strong.  When he introduced ‘Emma Hartley’ from his 2010 debut “Paupers Field”, LeBlanc talked about his experience of starting his career in the UK on Rough Trade… “Nobody bought it but I learned a lot.”  If you heard someone shout out that they bought it, that was me, it’s a wonderful album of beautiful melodies and stark narratives.  One of the best songs of the festival for me was ‘Man Like Me’.  This was written for LeBlanc’s grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran who became a beautician and a ladies-man when he returned to the USA.   LeBlanc talked of him with great fondness and said ‘Man Like Me’ is, “A sad song though he wasn’t a sad guy.”  LeBlanc’s voice ranged high over a subtly gorgeous strum.  This was followed by a rhythmic ‘Domino’ and ‘If the Creek Don’t Rise’ with a hushed vocal that burst with glorious melody as the song grew.  At the end of the show, having finished late, LeBlanc was allowed an extra song, much to fans’ delight, and he closed with the excellent ‘Cautionary Tale’.

Dylan LeBlanc at Black Deer by Nick Barber

The evening concluded with the late-night disco in the busy Haley’s Bar.  While the atmosphere was fun, it was an interesting collection of songs that didn’t much relate to the country and Americana theme of the festival.  Regardless, people were in very good spirits and it meant that an excellent day of music finished on an emotional high.

Sunday

Nat Myers was the first act on the Ridge Stage on Sunday.  With his deep sonorous voice and twang, he certainly ticked the timeless Americana box.  ‘Yellow Peril’, the title track from his 2023 album, featured some excellent slide guitar and hypnotic rhythms while ’75-71′ showcased Myers’ fast fingers on the fret-board.  Myers had an easy manner and plenty of charming chatter for the good-sized crowd.  First up on the Main Stage was the tribute act Fleetwood Bac.  The tribute acts this year weren’t for everyone but Fleetwood Bac certainly drew in a large audience that danced and sang along.

Nat Myers at Black Deer by Andrew Frolish

Now, the truth is that I would camp in a field for three days just to see Rosanne Cash.  This was the centre of my festival experience, meaning I had to make sure I was right in the middle leaning on the barrier long before Cash’s set to ensure I had a prime position.  One of the great things about Black Deer is that,with a little patience, commitment and dedication, you can get to the front for your favourite artists.  Rosanne Cash was accompanied by her husband and collaborator John Leventhal and together they launched into a stirring ‘Modern Blue’, which energised the crowd.  Next up, by way of introduction to ‘The Sunken Lands’, Cash talked about her grandmother Carrie who picked cotton in the Mississippi Delta area while raising seven children.  This is magical songwriting, full of narrative detail and absorbing melodic currents.  Cash was asked to write a song for the second season of ‘True Detective’ alongside Lera Lynn and T Bone Burnett and the result was the moody ‘The Only Thing Worth Fighting For’, which was gorgeously moody and included a lovely, high-pitched acoustic guitar solo from Leventhal.  Cash talked about living in London for six months when she was younger and having a friend in Tunbridge Wells, just minutes from the festival location.  It has been decades since she travelled these roads and she had been overwhelmed with emotion on her return and wondered why it had taken so long.  She spoke of working on her classic album “The Wheel” with Leventhal 30 years ago and having been together for 29 years, before playing ‘Tears Falling Down’, one of the album’s gently tuneful highlights, played here with a delicate strum.  One of Cash’s most memorable projects over the years has been ‘The List’, inspired by the list of 100 essential songs that her father wrote down on a yellow legal pad, saying to her, “This is your education.”  The finger-clicking rhythm and gorgeous tune of ‘Long Black Veil’ was outstanding.  There is a darkness to the song and its lyrics, delivered in Rosanne’s clear, pure tones.  This was followed by one of Cash’s best songs: ‘Sea of Heartbreak’.  On the record, this is a duet with Bruce Springsteen but Leventhal filled in for The Boss effectively.  This really is the sound of heartbreak.  The rhythmic groove of guitar was absorbing in ‘A Feather’s Not a Bird’, which also featured another acoustic guitar solo at the top of the neck.  In between songs, Cash chatted, telling stories and showing good humour.  After one of Leventhal’s super solos, Cash explained – with her tongue firmly in her cheek, “That took me forever to teach him that solo!”  The final song of the regular set was ‘Seven Year Ache’, another song that transforms heartbreak into gorgeous melody.  The applause was rapturous, prompting Cash and Leventhal to return for an encore: ‘The Wheel’.  I don’t mind saying that this reviewer had an emotional moment while absorbing this song, one of my favourites, and knowing Rosanne Cash’s set was coming to an end.

Rosanne Cash at Black Deer by Nick Barber

Our Man in the Field enjoyed a good crowd at the Supajam Stage and the songs were given the full-band treatment.  ‘Feel Good’ benefited from the electric cello, bass and keys with flourishes of pedal steel from Henry Senior and urgent percussion – the sound was full and rich.  Recent single ‘The Road’ started quietly with ethereal pedal steel and a hushed vocal before growing towards a triumphant ending.  There was an upbeat, melodic version of ‘Last Dance’ with quivering pedal steel and sustained keys that was utterly absorbing.  A subtle start to ‘Silver Linings’ gave way to elevated vocals, sweeping pedal steel and engaging percussion.  The band finished with one of their most accomplished, ambitious songs, ‘L’Etranger’, based on the themes of the book by Albert Camus.  Buoyed by the keys, cello and pedal steel, Alex Ellis’s voice was superb, rising into the words: “Oh I believe // There’s nothing up there looking down on me.”  Our Man in the Field never disappoints and it’s great to see how seamlessly the newer band members have slotted in.

Our Man in the Field at Black Deer by Andrew Frolish

Up-and-coming band Brown Horse filled Haley’s bar literally (great crowd) with their sound.  ‘Reservoir’ is an amazing stream of lyrics, boosted by banjo and accordion.  The band talked about coming to Black Deer as fans two years ago.  They explained that they were a folk-based band until they saw Drive By Truckers – then they changed overnight, becoming a rock band, before they rocked out to ‘Verna Bloom’.  A lower-key, slower song about songwriter Paul Gilley was an excellent, moody performance with a touch of twang – the highlight of their set.

Brown Horse at Black Deer by Andrew Frolish

With a long drive home waiting for me, my final festival experience was The Staves on the Main Stage. After some poor weather earlier in the weekend, the sunshine was absolutely glorious as was The Staves’ vocal performance which was so precise and accomplished it sounded like it could have been recorded in the studio.  An early highlight in their set was ‘Make it Holy’ from 2014’s “If I Was”.  This was absolutely magical, spellbinding stuff.  This was followed by the delightful melody of ‘I’ll Never Leave You Alone’ from their latest album.  Delightful, that is, considering that the lyrics reference curses, spiders, rats and liars.  A couple of songs from The Staves’ first album were particularly well received: ‘In the Long Run’ with its lovely vocal tune that rises up and then tumbles back down and ‘Mexico’, featuring sweeping voices lifted to the heavens above sparse instrumentation.  ‘Satisfied’ was the perfect vehicle for those gorgeous voices.  The Staves were a great choice for the Main Stage, early evening on Sunday.  Their harmonies were simply lovely, and their songs were truly absorbing.

The Staves at Black Deer by Andrew Frolish

There may have been some of the usual festival complaints: not enough toilets, the pricey burgers.  However, the biggest potential issue this year was that the site was smaller, compressed due to some issues with the ground because of the weather prior to the festival.  The result of this was sound-bleed between the stages.  If you stood in the middle of the park, you could hear the Supajam Stage, the Main Stage and the Ridge Stage at the same time. Personally, this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the shows and was the outcome of forces beyond the organisers’ control.  In the future, I’d love to see the songwriter sessions back in the Ridge tent in a favourable time-slot as these have been so successful in previous years.   Welcome changes for 2024 included the addition of large screens either side of the Main Stage and the relocation of the campsite and parking, which worked better.  Having attended every year of the festival, it remains the case that Black Deer offers guaranteed musical brilliance, appreciative crowds and a genuine sense of community.  It really is an event that transports you out of your life into a little world of Americana and I have already signed up for ‘Early Bird’ tickets for 2025.

Of course, each person’s individual festival experience is just that: their own.  Readers who were at Black Deer will have seen and heard different acts, enjoyed contrasting artists and my recollections may not match yours.  I look forward to hearing what Black Deer meant to you in the comments below.

Black Deer 2024 by Andrew Frolish

About Andrew Frolish 1469 Articles
From up north but now hiding in rural Suffolk. An insomniac music-lover. Love discovering new music to get lost in - country, singer-songwriters, Americana, rock...whatever. Currently enjoying Nils Lofgren, Ferris & Sylvester, Tommy Prine, Jarrod Dickenson, William Prince, Frank Turner, Our Man in the Field...
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Lobbster

Have to say Sunday evening I went to see Bailey Tomkinson & The Locals at they blew the doors off. Honestly think they’re the best live act in Britain at the moment

rex

Great review of the festival. We went on Sunday only (missed all the rain!) and enjoyed every minute. Stone Jets in Cafe Nero was the standout for us. And the Cafe Nero crew were enjoying it as much as the audience.

Gary Walker

review was spot on. Its a great boutique festival. Some highlights for me included Kezia Gill, Prima Queen, Brown Horse, Divorce, Seasick Steve, Joe Bonamassa but Eli Paperboy Reed stole the weekend for me delivering a powerhouse performance. The Cafe Nero stage provided a welcome rest bite in the mornings with the rain pouring down.

I agree with your comments around sound bleed and this was particulalry noticeable from the tiny SupaJam stage which was very audible in the Ridge throughout the day.

I completely agree about the singer songwriter session. Should be restored to the first acts on stage in the morning as it gives a great taster of artists you may not know. whereas in the middle of the day it inevitably clashes with establish artists.

One problem the festival does have is the Sunday headliner. Two years running the main stage has been barely a third full. This year they did their best to force people to Rufus Wainwright by shutting nearly all other stage early.

Other comments. removing the toilets from near the main stage is crazy, get rid of Brew Dog too or at least have a couple of local brewers available too. difficult to level expensive food prices at the vendors when the organisers charge them for the picth and then take 30% of any money taken too.

But on the whole this has been a brilliant festival and while some acts push the boundaries of Americana the eclectic blend of bands is great. I highly suspect we will back again next year.