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Black Deer Festival - Day 3

Sunday 16th June 2024

Eridge Park, Tunbridge Wells

The brilliant thing about festivals, unless you are some died in the wool type that does not want to investigate new sounds, is the plethora of, mostly, new acts on offer; even within the confines of a festival that offers a particular slice of musical taste, like Americana in this case, the variety of different acts provides a whole range of different musical flavours. This is definitely the case with Black Deer, which has hopefully now established itself firmly on the annual festival calendar as a must go to event, which provides a huge cast of mainly international performers.

The festival footprint was smaller this year, which meant less wear and tear on festival-goers tootsies’, which by Sunday were protected in many cases by wellies and hiking boots. This was a hangover from the heavy overnight rain on the Friday, which on arrival on Saturday had left the car park looking potentially a bit dicey for the late-night homeward journey with the grass lanes between cars turning into rutted mud disasters (there were later tales of folk requiring towing out). Apart from a few short spits of rain the entire festival was actually dry during the daytimes; the last day, on Sunday, was gloriously sunny and delivered the first decent opportunity to collapse on the grass and just chill in the sun to some excellent music. In terms of musical variety, the early evening set on the main stage by Hermanos Guiterrez offered something different as well as providing the perfect chilled soundtrack for festival goers, who by that time had ample opportunity to sample the various tipples on offer from a variety of bars and were suitably laid back as a result. The band consists of two brothers of Ecuadorian-Swiss heritage playing, unsurprisingly, South American influenced, guitar/string instrument based instrumental music. Their sound is based on subtle, slow paced, interweaving parts that create a hypnotic and melodically quite beautiful conflation. They included tracks from their latest album, ‘Sonido Cosmico’, which was produced by the very busy Dan Auerbach, and which is well worth a listen. They could probably do with adding a few more dynamic elements into their stage presentation but they were perfect for that time of day.

The first act I caught on the Main Stage earlier in the day was by Country royalty, Roseanne Cash, performing with her husband John Leventhal, with just their two acoustics for accompaniment. This was an ideal, charming set to kick off the day. The singer has a beautiful, clear and strong voice and the duo performed a number of classic Country tunes like Don Gibson’s ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ (which in the introduction by Roseanne Cash referred to her duetting on the song previously with Bruce Springsteen) and ‘Moving On’ by Hank Snow. They also played a countrified version of the Beatles’ ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ featuring some lovely harmonies and John Leventhal further displaying his fine guitar work by playing a nice acoustic arrangement of the double lead solo on the original, which was very tasty.

Talking of fine acoustic playing, the tented Ridge Stage was the host to a superbly confident performance in the afternoon by the very talented Irish teenager from County Donegal, Muireann Bradley. Seemingly possessed by the spirits of long dead old timey Country Blues pickers from the American South, this artist played some classic finger picking Blues classics from the likes of Reverend Gary Davis (‘Candy Man’), Elizabeth Cotton (‘Freight Train’), Mississippi John Hurt (‘Stagger Lee’) and Blind Blake (‘Police Dog Blues’). Interestingly, these and others in her set all featured on a Stefan Grossman record on Transatlantic that I bought years ago, which came with tablature transcriptions of the basic structure of the songs. Sounds like Muireann’s parents might have had the same album? Her playing was effortlessly clean and precise. In addition, her singing was crystalline pure, reminiscent of Emmylou Harris. The tent quickly filled during her set and by the end there was a transfixed audience, mightily impressed by the precocious talent on display.

She was followed on the Ridge Stage, by two female Country singers in succession, the first, Aine Deane, from the UK and following her, Alyssa Bonagura from Nashville. Both of these acts were both very charming, each playing with a full backing band they both delivered excellent, entertaining sets of modern Country songs with a Pop crossover feel (especially Aine Deane) and created a real feel-good factor. Both of these singers fully engaged with the audience and were great performers; like many of the acts over the weekend, these are both well worth seeing again in a non-festival setting. ‘Love Wins’, ‘Fly With Me’ and ‘Road Less Travelled’ stood out from the set by Alyssa Bonagura and are representative of her classy writing style. Both introduced many songs with vignettes about their background; Aine Deane presaging her memorably titled song ‘If you called me today, I would come back tomorrow’ with a wry tale about a former boyfriend. Young Texan songwriter Dylan Gossett finished proceedings on the Ridge tent with an accomplished set played by a rocking band; catchy, classic Country singer songwriter material.

In Haley’s bar the more western side of C&W was represented late in the day by, among others, two solo acoustic performers, Pat Reedy and Todd Day Wait. They both performed songs with wry lyrics accompanied by sturdily professional picking that comes from having played a thousand gigs. They were great and I would have liked to caught more of them.

The afternoon sets on the main stage were by two acts both fronted by two female vocalists backed by youthful backing bands. The pecking order between the front persons and the largely anonymous backing musicians on the Main Stage was highlighted by the very deep spacing between the supporting musicians and the singers, with the former relegated to positions well back from the front of the stage, albeit on raised podiums (although this somehow seemed to emphasise their isolation to my mind). The Staves first, followed later by UK Country influenced duo Ward Thomas, both played pleasant sets that featured their trademark harmonies, which washed over the somnambulant afternoon crowd camped out in front of the stage. I’m not very familiar with the music of these two acts, although like many people I was impressed by the Staves’ debut album when it came out in 2012, so nothing much stood out as memorable from their sets but, listening to both sitting on the grass in the sunshine, beer in hand, was in itself memorably enjoyable and soothing.

The weekend had seen some great performances and in the previous two days sets by Nick Waterhouse, When Rivers Meet, The Delines, Jalen Ngonda, Seasick Steve, Eli Paperboy Reed and JJ Grey & Mofro had stood out as particularly enjoyable. On the Friday night Joe Bonamassa had played a sensational set, one of the best I’ve seen by him and a real headline show that many will remember for a long time. On the Saturday night Sheryl Crowe had also played a sensational headlining show playing one banger after another (I can just about forgive her decision not to allow photographers into the pit for her set) to a large appreciative crowd wrapped up well in the cold night air. On Sunday the headliner was Rufus Wainwright, which appeared to be a strange choice on paper and was quite underwhelming in reality. Not seemingly burdened by any sense of humility he performed his opening songs alone playing a grand piano centre stage before switching to an acoustic guitar. Perhaps it was just the end of a long, tiring, but enjoyable three days or maybe it was a feeling akin to those felt by the participants in the chilli eating contest earlier in the day that made me decide to give the rest of his set a miss and make an early departure.

It's a measure of the successful vibe that the organisers of this special festival create that even as memories of the current event are fresh in the mind, one can’t help but look forward in anticipation of next year’s festival.

Simon Green

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