Black Deer Festival Day 1
Friday 16th June 2023
Eridge Park, Kent
Coming back to the Black Deer festival is a bit like returning to a favourite seaside destination, you’ve been before, know the general layout, expect to have a good time but don’t know exactly what you’ll do. Situated in the country’s oldest deer park a few miles outside Tunbridge Wells (no deer currently in residence unless they keep a very low profile) the view is superb as you approach the site, rolling countryside in every direction and the sun beating down on the festival below you in a large bowl shaped indentation in the hills.
Parking is handled super efficiently, but you are quickly reminded of the long hike that is required to get down to the site; not a problem in the excitement of first arrival but, ignoring the lung busting climb back uphill later in the evening (unless you’re a happy camper of course, of which there were many, the tents inhabiting the area close to the site like a medieval army) the distance is a bit of a nuisance if, like this correspondent, you like to cut things fine and end up manically bowling down the hill and working up no end of a thirst in an attempt to arrive in the pit in time for an opening number.
This year, the stage positions were altered and generally made more accessible. The day one crowd was smaller than those for Saturday and Sunday and this made navigation between stages a lot easier than it became later. The trouble, if it can be called that, is that there’s so much going in different places that it’s both hard to catch a lot of the acts and equally hard to resist moving away from an act that you’re enjoying in order to check out something else.
Entering the site and clocking the positions of the abundant food and drink facilities, the first sounds drifting towards us was provided by Lauren Housley and The Northern Cowboys from the Ridge stage. She, and her cowboy compadres, along with pretty much 100% of the other acts on the opening day, was someone I was totally unfamiliar with, aside from some pre-festival checking out. The joy of this festival is that the standard of the acts is consistently high as well as varied and, in general, no one is going to give you a terminal case of earache. Each time I’ve been to the festival I’ve come away with a real affection for certain newly discovered artists. Lauren Housley’s music is just what you might expect from an Americana festival, ignoring the fact that she comes from Yorkshire (so not exactly the Wild West), big hearted and strong, Country tinged, melodic vocals backed by twanging guitars. I really enjoyed her performance and songs like ‘This Ain’t The Life’ and ‘We’re Not Backing Down’ are of high quality. 2018 single ‘My Sleeping Heart’ is another banger; I’ll be looking out for her in future for sure.
I’d caught the odd note lingering in the air from Martin Harley on the main stage, but, as I noted, the festival is all about making tricky choices so the first act on the main stage that I caught properly were the highly enjoyable Rob Heron & The Tea Pad Orchestra, who perhaps can best be described as a mixture of a Vaudeville meets Swing band. They were a lot of fun and created the sort of good time danceable music that should have inspired confident men to select the closest available lady (or man if preferred) and essay a few smooth twirls before refreshing their glasses. ‘Une Bouteille de Beaujolais’ was one of their witty up-tempo numbers that caught the ear, as well as ‘She Don’t Like To Fish’. Check out ‘Hot Bath’ to hear what this fine combo are all about. Bumping into the band a little later, it transpired that they too were heading back up North, aside from their intrepid leader, who was DJing later that night (would have loved to see the playlist for that one ).
Back on the Ridge stage there was an air of anticipation for the performance of well-known actor Damian Lewis, who that day had released his debut album ‘Mission Creep’, much of which was played. He was an engaging performer, full of casual charisma and while he hasn’t got the strongest voice (join the club Damian) it was engagingly effective. Cradling an acoustic he regaled the audience with a story of the young actor heading off to Europe on his motorbike, guitar on back, to go busking. He was backed by a young looking band and helped front of stage by the very personable Kitty Durham (who played the same stage the previous year as part of Kitty, Daisy & Lewis). Original songs like ‘My Little One’ and ‘Never Judge A Man By His Umbrella’ rattled along in company with covers like ‘After Midnight’. All very pleasant.
Next on the main stage was Irish singer Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson, going out under the rather ugly moniker of CMAT. She delivered a passionate and dramatic performance that was likeable, but even with decent enough songs like ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy, Baby’, did not leave much of an impression. The most striking event was her energetic jig with her flamboyant keyboard player. Back at the Ridge (anyone spotting a pattern here?) were five-piece Glasgow band Ímar. If I note that the collective were all seated and included bodhran, uillean pipes, fiddle, concertina and bouzouki in their stage gear then you wouldn’t needn’t to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that instrumental Folk music was the order of the day. These were all brilliant musicians and worked together to produce some beautiful music. Perfect if you wanted to chillout and bathe in the free flowing interweaving patterns of the instruments.
Sadly, musical appreciation was overruled by base desires to stock up on expensive but tasty food and drink as well as the itch to keep moving. Refuelled, I was ready for the appearance of Far From Saints, about whom there was a bit of a buzz, due to this new outfit consisting of an unlikely collaboration between Kelly Jones of Stereophonics fame and Patty Lynn and Dwight Baker of Austin band The Wind and The Wave. They definitely had the goods as they say. Kelly and Patty are both strong, distinctive singers and their voices blended together as sweetly as if they had grown up together singing in church in some dusty rural backwater. The sound was pure Americana; well written songs like ‘Screaming Hallelujah’ and ‘Let’s Turn This Back Around’ performed by a sinuously rocking Country backing group and fronted by two confident front people. As good as their own songs were, the highlights of the set were brilliant versions of ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ (the Petty/Nicks collaboration), the Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ and a sensational set closer of ‘American Girl’ by the late lamented Tom Petty. Classy.
This is The Kit, a vehicle for Rough Trade artist Kate Stables, are a sort of Indie, Folk outfit. She was visually engaging, but even after re-listening to her music again, no memory of her band’s performance has been triggered. Very listenable if you were sitting comfortably in a pub and could devote both ears to taking it in, but a little too whimsical and inward looking to really engage with in a darkened tent. Kurt Vile & The Violators promised a lot on the main stage and had the sort of enthusiastic following that makes you pause for thought about what gets people going (and think isn’t it a good job that we’re all different etc.), but apart from trying to work out how stoned the main man was, there was little else to be derived from what was a dreary set. Unimaginative songs played with a zombie like drone. A good excuse to depart for a drink and take in the wider festival experience, where many other more talented musicians were entertaining the crowds in the Supajam, Café Nero and Haleys Bar stages. By comparison, I now have a better appreciation for my own musical ability, so, cheers Kurt!
Much better fare was on offer back in the Ridge with the slightly fey named Bonny Light Horseman, a collaboration between individually established American musicians Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman. This was premium quality Americana, US folk with a cherry on top. Eric Johnson sang with a distinctive high-pitched voice that was as Country as a battered Ford pick up and which cut through the music like a plough going through a field of grass. Anaïs Mitchell has a lusciously, gorgeous pure voice that was highlighted on the lovely title track of their eponymously titled 2020 album, the two singers voices’ harmonising beautifully. Captivating and hypnotically engaging music.
They were followed later by another gently harmonising outfit, veteran Indie Folk rockers Midlake, who sound a little like a more literary, sleepy version of late period Byrds. They offered a fairly low key performance (no-one set fire to their guitar, or to themselves for that matter) but their songs have interesting depths and lots of melodic ideas that draw the listener in. Set stalwarts like the keyboard driven ‘Roscoe’ and ‘We Gathered In Spring’ from keynote 2006 album ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’, epitomised their soft edged approach.
As the late dusk deepened, and the stage lights could be seen to good effect, the sun baked and semi-inebriated crowd were treated to a riveting finale in the shape of headliner Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats from Denver. The energy flying from the stage was palpable as the band hit their stride from the first song. He’s been described as playing a number of different genres but this Bluesy blue eyed Soul singer delivered a set that had a classic old time R&B revue feel with a three piece horn section pumping up the groove as part of a large band. Crowd pleaser ‘S.O.B.’ incorporated a Gospel feel and the dynamically driven frontman definitely had a hint of the revivalist preacher about him, but only if the word being preached was about having a good time. ‘I Need Never Get Old’ from his first album with the Night Sweats was, appropriately, released on Stax, and played live sounded like he’d been joined on stage by Booker T and the MGs. ‘You Worry Me’ is another song that sounds like it was germinated in Memphis. This head shaker has the line “I want to leave it out there”. This stylish singer and his band definitely gave it their all and left nothing in reserve, winning a whole new bunch of fans in the process no doubt.