Where is it?
Black Deer Festival takes place in the grounds of Eridge Park, outside Tunbridge Wells, in Kent. It’s a remarkably picturesque setting with stunning views from the camping areas above the valley. The main festival arena is situated in bowl below, so you can see what you’re heading towards from the campsites and, quite equally, a spectacular vista when you’re ending the day with the setting sun.
What type of festival is it?
While their drive and focus is primarily a Country and Americana Festival, they’ve got a whole lot more going on: As well as being a ‘roots inspired’ celebration of this genre of music, you’ve also got alt-rock and genre-fusions from all kinds of up and coming bands, who are taking this world to exciting new places. This element gave the festival a really distinctive edge throughout. They’ve got BBQ experts from the States (Dr BBQ!) and locally, impressive gastronomic insight and a constant connection to the land and area they’re using. This means local food experts, foragers, local bands and talent. Black Deer have mixed up international and what’s here already and it really, really works.
Our highlights and recommendations from Black Deer Festival 2018
Although, thanks to the M25, we arrived later than planned, there was still plenty of time to dive into the food stalls and catch the last acts of the opening day. Whilst Sarah Darling and Striking Matches wowed the crowds over on The Ridge stage, and I heard a lot of love afterwards, we took advantage of Meat Street BBQ, grabbed some of their stunning Kentucky-Pulled Lamb and headed into the Roadhouse stage with beer in hand to check out The Picturebooks and, let me tell you, it was a hell of a way to kick off the weekend.
The two friends, Fynn Claus Grabke and Philipp Mirtschink, produced an absolute powerhouse performance, reminiscent of The Black Keys or even a stripped down QOSTA, with pure, genuine passion and the sweatiest, powerful, most committed bands I’ve seen in a long, long time. Not only that, but they’re also really eager to connect with the fans to the point where the crowd pushed for an encore, which they – of course – took us up on, as well as a lot of hand-shakes and photos afterwards.
I was up early with the sunrise, your tent will always let you know it is the morning when it’s hot, and once they opened, we headed down to explore all Black Deer had to offer. While the site has 5 main stages, there are also spots for pre-arranged buskers and I’m sure a space if you just want to play as well, if you’re courageous enough! There’s also a lot more going on, from cowboys showing people how they camp out at night, or how to lasso, you’ve got a good-sized ‘Live Fire’ area, which consists of aforementioned BBQ stars, plus the Travelling Barn which features cooking demos and song-writers throughout the weekend. That area also offers food choices for all kinds of palates and they have regular cooking competitions, listed in the programme, our favourite was the Burger Comp, click here for a look!
After an initial exploration of what’s around, I headed over to The Ridge for Jarrod Dickenson and his band. Jarrod offers up a classic-inspired country/Americana sound but also a real genuine connection to the audience. Hailing from Texas, his story-telling in songs is captivating and the entire band has an openhearted feeling. The harmonies with his fellow band member (and wife!) Claire add to the ambience and take you beyond the field you’re stood in.
Sticking with The Ridge, Jarrod was followed by Canadian mini-legends The Sheepdogs, they’re an almost effortlessly super-tight classic blues-rock band who bring the stage to life in both style and musical output. They’re full of showmanship but it isn’t cheesy, they’re positive. Sometimes they feel like a band out of their time but in a great way, I kept thinking ‘if Cameron Crowe made bands…’ then The Sheepdogs would be one of them. I caught them again later in Haley’s Bar (as well as Jarrod again) where, as well as their own songs, they covered Neil Young and got a richly deserved encore, one to check out if they’re gigging near you. ‘Up in Canada’ was fitting to share the love for their home country.
Next up was iconic actor Kiefer Sutherland and his band, yes, you heard right…the man himself! While the crowd gathered in anticipation, it’s difficult to know what actors’ bands will bring but Kiefer was a solid front-man telling stories and thanking the crowd for coming out ‘to hear 12 songs you’ve never heard before’ settled us all down with laughter and he continued that showmanship through his set. It’s clear he loves a different lease of life, and huge kudos to him and the band.
Other stand-out acts of the day included Dana Immanuel and The Stolen Band, this female 5-piece bring a sensual sense of misadventure of all the good-bad times, they’re what I’d consider a drinking band full of blues, rock and long nights you’d never forget with fervent energy. After more food and ale, the night then headed towards Main Stage headliners Iron & Wine who offered up a slightly surreal, yet strong performance. My issue with wasn’t their live sound at all, it was a beautifully mellow, captivating chill-out free form alt-Americana that echoed out across the site, but it felt like they would have been better suited to a more enclosed, intimate venue to submerge into. That’s something I think Black Deer could consider for this style of act in the future. On the flipside, closing the night back in the Roadhouse was Johnny Cage and the Voodoogroove who didn’t have the most variable sound but had a lot of appetite, and burlesque dancers, who brought fun disorder to the neon-lit embers of the night.
The final day started with Florida-based Thomas Wynn and the Believers, an amalgamation of genres with a deep-rooted country rock sound that combines those roots with an almost operatic heavy metal crescendo. It featured a huge vocal performance from Wynn, who emulates Bruce Dickinson when he hits the top, and also impressive was the sound between him and his sister Olivia (who both front the band) as their voices balance each other in the harmonic and heavy moments. Their cover of Springsteen’s Atlantic City took it to places I’ve never heard before and you cannot be underwhelmed at all by the band’s overall presence, which was certainly spirited.
Local performers Hannah Wright (playing the Papermoon stage) and Dan Clews (at the excellent Haley’s Bar) also entertained; the latter offering up his love for James Taylor and often encouraged the crowd to singalong. Clews brought a warm, honest performance as he shared his love of folk and storytelling. O&O also stood out, led by American guitarist Obadiah Jones and Israeli vocalist Orian Peled, whose subtle guitar work and seriously catchy Americana-country songs brought an accomplished pop-lightness to proceedings, with front lady Orian being especially great as she charmed the audience.
Later on, and interestingly enough, it was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit who gave Black Deer Festival their defining moment. There was something deeply emotive and exceptional about Isbell’s set, with every song mesmerising the audience and, very particularly, when the Last of my Kind played, you felt the wave of empathy and understanding swept out across the large crowd. This wasn’t just due to hot sun and alcohol, well it might have for some, but people of all ages and from all kinds of places seemed to connect. It was an utterly special moment as Isbell and his band produced a magnificent set with old songs and ones from current album The Nashville Sound.
Closing the night for us was Steak, playing the Roadhouse (one of my favourites already), this 4-piece stoner-rock band from London reminded me of Josh Homme-related Kyuss and had so much epic energy – and deeply impressive tunes – that they’re hard to not love. Each member of the band brought their own strength to the stage and I’d happily catch them again in the future, extremely recommended.
Black Deer Festival somehow found the perfect way to run a festival first time out, this isn’t hyperbole either, as they had everything covered from the opportunity to camp, take a live-in vehicle or hire both accessible and glamping options. There were enough toilets, a good number of showers (at the campsite that were welcomed), water points across the sites and really impressively… everything was contactless plus there were cashpoints if you need that kind of thing.
If there has ever been a time to take advantage of the technology offered, then this was it. Black Deer picked up the reigns and drove forward into the 21st century and, yet, still managed to keep a friendly, well organised and exciting festival bang at the forefront of how any festival should be run. Not only that but whether you stayed for the weekend, or just made it a day, there was more than enough choice from their five stages, plenty of food options, for meat lovers, veggies and vegans.
And, I’m not finished yet, if you’ve got kids then there looked to be plenty of choice and it’s just the right sized enclosed festival area to know they’d be safe. You’ve also got regular events going on across Black Deer, my only wish is that some bands didn’t clash in time-slots but that, my friends, happens at every festival. My other tip would be to bury some of the water pipes a little, as the free water did get rather hot in the heatwave!
The truth is folks, it’s a huge congratulations to co-founders Gill and Debs as Black Deer Festival have set the bar very high for all summer festivals with their first outing and they’ve already confirmed they’ll be back next year, you’ll want to check it out before the rise of Americana in the UK gets even bigger and you miss out on tickets!
Book now for 2019: https://blackdeerfestival.com/tickets
Find out more here: https://blackdeerfestival.com
Check out the official image gallery below, photography by Laura Palmer, Louise Roberts and Carolina Faruolo – Please click their names to visit their wonderful work, and see the individual images for copyright ownership details.