It takes something extra special for any festival to move into their second year and not only expand, and double their ticket sales, but also retain that essential spark of style and warmth that made their debut year so successful but Black Deer Festival really did it again, and with an seemingly effortless brilliance.
Winners of the Best New Festival Independent Festival Awards and Music Event of the Year at the Event Production Awards from their inaugural year, organisers/co-founders Gill Tee and Debs Shilling clearly decided they wanted to step it up in 2019 and with acts such as Band of Horses, The Shires, Kris Kristofferson (travelling over on the eve of his 83rd birthday, no less), Fantastic Negrito, The Sheepdogs, The Staves, Hayseed Dixie, Ryan Bingham and so many more taking to their stages, 2019 for Black Deer Festival felt like the first true moment of the summer and also a vast leap forward for the music and lifestyle that envelopes country and Americana in the UK.
Taking place in the grounds of Eridge Park in Kent, it’s about a 10-15 minute drive (or shuttle bus!) outside Tunbridge Wells, you can’t fail to be wowed on arrival by the beautifully picturesque setting with stunning views by either walking down to the festival or even if you’re camping in the surrounding areas above the valley. Whilst Black Deer’s main festival area is situated in the ‘bowl’, once you’re there it’s an accessible site with 6 main stages: Supajam; The Roadhouse; The Ridge; Haley’s Bar, the Main Stage and the Live Fire Acoustic plus two more in the shape of The Yard in the camping area and the Papermoon Stage, that gives a platform for younger talent. Also, this year everyone was backed by the iconic Orange Amps, which worked superbly and they’d teamed up with Desert Scene London for some outstanding Roadhouse stage performers.
What style of festival is Black Deer?
While, as a general guide, they’re a Country and Americana Festival, that’s just the tip of the musical influence running through the veins of everything that takes place over the three days. As well as being a ‘roots inspired’ celebration, you’ve also got alt-rock and genre-fusions from all kinds of up and coming – and established – bands from across the globe. There’s a distinct, positive and unique feeling that reaches out across the grounds and with the additional of local and international food experts, offering gastronomic insight and a connection to the land and area they’re using, it’s local and global with everyone on board.
Highlights and recommendations from Black Deer Festival 2019
Events start around midday on Friday, so depending on where you’re travelling from, we’d recommend travelling up either early or staying close by as there were so many people I wanted to see! Somehow, my Black Deer experience already has a traditional and that’s starting with food from Meat Street BBQ, whatever you pick you’re going to love it and it’s going to fill you up. If anything, go back all weekend and work your way through their exquisite flavours and generous portions. Musically, Kris Kristofferson was – of course – a highlight at The Ridge, this iconic actor and singer-songwriter pulled in the crowds as he took to the stage with the late Merle Haggard’s band The Strangers performing a whole host of classics and captivating those gathering of all ages. Just before that, returning ‘Deerly Beloved’ band The Sheepdogs began the first of their 3 shows that weekend, but we’ll come back to their superb impact shortly. Other stand-out acts for me included the upcoming Ida Mae (such power in their performances and we noticed Jarrod Dickenson in the room supporting), Left Lane Cruiser at the Roadhouse (American blues rock from Indiana duo who’ve been going since 2004 and sound epic), John Smith (top class Guitarist and gravelly singer originally from Devon and scene-setter who simply hypnotises throughout) plus honourable mentions have to go to Asteroid (Heavy rockers), Steak (who we loved last year as well), Ferris & Sylvester, Emily Mae Winters and then the closing the night was the always entertaining Hayseed Dixie who, if you don’t know, perform bluegrass cover versions of rock songs but with their own personal style, they’re a great festival band in that respect.
This was a huge music day for me, alongside photo pit sessions and generally running back and forth across the Black Deer site but did I love it? Of course I did! Starting with Ciara Rafferty at Supajam, the Northern Irish singer-songwriter has a bright future and performed with her band with genuine charm and talent. Then, after a visit to the food arena, it was off to Jessie Buckley at the main stage and the actress/singer didn’t disappoint with an energy-fuelled set of the song from Wild Rose (read our review) and generally being delightfully hilarious… in a good way. She was clearly having the time of her life! Also stand-outs that day were The Wandering Hearts, also returning by popular demand, who have a beautiful blend of music and voice that produces all kinds of magic. Over at the Ridge, Fantastic Negrito gave a powerhouse performance of energy, insight and passion (My first introduction to him but echoes of Prince filtered through), plus we had to mention the exciting Roxanne de Bastion, The Staves, Band of Horses and also legendary multi-instrumentalist Brant Bjork in the Roadhouse. Finishing off that night for us was The Sheepdogs in a packed Supajam stage, so much so people couldn’t get in, because these country/Americana modern-day legends never disappoint nor fail to put on a party with catchy songs and top class stage presence.
If the weather hadn’t already been as sunny and perfect as we’d all hoped, it only went and continued into Sunday! Whilst The Sheepdogs opened Sunday morning on the Main, basically carrying on from where they left off Saturday night, the day really had a much more chilled vibe lingering and this probably also was due to soaring temperatures and the 3-day festival folks who were fully a part of this wonderful day-to-day escapism. I should have seen Jerron Blind Boy Paxton, that’s a regret, but I instead I indulged in Manjula’s amazing Vegan food and in the ‘missing man of Country Music’s Outlaw Era of the 1970s’ in the shape of Daniel Antopolsky, a man who was friends with the iconic Townes Van Zandt and had a whole host of stories and songs to share. I saw him at various points over the weekend and he was always happy to have a chat and share his music, even if he amusingly admitted he needed his lyric sheets these days. Other stand-out acts included Irish Mythen who brought a political, intelligent edge to proceedings plus Lucero and the Tony McPhee-led Groundhogs, who originally began in 1963. I also have to mention Aussie William Crighton, who sang out his heart and mind in the deep sullen sun of the Roadhouse (had to buy the vinyl there and then) and the highly tipped The Dead South who blew away crowds with two gigs that day, finishing in Haley’s Bar and also getting everyone in the mood early evening on the Main Stage, if you don’t keep an eye on those boys, you’d be missing out!
So, it was Year Two and did Black Deer Festival managed to balance that fine line between encouraging success and keeping the spirit of the festival? I’d find it hard to say anything but a resounding YES. While, for me, it was clearly busier from the moment we arrived, more people packing out the food area and a camp site with less space than 2018, I almost feel that kind of thing was inevitable and while in the early moments I was worried it would have a knock-on effect of how it all felt, that honestly disappeared once you get into the swing of it again. I wouldn’t say no to a less of a ‘slope’ to camp on though!
Importantly, the staff across the entire arena were friendly and helpful. This was everything from security, to the new Top-up team as they’d introduced a ‘wrist-band’ to go completely cashless this year, into the bars and even all the individual vendors, it was clear everyone was enjoying the vibe, even on the last hours when everyone had been working solidly since Thursday. There was also more noticeable camp site security, keep that going Black Deer, and working showers… hoorah!
It’s also worth mentioning that the new ‘Cashless’ system seemed like it could become a problem before I arrived but it wasn’t in the slightest. If anything, it meant I could budget the days better than I’d ever previously been able to and you can keep track of what you’re spending. Beyond the money element, we also had some time to check out the ByNWR screenings from Nicholas Winding Refn and there were a vast number of extra stalls – take your time browsing the Haley’s Bar area which was re-located and enabled a whole new ‘section’ to take flight, get involved with some Axe Throwing (please bring that back) and definitely hope they keep the wide range of stages and food choices, for meat lovers, veggies and vegans although… I think more vegan stalls would fit in perfectly.
For me, Black Deer is about the spirit of togetherness and everyone there has a genuine love for music, of all genres. The fusion-festival may follow the ethos of country and Americana – it’s evident in every aspect and of course their focus – but I honestly believe if you love meaningful music, and you respect the craft itself, you’d love Black Deer and the entire atmosphere – I’m excited to see what they do next!
Book now for 2020 https://blackdeerfestival.com/tickets
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