Black Deer Festival 17-19 June 2022
Eridge Park, Kent
The first thing that hit you when arriving at the festival is what a fantastic venue. It is picturesque and there was plenty of campsite space. You then realised it has a wonderful laid back atmosphere which is a tribute to the organisers, staff and all the attendees. We were also blessed initially with glorious weather that matched the Americana theme of the festival (sadly the weather had other plans for us as you will find out later!).
For us, the festival kicked off with the wonderful Franky Perez on the main stage… and what a start it was. He provided a sound to match the weather with a sunny mix of Americana/blues but with a healthy dose of funk and soul. The fact that he had only joined up with the band a couple of days previously was amazing. It was a lively and upbeat set that got the crowd up and dancing (even at this early stage of their drinking!). The overall sound made us think of what might have been if Paolo Nutini had been brought up in the flash of Las Vegas rather than the dourer Scotland!
Whilst billed as an Americana festival, Black Deer provided a far wider musical offering. A point made most clearly obvious with The Cuban Brothers. Given they consisted of a DJ playing disco, a dancer and an MC who was part singer and part comedian, you couldn’t get much further away from a traditional band set up. But they sure as hell kept the good time spirit going. They certainly entertained the crowd who were dancing along to the soul/disco sounds with their hands in the air. We doubted if there would be a bigger cheer all weekend than for the one which came for their cover of “I Wanna Dance With Someone.”
There was a switch in sound and style for Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly who took the bold step of playing his album “The Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager” in full, to mark its 15 year anniversary. It’s an unusual step when playing to a festival audience where the majority would not be there to specifically see you. But the music has an easy going feel to it with a broad appeal. It ranges from softer acoustic numbers to a few which made us think of how we’d imagine Frank Turners’ younger, less angry, brother would sound.
William The Conqueror are probably the first band to offer up the blues/country sound that we were expecting to hear at the festival. Whilst the Roadhouse tent may have offered a respite from the sun, it didn’t from the heat as it was totally rammed. The band certainly met the crowd’s expectation as they brought a big punchy sound which dragged more people into the tent as the set went on. They upped the sound even further with a few numbers that even brought a bit of a Gaslight Anthem purer rock sound.
We then had one of the acts we were most looking forward to, Imelda May. She looked majestic as a kind of Americana goth which was a stark look in comparison to the sunny weather. She started with a couple of more brooding tracks to entice the crowd in before launching some of the bigger and rockier songs. She may not have had the likes of Jeff Beck guesting but not surprisingly she has assembled a talented set of musicians to support her. “Just One Kiss” really gets the crowd going before she brings in one of her older songs in the shape of the brilliant “Big Bad Handsome Man.” Her style of music may have shifted but that powerful voice certainly hasn’t. The older favorites such as “Johnny Got A Boom Box” and a rockier version of “Mayhem” certainly send the crowd into raptures. She also delivers her sublime cover of “Tainted Love”.
Regular readers of this site will know that we have a distrust of just a drummer and a guitarist band, especially when it’s one man and one woman, following a glut of bands post The White Stripes. Thankfully Shovels and Rope are the exception that proves the rule and offer something a bit different. The fact that Michael Trent spent some time in Butch Walker’s band is also a big tick in our box. They also have a sense of genuine passion in their songs which marks them out from other similar folk bands. Their live set sees them introducing some synth backing which also helps. Throw in a down and dirty version of “Children Of The Revolution” and you know they are onto a winner.
The headliners of the first day are James, a classic band where you think you only know ‘that’ one song but then suddenly realise that you know far more. That’s partly attributable to front man Tim Booth’s very distinctive voice. It is also quite clear that a fair few of the crowd have bought tickets to specifically see James. It’s a really large and enthusiastic crowd who are certainly rewarded by the band. You can see that they are very comfortable with playing large festival/arena shows. They also benefit from a whole host of tunes that gradually build and build before reaching a crescendo of crowd singalongs. Yes, they do play “Sit Down” but very early in the set which is in itself a great demonstration of the band’s confidence in the quality of their setlist.
Each of the day’s festivities begin with a Songwriter session and that is how we start the Saturday. It’s a unique opportunity to see artists in a raw, informal session where you get to hear stark versions of their songs accompanied by stories and anecdotes. Whilst Cam is clearly the key performer, that many have come to see, all the acts are given equal opportunity to shine. A special mention should also go to Kezia Gill who also shines with her own unique country style. This is a great format in which to hear intimate versions of songs and makes us a bit annoyed we missed yesterday’s version.
Any sense of disappointment is soon banished as we make our way over to the main stage to see the brilliant Amy Montgomery. She comes on to the stage like a wild banshee and is clearly determined to bring some energy to the day. She’s a dynamic and passionate artist who demands attention as she prowls the stage. You know how impressive a performance it was by the way the crowd builds and builds as the set goes on. But it’s not just an increase in people listening, it’s the number that get up and move. Certainly, the first surprise hit of the festival and her Jim Morrison/Florence/Kate Bush wildness makes her an act we definitely want to see more of….. so that’s what we did! Later, she played an acoustic set which was equally as impressive. Along with reworked versions of her own songs she also threw in some choice covers. It was also a reminder of how talented the band is. We noted at the main set the way they seamlessly switched between instruments, and this stripped down set also highlighted their musicianship.
It’s then a change of pace as we switch stages to catch up with former Gomez singer Ben Ottewell. His unique voice has a tremendous, endearing warmth to it which keeps the crowd watching with keen attention. It’s one of those voices which manages to be both strong and yet vulnerable. His roots flavoured acoustic rock certainly makes him a firm favourite with the Black Deer crowd.
The next band’s name, The Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell was enough to drag us into the Roadhouse bar to check them out. The fact that they also promised hard hitting riffs and old fashioned rock was a definite bonus. That’s certainly what the band delivered with a sound which was full of greasy riffs and hard rockers. No wonder there was an ample crowd of long haired, bearded people. The band and the greaser style venue could not have been more perfectly matched. Anyone who felt some of the acoustic/folk music on offer was a little light for them would’ve loved this.
Wilco were one of the bands that we (and we’re sure many of the crowd) were most looking forward to seeing. They certainly got off to a blistering start by opening with “A Shot In The Arm” and shortly following it up with “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, the latter ending in a glorious cacophony of sounds. There were quite a few tracks from the new album which did leave some of the crowd impatiently awaiting ‘the hits’ but no one could deny the sheer quality of the songs and the tightness and supreme musicianship of the band. Jeff Tweedy certainly seemed content to let his music do the talking and had very little interaction with the crowd. But that of course is perfectly fine when the songs are as good as “Handshake Drugs” and “Via Chicago”. It’s also live where you really appreciate how fine a guitarist Nels Cline is as his little flurries just light up the songs. Together with the power of Glen Kotche’s drums they are the stars of the show, especially when Jeff is being such a low key front man. It seems an odd move to end with new song “Falling Apart Right Now” after the peak of “California Stars” (and we are particularly disappointed in there being no “Heavy Metal Drummer” in the set). But Wilco are a legendary band who are more than entitled to pick the set that meets their own needs rather than a festival crowd.
We also questioned whether it should be Wilco that headlined the day rather than The Waterboys…but as it turns out we were glad they didn’t. As for the Waterboys, the moment they hit the stage you know that this festival was the perfect home for them. Their look and sound certainly matched the atmosphere and feel of Black Deer. The band are set up very close on stage and they are clearly a really tight unit. They manage to make playing a headline festival feel like you are seeing a far more intimate set. When they play “Still A Freak” it’s a timely reminder of how great a band they really are. Sadly, for their passionate fans their set is brought to a premature and dramatic end by a massive thunderstorm. Indeed, the whole festival ended early, and all the people sent home or to their tent. A tough decision for the organisers but certainly the right one. We may love music (and really wanted to hear the whole of the moon!) but the safety of the crowd, the band and all those working at the festival is far more important.
We begin the final day with the sound check for Eddy Smith and the 507 which turns out to be surprisingly entertaining. It is also quite clear that their drummer could have a successful career in standup comedy if music doesn’t work out for him! Although it should, as the band have a great soul/rock sound which acts as the perfect start to the day. They’ve a whole bunch of songs that are full of melody and passion and get the crowd up and dancing very early in the day. It’s quite a tough job to get the balance of rock and soul right, lesser bands end up sounding like The Commitments, but this band have the authentic edge of The Black Crowes to their sound. They are a contender for the find of the festival and you wouldn’t be surprised to see them on the main stage next year.
For those that wanted to keep the rocking good times going it required a quick run over to the Supajam Tent. There you’d have found the Rattlesnake Hearts. Whilst the band’s name had us conjuring up images of a 80s’ glam metal/sleaze band, to our disappointment, but not the rest of the crowd, they had more of a west coast rock sound. It’s fair to say that the appreciative crowd who were tumbling out of the tent much preferred that to the cock rock we were hoping for! The fact that we then went to see Franky Perez for the second time during the festival despite other acts being on really shows how impressed we were with them. It’s yet again a set that is full of rock, soul, funk classics. The onstage charisma of Franky and the relationship between him and his guitar playing brother was contagious. In some ways it was even better in the club like environment of the smaller stage then it was on the larger main stage. Obviously, many people had decided to take in the band again as the tent was totally rammed and they generated some of the largest cheers we heard all weekend. Perez is clearly a star and in a just world would be a huge commercial success. For now, he seemed to genuinely love the amazing support he received from the cheering crowd.
After a few high octane acts it was good to get a change of pace with Bess Atwell. Soul is still the order of the day, but this was more a mellow and acoustic style. She brought an easy and laid back sound but also retained an emotive feel which pulled you into her songs. That then brought us far too quickly to the last act of the festival for us. But that was the legendary Van Morrison. The whole stage was decked out in gold and not surprisingly he drew the biggest crowd of the weekend. Whilst Van may make Jeff Tweedy seem like the chattiest front man around, there is no doubting the remarkable quality of his voice. Even at this age there is a quality to his tone that just can’t be denied. Seemingly not negatively impacted with all the years and years of use, it retains a raw warmth, and it just stretches out across the large festival site.
A stage encased in gold certainly feels like a fitting tribute to this wonderful festival. It’s infancy on the festival scene may make it a prince rather than a king but it’s definitely a majestic festival. It is remarkable that it is drawing such huge international acts but still managing to maintain the feel good, easy going nature of much smaller festivals. We have no doubts that it will keep going from strength to strength and will retain its unique qualities whilst continuing to grow. We may be towards the start of the festival season but there can be no doubt that at the end of the year Black Deer will be up in the running for festival of the year.