Over the hill and far away hidden within arm’s length from Tunbridge Wells there is a valley where buttercups and grassroots music flourish in perfect harmony. This is a place where family’s let their wheelbarrows packed with tents, fairy lights and cowboy hats drag music lovers to their plot of grass which is complete with foot stomping artists, luscious food vans, and an open fire housed within a massive wooden teapot which put the Old Woman who lived in a shoe’s house to shame.
This wonderland, officially known as Black Deer festival, is healing for all who have made the journey from normality. Whilst initial confusion cascaded through campers in relation to the contactless payment system whereby your wristband acted as your card for everything on the festival (thus invalidating the use of cash and card), this was quickly quelled. Truly a thing of a future, your wristband removed the pervasive fear of theft as your funds were literally strapped to your very being. No longer did you need to tot up the last of your silvers in a desperate acquisition of a twilight plate of chips, simply tap your wristband and you’re away.
The size of the festival has been highly disputed- well, that’s to say at least it was debated by my retired next-tent neighbours over their stove brewed morning cupper. On their account, the combined total of those who attended the festival was greater than the population of Bath, a fact which honestly seems quite likely. With six stages providing the platform for massive artists of the like of Band of Horses (the famed American country band which tread the lines between Frightened Rabbit and Mumford and Sons) and Kris Kristofferson (a man on equal standing to Johnny Cash in the Americana community), to local bands having their first taste of large crowds.
Significantly the third largest stage, named after and run by the local charity Superjam, aimed to follow the charity’s ethos by promoting the smaller artists. In a similar spirit to the more commercial BBC Introducing stage, Superjam intertwined the underground classics with new up and coming artists in beautiful harmony. Furthermore, unlike other festivals, the predominance of artists got a reasonably long set time to show their talents. Ferris and Sylvester, for example, suffered the peak of the summer heat in the black tent with a broken kick drum to play an astonishing set which lasted a full hour- an unheard-of set length for such a small band outside their own their headline shows. As well as one of Superjam’s students on the youth programme introducing each artist and darting about in front of the stage to get their first taste of live photography, the charity also carved out lineup time for songwriter sessions. An ingenious idea, each day this slot brought together four different artists on stage to sing and discuss their writing process and inspirations. The most astonishing of which came from Irish Mythen. This Irish singer with the voice of a thousand and the humour of a seasoned standup comedian, Mythen consistently blew the audience away with her funny songs which would catch you off guard through a sudden plunge into important comments upon her experiences with her own queer identity and politics. Playing six sets over the three days, including the songwriter’s session, no one could resist nor hide from her Irish charm.
In the words of the festival openers Noble Jacks, Americana has just recently come to England and saved us all. Beyond simply laying its roots in America, it’s a genre which allows those who normally feel restricted to the label of folk to branch out into blues, rock and whatever else they are attracted to. That being said, for a festival which sells itself through this specific classification, there was incredible musical diversity. Throughout all three days you could move from basking in the sun on haybales basking in the work of the humblest acoustic musician, to a covered bar whose music was as dark as the elongated tent which only emphasized the guitars roar.
No matter its genred classification, Black Deer brought the best of Americana over the sea to play. This is the sort of festival where sitting takes priority over standing and musical appreciation over drunken recklessness. In the words of the amazing psych-Americana band Sheepdogs who had travelled all the way from Canada to perform three sets over the weekend, being relaxed is an underrated attribute of a festival and I couldn’t agree more.
One artist who really stands out from the weekend is Watermelon Slim. Not knowing anything about the man also known as William P. Homans III, following the previews nights hilarious Hayseed Dixies set which compromised almost entirely of covers (never would I have ever thought I would hear ‘The Eye of The Tiger’ played as a country song on a mandolin) I supposed that it could be a fruity Eminem blues cover band. But, oh how was I wrong. Much to my surprise, I arrived to see a 70-year-old truck driver and Vietnam war veteran stood in front of a mounted sliding guitar and to hear a blues set which transported me back in time. He is a storybook awaiting an audience. A performer waiting to preach. Blues poured from his lungs and we, the audience, readily drunk it in.
As the festival drew to a close and Billy Bragg’s doom and gloom political statements droned on on the main stage many moved from the open air into the tents to catch classic artists like The Mavericks and Treetop Flyers. I, however, found myself in Haley’s Bar hiding from the humid heat amongst bundles of straw. It is here that I stumbled across a Jack Garrett looking figure adorned with a cowboy hat and a thick American accent who joined his band who had long been song checking. This man was Paul Cauthen, a Texan man who moved the room with the band’s funk guitar and deep lyrics there was nothing anyone could do but get up and move. Setting a lethargic room alight I became immersed in a sea of people dancing as if no one was watching. To my left sat brothers cross-legged at the floor of their boogying parent’s feet playing rock, paper, scissors in time with the beat, and to my right a retired couple danced arm and arm, only breaking their lock for the husband to amuse his wife with his robot- if that is not the purest form of love and joy I’m not sure what is. Unable to leave such a warm atmosphere, the festival was eventually brought to a close with the Canadian Death South who cracked beers to the salute of the audience’s cowboy hats as their walking blues got the audience sweating away the last of their festival sins before returning to the world refreshed the next morning.
Honestly I cannot endorse this festival enough, get your early bird tickets for next year here.
Prior Gallery by Louise Roberts (left) and Ania Shrimpton (right)
Header Image Credit (featuring the wondrous Staves in the distance) by Ania Shrimpton