304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
Black Deer Festival, Eridge Park, Tunbridge Wells – 17th-19th June 2022
Looking back at the line-up for all three days of this festival of Americana, which features over 120 high-quality artists appearing on six stages, was a reminder of how spoilt for choice the large audience was over the weekend. To be honest, this smorgasbord of music, which reflected the broad church that is Americana, presented a real challenge as to how to physically see as many acts as possible, which was a nice problem to have I suppose.
Returning after a two year absence, for well-known reasons, the two organisers, Gill Tee and Deborah Shilling, must have been chuffed at the large crowds in attendance over the weekend, not to mention the good weather, ignoring the torrential downpour that brought proceedings to a hasty end for the final performances on Saturday night. The setting for the venue is a natural bowl in the rolling Kent landscape and, while the park is only a five-minute drive from the genteel bustle of Tunbridge Wells, it feels like being deep in the country with unspoilt views in all directions when you’re on site. The drainage for the site – not a very rock’n’roll subject I know – is amazing. Returning on the Sunday morning after a night of torrential downpours and thunder and lightning I half expected to find the parking area a bit of a quagmire as well as the well-trodden parts of the arena. It was as dry as a bone. Talking of being dry, there was little chance of going thirsty with an ample supply of large bar areas dotted around, matched by a large number of very good quality, if pricey (although par for the course) food outlets. The general vibe of the festival is very laid back and welcoming with friendly staff. The festival welcomes children and lays on a stack of activities for them, which contributes to the communal atmosphere. There are also activities for big children too, like axe throwing (on the evidence of which it’s just as well that The Walking Dead and its ilk are only fictional) and Harley Davidson bikes for men of a certain age to drool over.
What about the music? With reference to the large number of acts, most of whom were unfamiliar, it was a case of using Spotify (which is where it comes into its own) beforehand to get an idea of what to catch. The beauty of festivals like this is that you get the opportunity to discover new artists or to see someone you’ve listened to but not heard live before. Given the need to take advantage of the opportunity to take photos from the pit at the start of sets, in the two stages where this was available, as well as arrive early enough to shimmy to the front of the more crowded smaller stages, it meant there was rarely the opportunity to catch much of any one act, which was a shame in some cases and a good excuse in others.
Starting on Friday, the highlights for me started with the opening act on the main stage, Franky Perez, who kicked things off in blazing sunshine as festival goers were still streaming in. He proceeded to play a high-energy set of blues and soul covers, starting with some lead in harmonica on a lively version of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ and continued with songs like blues staple ‘Going Down’ and a killer re-working of the Box Top’s “The Letter”. He re-appeared twice more over the weekend in two of the smaller enclosed tents supplemented by a local all-girl three-piece horn section, and absolutely stormed it. His band cooked, especially his lead guitar player, and the combination of his charm, exuberant stage presence and vocal talent made this artist one of the stand-out acts of the weekend
The Cuban Brothers, also on the main stage, are perfect festival entertainment. It’s fair to say that a lot of typical Americana acts have a fairly low-key stage presence. That description didn’t apply to this bunch. A totally tongue-in-cheek act, they offered up some slick dance moves and a very funny frontman who was excellent at engaging with the audience against the backdrop of a recorded soundtrack of their infectious Latin dance beats. Their presence was slightly incongruous when contrasted with the majority of other acts on the bill, but a very welcome one, putting a massive smile on everyone’s faces.
William the Conqueror was an act I was looking forward to seeing and their cool rocking grooves did not disappoint. Their 2021 album “Maverick Thinker” is well worth checking out. The Felice Brothers were another eagerly anticipated act and they opened up on the main stage with the perfect song, “Jazz on the Autobahn” from last year’s “From Dreams To Dust” album with it’s catchy “ooh, ooh, ooh” refrain. Normally the first three songs go past in a blur as the focus, literally, is on trying to get the exposure right while trying to capture the moment (and dance around fellow photographers) but this superb song cut through the business end of things and straight into my musical consciousness. Lead singer Ian Felice had a bit of a Lou Reed drawl going on, which is no bad thing. Israel Nash’s music has been popping up on playlists for some time and is always worth listening to. He didn’t disappoint live, although his band didn’t manage to recreate the wide sonic landscape of his recordings, they were a powerful force behind the striking-looking frontman, in his dark vest, long white hair, shades and a wide-brimmed hat. This was one of many acts that I had to drag myself reluctantly away from after a few numbers.
The trio His Lordship hadn’t stood out as being particularly memorable when researching the acts but on passing by the “Roadhouse” stage I was sucked in by the strains of their playing the classic instrumental “Sleepwalk”. I was glad I did. Despite it being the hottest day of the year, the band sported dark suits and played with a frenetic New Wave energy that was spellbinding. Guitarist and frontman James Walbourne must have sweated half his body weight while charging around as the band smashed their way through their set at 90 mph, playing the sort of tight rock’n’roll that is timeless (and increasingly rare). Kristoffer Sonne on drums abandoned his kit and gave a manic vocal performance towards the end of the set on a song with the refrain “my brother is an only child”, which was entertainingly bonkers. Fabulous!
Imelda May gave a powerful vocal performance and got a big thumbs up from many of the photographers present (usually quite a tough crew to please). “Black Tears” was the standout track among the openers. She has an impressive still and focused stage presence. Moving to a different stage later in her set I could hear the glorious sound of her earlier rockabilly records in the shape of “Mayhem” wafting across the site. Another artist I barely got a chance to listen to. Jake Bugg was well received but, frankly, had about as much stage presence as a cardboard cut out and gave an instantly forgettable performance, making little attempt to connect with the crowd. He definitely caught a wave when that breakthrough album came out
Honourable mentions go to Jinda Biant playing his own brand of the blues, playing a big semi-acoustic, in one of the smaller venues; a stage which also saw family trio My Girl The River entertain the enthusiastic crowd with some tuneful and jaunty playing that more reflected the musical spirit of the festival, fiddle to the fore. Shovels & Rope and Foy Vance (the latter winning the best moustache award), who were the last two acts on the Ridge stage, looked promising but, the story of the weekend, wasn’t sufficiently engaging to make me want to stick around or come back and watch some more after visiting other stages; they are both fine musicians (just not quite my thing). I only caught the closing moments of Seafoam Green’s set, which was a shame as they appear to be a band to look out for. A tantalising glimpse. I caught quite a bit of the Outlaw Orchestra over a beer. The trio powered their way through a country-tinged rocking set. Unlike some of the more punchy acts that featured over the weekend, this combo had some well-constructed songs, with proper choruses and killer riffs, like “See You In Hell” and the witty “Too Much Willie Nelson” (preceded by a tale from the band’s time supporting Willie Nelson). A perfect festival band in many ways.
I’m not sure what James was doing headlining the mainstage at the end of the day, given their not immediately discernible link with Americana. Tim Booth, the band’s front man, has an ego that can probably be viewed from outer space and after preening in front of the large cohort of photographers made a snidey comment as we trooped off after the first three songs, which was a cheap shot and not particularly endearing. I didn’t stick around for their whole set, which to be fair was going down well; inevitably the strains of “Sit Down” wafted through the still-hot late-night air as I walked away rather wearily on the unfortunately uphill trek to the car parking area. It’s worth mentioning that getting in and out of the park by car was a real breeze.
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