Had you been kidnapped and taken blindfolded to this festival without knowing what music was going to be played the cat would been let out of the bag as you passed the “Supajam” stage nearest to the entrance and heard the request from the soundcheck, “more banjo in the monitor please”? Located in a deer park in a beautiful setting not far from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, this was the second festival organised of “Americana & Country Music” at this site. This was a really well-organised event (no need for any “Angry of Tunbridge Wells” letters), with a plethora of high-quality acts and after only two years looks like being a regular date on the calendar. Americana probably means different things to different people but is a convenient wrapper to stick over almost anything and give it a new coat of paint in the hope of attracting fresh interest. A lot of the acts on show certainly looked like they’d flown in from their last rodeo, dressed like pure country only to announce “Hello, we’re such and such…from Croydon” which kind of spoilt the effect, slightly. There were of course loads of visitors from across the Atlantic offering a smorgasbord of tasty country and blues songs and all points in between.
One of the great attractions of a festival is the large number of new performers that you get the chance to see, with the advantage that you can quickly mooch along to a different stage, perhaps stopping at one of the many refreshment areas, should anyone not reach your musical tender spot. The disadvantage is also of course that in an effort to scoot around and see as many as possible you end up only seeing fragments of sets that you are enjoying, lured away by the magic of the photo pass and the opportunity to get down the front and have your remaining hair follicles blown away by the brain-numbing speakers front of stage. This leaves you with a patchwork of memories of the time spent, three days in this case, rather than a detailed list of events; so, in no particular order, the highlights of the long, sunny weekend are set out below.
The absolute highlight for me was the performances by Canadian group “The Sheepdogs”; with six different stages on offer, several acts re-appeared on different days in different venues, which is a great idea, especially so in the case of this bunch of guys who looked like they should have been playing a residency at the Fillmore East circa 1972. They have a killer set of songs with catchy hooks and memorable guitar lines, frequently played in unison on dual guitars (playing harmony in thirds) that is more than a little reminiscent of the Allman Brothers. Their last album “Changing Colours” is an absolute gem; the opener from that, “Nobody” is a classic rolling melodic rocking number that was just meant to be played live; likewise, “Help Us All”, featuring the keyboard player switching to trombone to underpin the anthemic chorus. Their sets were brilliant and I’ve become mildly obsessed with them since hearing them recreate their studio albums so faithfully.
One of the first performances was by an Australian, “William Crighton” who radiated authenticity and looked like he had hitchhiked the whole way with his guitar on his back. Singing alone, accompanying himself mainly on acoustic, he spoke about growing up in a small town in between songs and sang numbers like “Jesus Got The Blues” and another commemorating Gallipoli, all delivered very intensely as if he was singing to an individual member of the audience. Other first-day performances that stood out were jaunty sets from Canadian “Gordie Mackeeman” and the UK group “Noble Jacks” both featuring fiddle playing frontman. The slight Canadian had the air of an Irish pixie and frequently went into some spritely dancing featuring some very fancy leg work, all while bowing away. The performance by “Kris Kristofferson” drew a big crowd and the legend did not disappoint. Playing many of his known repertoire; “Me & Bobby McGee” featured early on, “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down” had the audience singing along (the latter getting a huge response). He may have been a little frail and his voice was certainly not powerful but this felt like a rare, privileged event, possibly not one likely to be repeated, and his set was highly enjoyable.
Another act of interest that caught the eye and ear was “Ferris & Sylvester” a duo that straddle a number of genres, definitely including some punchy blues in there. Issy Ferris on bass and Archie Sylvester on guitar and kick drum provided a big sound and gave an energetic performance of different shades, from the rollicking drive of “London’s Blues” to the head to head delivery of the more folky/mainstream sound of the very catchy “Flying Visit”. A different type of duo that performed on the “Roadhouse stage” was the heavy guitar and drums sound of “Left Lane Cruiser”, who didn’t bother with any light and shade but pounded away with all the sensitivity of a construction crew smashing through a listed building in a brutal take on blues-based songs that was slightly hypnotic. Apart from the thought that you wouldn’t want to spill one of their drinks in a bar they were briefly enjoyable. Over on a different stage yet another duo, “Ida Mae” performed a set that featured some powerful slide guitar playing from Chris Turpin and while the twosome describing their music as “British Blue-eyed Soul / Acoustic Americana” it sounded pretty bluesey to me. Like quite a few acts I only caught a song or two by Emily Mae Winters but enjoyed her pure, folksy vocals. “Black Eyed Dogs” featuring “Ethan Johns” were a band I was looking forward to seeing on the basis of hearing their “Silver Liner” album and what I saw left me wanting to find out more about them.
The “Alabama 3” played an acoustic set on the main stage on the Saturday and were a lot of fun; “Woke up this Morning”, “Hello…I’m Johnny Cash” and “U Don’t Danse To Tekno Anymore” etc are all excellent songs. They were followed by the “Wandering Hearts” who were one of the other stand out acts of the weekend. This UK country act look to have real future; playing songs from their superb album “Wild Silence” their catchy melodic songs captured the festival spirit perfectly, the large crowd basking in the sun lapping it up. Earlier, the actress/singer “Jesse Buckley” had delivered a nice set that had created a bit of a buzz. US songwriter “Justin Townes Earle” took to the main stage alone and performed a laid back set that, while not especially memorable, was very listenable at the time. Later on, the three sisters from Watford, “ The Staves” delivered a performance that was enchantingly beautiful, their combined harmonies floating above the crowd. Dressed all in white the sisters could have been angels; their singing was captivatingly angelic.
A more raucous performance was provided by “Fantastic Negritto” who provided a striking image front of the stage, a tall, commanding figure topped off by a properly fantastic hairdo, four spikes of hair sticking in different directions, like a jester’s hat, in a snappy waistcoat and tie and sky-blue strides. The man commanded attention as he leapt around grinding his guitar into his body and pulling some great shapes for the photographic community. I haven’t a clue what numbers he played but can testify to the power of a performance that was totally compelling. His lead guitar player tried desperately to get in on the act with some extravagant front of stage shapes himself but all eyes remained on the stylish frontman, exuding cool charisma by the bucket load, with a bit of a Hendrix vibe going on, minus the guitar pyrotechnics. He had been preceded by bluesman Watermelon Slim”, who looked about 105 and sported a very natty hat with a jaunty feather stuck in it combined with a shiny green shirt and colourful tie. Despite appearances he managed an opening shimmy that threatened the continued use of both hips before launching into “Hard Times” and “Wheel Man”, playing some nice slide on a guitar laid flat on a table in front of him. Mention should also be made of a superb performance by “Sam Morrow” and his band, a tight rocking set of fabulous songs and some sizzling guitar interaction that was downright funky and exciting. The “Cinelli Brothers” also laid down a solid performance, which I only briefly caught, but enjoyed what I heard.
A name familiar to blues fans, “Larkin Poe”, played in the second-largest stage on the Saturday night and came out all guns blazing in a lively set that attracted a big crowd. I’d never seen them before and was impressed by the energy and the power of their performance; they really rocked along and their double female lead vocals were highly effective as were the combination of lead and lap steel guitar playing. Covers of “Black Betty” and an encore of “Come on in My Kitchen” stood out. I can’t wait to see these again. A completely different sound and presentation was provided by the authentic playing and singing of “Jerron Blind boy Paxton” who is maybe the first living example of someone cryogenically frozen in the 1930s and revived, solely to give an insight into what a young bluesman from the period sounded like in his prime. He provided a gentle set, comprising songs with some tough references, “Alabama Bound”, preceded by a description of Alabama as being Hell and “Railroad Bill”. Having seen him a few days before in London, a dapper, suited figure, it was interesting to see him in a set of overalls, like a sharecropper singing on his modest porch. He is a simply brilliantly talented musician, knocking out intricate numbers on guitar, banjo, violin, harmonica and piano interspersed with witty banter. He played two sets on the same day on different stages to highly appreciative audiences.
Billy Bragg tends to be like Marmite to many but delivered a really strong set on the main stage on the Sunday, playing familiar numbers like “Sexuality” and “A New England” and brought right up to date with additional lyrics to address contemporary issues; no prizes for guessing that Donald Trump and Brexit were slated. Irish Mythen, a powerful voiced solo singer and guitarist, delivered sets on a number of different stages over different days and captivated audiences wherever she played. She was definitely one of the hits of the festival. There were plenty of other acts playing around the festival, too numerous to mention, but to name a few more: English country singer “Yola” was excellent and one to look out for; Sunday night main stage closers “The Shires” polarise opinion about their authenticity but provided a very polished and crowd-pleasing show. In the “Ridge” stage a large crowd watched “The Mavericks” bring a Latin feel to proceedings in a superb swinging set, epitomised by their closing number “Dance the Night Away”, which was what a number of people had been doing, very enthusiastically.
A really enjoyable festival with great music in a lovely setting. Definitely recommended.
Black Deer Festival 2020 – June 19th – Sunday 21st June – Limited numbers Super Early Bird Tickets 2020 available HERE
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