Black Deer has been referred to in media shorthand as the UK’s first country festival – conjuring up mental images of twangy Nashville sounds, foot stomping, line-dancing and a lot of sad ballads about trailers and departed lovers. And part of what makes the event interesting is that these tropes are certainly here – but they are at once played straight, explored, subverted and even satirised.
Now in its second year, the event co-founded by Deborah Shilling and Gill Tee bills itself as the UK’s first major ‘country and Americana festival’ – but Black Deer is far from the one-note event you might expect. There’s some old-school country, some outlaw country, some bluegrass, some blues, a bit of gospel, some southern style metal, and plenty of acts who don’t fit squarely into any one sub-genre. There’s acts who at first glance don’t seem to fit the bill at all, then work perfectly in context. There are plenty of stateside artists, of course, but an exceptional showing from the UK’s under-sold Americana scene and contributions from Canada and Europe aplenty. In many ways, Black Deer is an event that takes the inherently undefinable nature of Americana, and plays that for all its worth – creating a world where the typical and atypical can sit side by side. Exploring Black Deer is like participating in a highly interactive debate as to what ‘country’ and ‘Americana’ mean, and where these musical arenas intersect with wider worlds of folk and rock. And that’s just the music side of it.
Barbecue being a religion in the States and goes hand-in-hand with Americana – as such Black Deer makes a point of making grill-mastery a focus of the event. Live Fire is the dedicated barbecue wing of Black Deer – and it’s an interactive three day festival on its own. There’s no UK festival – outside of dedicated industry events like Grillstock and Big Feastival – in memory where food is given such a central position. Even Black Deer’s culinary component is an exercise in exploring stereotypes – there’s the expected ribs and brisket alongside rounds of vegan barbecue and world cuisines. Chefs from all over compete for the title of Grand Champion, alongside informative and entertaining demonstrations from high-profile chefs – with a range of food trucks providing Southern-style cooking to the punters en masse.
For all that Black Deer shines an inquisitive light on the oft-overlooked UK country world, to fully enjoy the experience one has to embrace the slight inauthenticity. Cowboy boots, rhinestones and dungarees by the pick-up load, bars selling moonshine cocktails. The old red-white-and-blue is everywhere you look. The UK might have an unexpectedly vast Americana scene, but it’s unashamedly modelled on the scene pioneered by the American South. Many of the crowd (and a few of the musicians) are to some extent playing dress-up here – but is that really all that different to punters who deliberately immerse themselves in hippie-garb and flower-power at other festivals, then return to collared shirts and sensible shoes for work on Tuesday?
As long as one appreciates the homage, Black Deer is a visual treat of a festival – old Chevys and Harleys sit out to admire, stalls of cigar-box guitars, spur-tossing, even axe throwing (a rising trend that seems hipster-twee in London but actually fits well here) The smaller stages double as saloons, with intricate honky-tonk décor. The organisers deserve props for just how immersive an Americana experience they’ve created here. Oh, and its cashless.
It’s a highly family friendly event, with the Young Folk area providing entertainment – and performing opportunities – to the many kids in attendance. Those looking to party need not fear though – Roadhouse and Haleys Bar stay open till 2 for late-night revellers, and the arena fire-pits are a great place for punters to mingle. It’s the Magic Teapot, however, where the after-hours magic happens. Hidden in a non-descript hut in the campsites, this 24-hour gathering spot has kettles boiling on the coals for those who’d rather a tea than a blood-warm can of cider, a plethora of instruments including a piano for those wanting to jam, and a uniquely welcoming atmosphere. It’s the kind of hub that every festival needs.
Black Deer’s sophomore outing is blessed with sunshine – dispelling concerns from anyone who endured five straight days of rain at Download last week – and kicks off with sets from William Crighton and The Sheepdogs on the Ridge, whilst Swedish act Asteroid are among the acts who admirably provide a heavier vibe over at The Roadhouse.
Over in Live Fire, charcoal king Matt Williams dispels notions of run-of-the-mill cooking demos – alongside accomplice Chops he creates wood charcoal from scratch, making a bespoke kiln using a watering can, with meat then grilled straight over the lit spout, as plaited beef fillet is paired with a beer and grilled oyster dressing. And yes, you do get to try the food.
If Black Deer chose to incorporate Glasto’s ‘legend slot’, few living artists would have as good a claim as Kris Kristofferson who is joined by longtime collaborators the Strangers. It would be wishful thinking to say that Kristofferson is as good as ever – at age 83 his vocals are understandably light and the setlist favours his mellower output – which means we are treated to classics like ‘Loving Her Was Easier’ and ‘Sunday Morning Comin’ Down’. The coarser, Highwaymen era outlaw material may well be best left to memory. Kristofferson may be one of the oldest performers at any UK festival this year, and is still performing with verve and sincerity in his eighth decade – the very fact that one of outlaw country’s founding fathers is here is a cause for celebration and lends a certain prestige to the festival as a whole.
Hayseed Dixie are already a UK festival favourite – their bluegrass re-imagining of everything from Toto’s ‘Africa’ to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to namesake ACDC is a heartfelt send up which provides a highly entertaining close to the day – at this point you know what you’re getting with Dixie, an affectionately mocking Southern disco – and there’s arguably no better place for it than Black Deer.
John Butler Trio close the first night with an outstanding set on the Ridge stage (for reasons unexplained, the main stage is closed until Saturday). Butler’s laid-back persona and rambling, stoner-esque stage banter might not suggest it, but he is low-key one of the best musicians on the scene. ‘Be Better’ and ‘Zebra’ are standouts, with the pinnacle of the night being his rendition of ‘Ocean’ – a mesmerising acoustic tapestry. In keeping with Black Deers inversion of expectations, a funk-heavy roots act from Western Australia might not seem like an ideal Americana headliner, but it truly works.
The sunny weather continues for the second day (one has to wonder if the Southern vibe would lose its charm somewhat if faced with an English downpour) Irish actor and musician Jessie Buckley has turned her role as a troubled country singer in ‘Wild Rose’ into a secondary career in country – her amiable persona matches her vocal ability in an enjoyable set which – to her merit – never seems like an actor merely playing a role. Brixton’s Alabama 3 treat the crowd to an acoustic set including a mellow rendition of ‘Woke Up This Morning’ (yep, The Sopranos theme song), while Justin Townes Earle brings his gruff, bluesy tones to the afternoon Main Stage crowd. In the midst of half-apologizing for his coarse language, he remarks, ‘Hey, you take your kids to see an Earle, you’re gonna see some shit.’
Over on the Supajam, Irish Mythen, an Irish-Canadian folk balladeer is billed as a ‘vocal powerhouse’ – which she undoubtedly is, while at the same time a powerful, truthful storyteller and exceptionally funny crowd-pleaser, capable of turning a simple string change into both a boisterous folky sing-along and a stand-up comedy routine. Ms Mythen is likely a new discovery for many of the crowd, and a sublime one.
Band of Horses are once again, a headliner who challenge expectations – they’re an alt-rock band from Seattle whose best claim to Americana is their singers Southern accent. While the visuals are nice – the band washed in low lights of red and blue – his seems a bit of a ‘fans’ headliner – casual listeners might find their catalogue a little samey, but the dedicated crowd at the front love it, ‘Is There A Ghost’ and ‘The Great Salt Lake’ go down a treat, and the opening bars of 2004 hit ‘The Funeral’ are greeted with a wave of anticipatory cheer.
Sundays food offerings include a judged vegan round, and sour-beer infused haggis kebabs. Matt Burgess, a Kiwi born chef with a prestigious reputation on the London scene for his signature style of ‘free cooking’ – is the standout, matching a South Downs lamb leg – butterflied in front of the crowd – with an Asian style tamarind ketchup and burnt spring onions. Burgess is a superb choice for a barbecue demo chef – entertaining to listen to and with a passion for food which comes across in every word.
Regina quintet The Dead South are one of Canada’s finest Americana offerings, and their Main Stage set on Sunday is a masterclass in bluegrass beauty – some last minute re-arrangements made after frontman Nate Hilts injured his hand in an unspecified country music accident do not deter the set even slightly. ‘In Hell I’ll Be Good Company’ and ‘Banjo Odyssey’ are among the many standouts. There’s a comic synchronicity to the Saskatchewans, even when drinking beer between songs. A true highlight of the weekend.
Texan troubadour Ryan Bingham is, no debate to be had, one of the best songwriters in Americana today. Not even 40, he bears the gravelly, whiskey soaked tones of a country veteran, with a genre-fusing five album trajectory to match – it’s actually something of a shame that his Black Deer set is so heavily focused around recent album ‘American Love Song’ and skips over his earlier material. Nonetheless, it’s an exemplary showing from a master of his craft – ‘Wolves’ is dedicated to the young people in the crowd, ‘Hallelujah’ gets a mellow rendition and a reworked version of his Oscar winning number ‘The Weary Kind’ closes the set.
Billy Bragg has never been an act to avoid calling out the obvious – and thus speaks at length about the place his Marmite-British brand of socialist folk holds in such an Americanised event. Still, clad in starry denim and with stories of performing alongside Woody Guthrie, Bragg fits in a treat even while joking about sticking out. Handymans Tale and a re-arrangment of ‘Times they Are A Changin’ (Back) are highlights, with Trump and Brexit references woven deftly into the songs. Icelandic heavy trio The Vintage Caravan provide the Roadhouse crowd with a excellent dose of lively bass-heavy rock to close off the heavier the side of the weekend.
The Shires, as the UK’s most commercially successful country act,are given the honor of closing the Main Stage. Their Nashville-heavy, melodic brand of country pop has seen them admirable sales and accolades though not without their share of detractors. It’s brazenly poppy, with heavy notes of early Taylor Swift and a track penned by Ed Sheeran – in some ways, they earnestly aim for the traditional style of country which many of the acts here make a point of avoiding. This is no bad thing though – arguably Black Deer would be doing itself a disservice if it churlishly avoided the more commercial side of country, and it’s a particularly fitting set for the festivals family friendly vibe. Crissie Rhodes and Ben Earle have undeniable musical ability (Rhodes vocals shine on ‘Daddys Little Girl’), and an endearing on-stage chemistry. As headliners, they certainly won’t appeal to the whole crowd, but really, they don’t need to.
The festival is drawn to a close over on the Ridge with The Mavericks. Of course, ‘Dance the Night Away’ has the crowd swaying in one of the weekends – and the doubtless many who showed up just to see the Grammy winning track get a reminder of their energy and the quality of the rest of their catalogue.
It’s honestly hard to find much to fault with Black Deer. Two years in, and the event has already found a niche in the UK market and met the need for a dedicated genre festival that has something to offer everyone – fans of every flavour of country and Americana will find something they love here – and perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to the festival is that it would serve as an immersive conversion therapy exercise to the multitude of Brits who have declared, after a brief experience with some run-of-the-mill Nashville, that they can’t stand country. A shining second year – here’s to the next one and the next. Britain needs a Black Deer.