Saturday, 2 November 2019

Black Deer Festival 2019

Let’s rewind to October 2018 and the annual madness of trying to get Glastonbury tickets.  Yep, I’m one of those crazies who goes through days of planning and forming syndicates followed by 45 minutes of mass online anxiety in order to attend the greatest arts festival on the planet.  You may disagree with that judgement but if you haven’t been and your opinion is based around TV coverage,  then you’re only seeing about  2% of what’s on offer.  For 5 days your senses are bombarded, you’re permanently knackered and by Sunday afternoon, you begin to wonder if you’ll actually wake up on Monday.  However,  the creativity around every corner leaves you inspired, your face aches from constant smiling and your faith in humanity is restored for another year.

So, did I get tickets this time?  Did I bollocks.  After many years of success not one person in our group got lucky.  Had to happen at some point so we decided to go to a few smaller festivals and gigs instead.
One of those was Black Deer Festival of Americana which nestles in the beautiful Kent countryside.  Americana, for those that don’t know, encompasses American country, folk, blues, rock and the huge spectrum of musical styles in between.  The festival doesn’t stop there though as it attempts to bring as many aspects of American culture and history as it can to the point where you almost forget that you’re a stones throw from Royal Tunbridge Wells.   The bikes, the cars, the clothes, the arts and crafts are all represented from harmonica tuition through to hatchet throwing and then there’s the food.  Oh god, the wonderful food!

Just a visit to the website will get your mouth watering.  The Americana theme runs through the majority of the food on offer.  Smokin’ BBQs, live fire cooking and enough American craft beers to keep the most hardcore of hipsters happy.  It is a meat eaters paradise but I was surprised to see that there were almost as many veggie choices and I’m told they were superb.  All the produce is ethically sourced from the UK too.  Nothing disappoints, in fact they have cooking demo stages with some of the worlds best outdoor cooking chefs running lessons, competitions, tasting sessions and a Sunday gospel brunch.  “Am I in Memphis, what year is it, who’s the president?”

At a modern festival, cardboard burgers, rubber hotdogs and a choice of Carling or Heineken is no longer acceptable and I’ve been to enough gigs and festivals to know that many have still yet to grasp this.  Not so at Black Deer.  

So beer in hand, we squeezed in some music between grazing.  It was, after all the reason we were there.  The beauty of the stages at Black Deer is that none of them are too big.  The capacity of the whole festival is around 15,000 so even the main stage is pretty small.  Many of the artists like Band Of Horses, Ryan Bingham, John Butler Trio and the mighty Kris Kristofferson play venues way bigger than any of the stages here so you get the opportunity to get right up close to every performance and really see the artists in action.  In fact, it’s pretty easy to meet the bands after shows, catch them jamming on the tiny session stages or bump into them as the make their way around the site taking it all in for themselves.  

For me, the thing that really blew me away was the consistently high level of musicianship and songwriting passion.  There wasn’t one single act that didn’t leave me feeling musically inadequate yet hugely energised and inspired to do better.  We left shows just waxing lyrical about what we’d just seen and only shut up for the start of the next one.  Not one moment where any of us went “meh, that was alright”.  How many festivals have you been to where you can honestly say that?

Finally, I must explain that I did have reservations before Black Deer.  Although I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, 50’s Rock’n’Roll and countless Blues Legends, I was still hesitant about how much of the music I would enjoy.  Would I have had enough steel guitar by Friday night, would I be fiddled out by Saturday and totally banjo’d by Sunday?  Not a chance.  Yes, the artists have something in common.  It’s a pure love and devotion for their craft and mutual respect for each others music, not the instruments they play, the sound they make or the clothes they wear. 

Highlights?  Well, I’ll list them and you can find out for yourself whether they’re your thing or not.  In no particular order - Fantastic Negrito, Jerron Blind Boy Paxton, John Butler Trio, William Chrighton, Kris Kristofferson and The Strangers, Ryan Bingham, The Sheepdogs, Jessie Buckley, The Mavericks and the brilliant Larkin Poe.As someone says on the Black Deer website, “It’s a place to not only see the bands you love but also the bands you’re going to love.”   Well said Sir, well said.

It’s a superbly well organised festival with great camping and facilities.  Weekend camping tickets for 2020 are £140.  An absolute bargain so if you fancy it, we’ll see you there.  We booked ours before Glastonbury went on sale this year.  It was our new priority.