The Felice Brothers on the main stage at Black Deer 2022 Photo by Nick Barber
The Dead South, Saturday night headliners at Black Deer Festival, were Shelly and Chris’ gateway band into Americana. So, because the Canadians weren’t playing anywhere close to the couple’s Midlothian home, they decided to make the 1000-mile round trip to Kent. Turns out it was such a brilliant experience, they’ve booked for next year already.
In just its third year of actual operation (but would have been its fifth in a Covid-free world), Black Deer has become one of the premier Americana events in the UK. Luckily for the organisers, many of the artists who would have performed in 2021 rebooked for 2022, helping remove doubt in the minds of existing ticket holders, and with the sun and thunder both beating down on the site at different times over the weekend, Shelly and Chris finally got their road trip from Scotland.
In the baking heat of mid-Friday afternoon is the perfect time to shelter from the relentless sun in The Ridge stage’s big top marquee. The weather is also the perfect fit for the languid grunge blues of William The Conqueror and Australian Emily Barker’s eclectic country folk pop, before Israel Nash scalps the audience with sheer volume. His eye-compressing amplification isn’t for everyone, but Nash never loses control of melody and harmony.
Out at the open-air main stage, the sublime Felice Brothers flit between sounding like The Waterboys, Blue Nile and The Band before Jake Bugg shuffles though an hour of skiffle-light, then probably the most contentious headline choice of the weekend, James, top off the night before one of the weekend’s biggest crowds. You don’t have to move far to hear someone questioning what a heritage indie dance act are doing at an ‘Americana’ festival, but if they pull in a different audience who then hear something they might otherwise not have gone near, then job done.
Over in Haley’s Bar, a corrugated tin-roofed side stage, the Ozark Holler Hootenanny give a potted history of Arkansas music (even if their first song is The Tennessee Stud). The State Of Arkansas Tourism Board teamed up with the festival and sent over some of its most promising fringe artists, and the Hootenanny is led by three of them: the classic country voices of Dylan Earl, Willi Carlisle and Jude Brothers. The trio, who only got together for a single rehearsal earlier in the week with a rhythm section borrowed from Native Harrow, are ramshackle, hilarious and deeply steeped in their musical history. Their version of Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels On A Gravel Road - with guest vocalist Lady Nade (who will play to a packed room here the next day) - is so incongruously upbeat, however, that it borders on psychotic.
Saturday, though muggy, at least offers some cloud cover, perfect for mooching around stalls and barbecue shacks, riding a Harley (on a static rolling road, not around the campsite) or taking out a little frustration at the axe throwing range.
In The Ridge former Gomez frontman Ben Ottewell’s enormous voice seems to fill the sky, followed by Declan O’Rourke’s delicious finger picking and fragile, emotive songs. Meanwhile, over at The Roadhouse - another tin-covered side stage - greasers The Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovel take their audience on a psychonautical odyssey, one of the weekend’s few moments of outright dirty rock’n’roll.
Courtney Marie Andrews has one of the most crystalline voices west of Emmylou Harris, but most people’s excitement at the main stage is being held back for what comes after her: Wilco and The Waterboys. Either could obviously headline tonight, but Wilco go first, bringing their A-game, whether it’s the country kraut chug of Shot In The Arm, extended jamming of Impossible Germany or the sweet sweet joy of California Stars (with added Courtney Marie Andrews). The band are impossibly great, and it’s another reminder that their secret weapon has long been the impromptu otherness of Nels Cline, who always takes their performances to very special and unusual places.
But pity the poor Waterboys, and anyone else performing at the same time. Four songs in and an electrical storm of such intensity hits the site that everything has to be closed down. In The Ridge - held aloft by two massive steel poles - the stage manager implores people to “Get out… NOW!… we have to clear the tent immediately”, as thunder bellows and lightning crackles around the rolling hills of the festival site. Luckily, there’s no damage or injury, but the closure was more than justified: the storm was Biblical.
Sunday morning is so calm you could believe the previous night’s storm was a fever dream, but after some soulful gospel in the Ridge, Police Dog Hogan have the tent chanting and rocking while Haley’s Bar tips a Stetson to Treetop Flyers and Native Harrow’s progressive Americana, contrasting the UK and US sides of the same coin.
And then comes Van Morrison. The man’s as close to the definition of legend as it’s possible to be, but his performances in recent years have been largely phoned in. Surely he wouldn’t do that for a festival that empties most of its other stages just for him? Well, yes he would. It could be a cruise ship tribute act for all the passion and urgency he gives the performance. Unlike many of his peers still touring, Van’s voice may still be intact, but it would much better used deep mining his unparalleled catalogue rather than skipping through all the “shoobiddy-doo-bap-bap” scatting we’re ‘treated’ to.
Far better is the groovesome vibe of Hiss Golden Messenger and Ridge headliners The Drive-By Truckers, currently touring perhaps their best ever album and utterly on fire. From new song Every Single Storied Flame Out to older tracks such as Dead, Drunk And Naked they spit and rock and feedback and riff and put everything into the last show of their two-month European tour.
Back at the main stage, The Dead South follow Van. Encoring with The Dead South song itself, via the boot-kicking Dead Man’s Isle, Misfits cover Saturday Night and Black Lung, it's a masterclass in how to win a festival. If only Mr Morrison had waited around to take notes.
Of all the genre-specific festivals on offer in the UK in 2022, from the folky-rootsy likes of End Of The Road and Green Man to the dance oriented Free Rotation, none bores down into the core of what makes them special the way Black Deer understands its audience. Yes, there were grumbles about the digital wristband-only payment system, and if you’re going to make a festival digital it would be nice to have access to a reliable phone network, but the pluses far, far outweigh the niggles.
So raise your hats to the organisers of the friendliest festival in Britain, people who stuck it through the pandemic when it would have been much easier to simply walk away.
And see you near Shelly and Chris’ tent for a Saturday morning whiskey before diving back into whatever joys Haley’s Bar might bring in the wee hours next year.
* Andy Fyfe is a freelance writer for MOJO magazine