What’s the one thing a festival needs in its debut year? A good line-up? Yeah, can help. Crowd-drawing headliners? Again, that can help. But what it really wants is some glorious British sunshine. Black Deer Festival certainly got that, lots of it.
Based around the twin genres of country and Americana, it’d only really work in the sunshine. When you’re wandering by the BBQ stage (technically the Live Fire Stage) with its live demos of how to butcher meat, how to cook BBQ properly, and it’s BBQ face-off between four professional teams cooking burgers, ribs, and other BBQ-y meats, doing so with the sun beating down on your back adds to the impression you’re not in Kent anymore, you really could be in Kansas.
When you add the lasso lessons, three-day fire pit, inflatable bucking buffalo, and various mercantile stores there’s a real vibe of the old west to this corner of an English country park. There’s also the small matter of two “indoor” stages, the brilliantly evocative Haley’s Bar, which plays host to one of the sets of the weekend from Canadian country-blues-rockers The Sheepdogs, with ‘Southern Dreaming’ and a stunning cover of ‘Ramblin’ Man’, and the more rough and tumble feel of The Roadhouse. The set decoration for each is spot on, once inside the glare of the heat of the day goes, replaced by smoke and a dinginess of an archetypical American dive bar. Perfect.
The set-up, the weather, the atmosphere, was all there. A relaxed weekend where people got on, there was space to relaxed, places to drink, and luxury camping if you wanted to splash out. Many people did, it was that kind of weekend. But the music does, in the end, provide memories for festivals, and amongst the stalwart performances from the likes of Ward Thomas, the bland but likable Sam Palladio, the talented but understated Jarrod Dickenson, and the uber-talented but in a slightly out of place slot John Moreland stood a number of genuine moments of one-of-a-kind quality.
Surprisingly one of those was the UK festival debut of Kiefer Sutherland, yes, that one. Jack Bauer. David (aka the Big Bad) from The Lost Boys. The guy from Flatliners. And the current POTUS (if you watch Designated Survivor). His latest guise is that of a genuine, authentic, Californian cowboy; songs about drinking and bars are plentiful, and he has the stage presence of a veteran. He danced, sang, played guitar, worn a wide-brimmed hat, and has a love song written for a bar (‘Can’t Stay Away’), and he also drew the biggest crowd of the weekend.
The songwriter’s sessions had top-notch line-ups on all three days, but the highlight was the Saturday session when Jarrod Dickenson, Ashley Campbell (who’d played a cracking set earlier in the day), Ward Thomas, and Blues legend Eric Bibb held court. The beauty of songwriter’s rounds are that you can get stories you’ve not heard before, and Ashley Campbell’s tears when she recounted the writing of ‘Remembering’, her beautiful song for her dad, brought half of Ward Thomas to tears as well as the audience. It’s the unexpected that makes these so special.
Taking home the glory of the weekend though is the indomitable Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. They’re just an outstanding band. Isbell is a modern day great, his songs are well written, hugely accessible, incredibly personal, and just great stories. Whether they’re smashing out set opener ‘Anxiety’ (“Even with my lover sleeping close to me / I’m wide awake and I’m in pain”), setting up a jolly dance with ‘Codeine’, or playing one of the greatest modern love songs, ‘If We Were Vampires’, they have the audience in the palm of their hands. The trump card though? ‘Cover Me Up’; a song so laced with beauty and hidden pain that it stands on its own, but live the quintet somehow tweak its arrangement to slow build the song into the stratosphere, it’s astounding stuff.
Early bird tickets for 2019’s festival are on sale now.