Photography by Kendall Wilson
For someone on a raised platform facing a crowd of people who've come specifically to watch him, Stephen Wilson Jr certainly has a way of making you feel like you're the one being observed.
Musicians have that casual manner of casting their eye across the crowd en masse. Not Stephen. His eyes don't drift: they stop, fix, analyse, move, repeat, getting right down to the nucleus. Fitting for a former microbiologist; he's used to quite literally looking down at stuff.
Intrigue filled the tent ahead of his set on the second day of Black Deer Festival, many having caught snips of his live performances or listened to his EP bon aqua, few having seen a full set.
Alongside the already fully committed singalong fans was a larger group, best summed up by a lady in a singed stetson who turned to her companion and said: "I just couldn't stop thinking about him".
For good reason. Have you ever tried to make small talk with someone after an exorcism? That's Stephen asking, not me. He's talking about his experience growing up with Pentecostalism, where he'd see the devil more than god, and run into someone at the grocery store a few hours after he'd seen the devil cast out of them.
It's stories like that, told with such casual intensity, that keep you thinking about him long after his set finishes. It's the introduction to his song 'the devil', which leans into those gothic influences to recount "a snake'll crawl the earth to shed its skin to make more room for the poison, the filthy rich will rob you clean until you raise your voices".
If you're thinking about abbreviating his name to SWJ, don't. He uses his full name every time to tell the crowd: "My name is Stephen Wilson Jr, I am my father's son". That's Stephen with a 'ph', after his father, who was named after Saint Stephen, who was stoned to death. "I think my dad was stoned when I was born, so that feels like a full circle moment," he tells the crowd. Not to forget the Wilson: after the volleyball.
His father's presence is felt in his live performances just as it is in his name, through songs like 'Grief is Only Love', and a performance of his new release, the sad and proud 'Father's Søn'. "I lost my dad a few years ago and never quite got over it", he tells the hushed crowd before raising a toast to fathers at large.
With just his own guitar and a very hard-working pedal, he and steel guitar player Scott need nothing more to raise the roof with a 9-track set that includes a cover of Nirvana's 'Something In The Way' and fan favourite 'Year To Be Young 1994'.
In between intermittently charging at all sides of the stage, he tells the "unfortunate” story of his first kiss, so disastrous that he started listening to grunge straight after. "I have her to thank for all this", he says.
So it goes on. Stephen will keep thinking about his first kiss and if his stellar set if anything to go by, we'll be thinking about him for a long time to come.
Stephen Wilson Jr - Setlist
Taken from his set at Black Deer Festival 2023 at Eridge Park, Kent, UK on Saturday, June 17, 2023.
For more coverage of Black Deer Festival 2023, see below: