By Holly Smith
The stellar weekend of music cemented Black Deer’s reputation as a festival of choice amongst a growing calendar of UK country music highlights.
Photography by Kendall Wilson
If ever you needed proof that getting het up over the constraints of genre is an effective way to dampen your own cause, then you need look no further than the quality and musical diversity of this year’s Black Deer Festival.
It’s technically an Americana festival, but the organisers’ catch-all approach to folk, country, roots, blues and even rockabilly produced a stellar weekend of music that cemented Black Deer’s reputation as a festival of choice amongst a growing calendar of UK country music highlights.
The unpretentious approach isn’t to say that any old fool with a guitar could have shown up to give it a shot. With a line-up that included genuine legends like Steve Earle, Bonnie Raitt, Chrissie Hynde and Patty Griffin you’d be laughed off the porch quicker than their hands skate their guitar strings, a lifetime of experience blasting out of their fingers.
Damian Lewis drew a curious crowd with his fine songs that included a sweet tribute to his late wife Helen McCrory before dashing back to his day job on a film set, whilst Nathaniel Rateliff lit up the field with his Friday night headlining set.
Lauren Housley and the Northern Cowboys proved some of the hardest working musicians in the business, warming up the crowd with a rousing set in the Ridge tent on day one, before spending the rest of the weekend lending their vocals, instruments and even tech assistance to endless performers.
They were joined in their efforts by the quality Ozark contingent of Bonnie Montgomery, Jude Brothers, Willi Carlisle and Dylan Earl, who kept fans entertained at the Arkansas Front Porch stage, juggling daily solo sets with their role as guest artists of choice for the rest of the bill.
The stripped-back songwriter sessions, including stars such as Jaime Wyatt, Tami Neilson and Kyshona rotated by the day, allowing fans close enough to see the sweat on the artists’ faces before they rocked other stages with full sets later in the day.
The weather didn’t quite hold out, opening up to drench the unfazed crowds who gathered at the main stage for the final day, but it stopped short of full-blown storms and evacuations like last year, the electricity staying confined to the guitar riffs of Richard Hawley and his band, and the fierce fiddle of Amanda Shires. The array of entertainment and food was as genuinely diverse as the line-up, with slide guitar workshops, a gospel brunch and even an onsite tattooist.
Perhaps the best measure of how pleasant a festival is comes from a quick check on how stressed the security and maintenance staff are. The answer? Hardly at all. It was a remarkably wholesome crowd, with fists remaining unclenched, stomachs keeping their contents intact and the toilets staying gratefully unsullied. In fact, walk past the main stage within half an hour of the headliner finishing on any given night and you’d think there’d never been anyone there, except for the ringing that lingered to whisper thousands of satisfied fans to sleep.
Most Rolling Stones cover acts exist in dodgy English pubs and have names like ‘The Rolling Scones’. Not this one. Robert Vincent and his stellar band led a roof-raising set of covers with friends including Elles Bailey and Ian Prowse, closing with an epic, never-ending rendition of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. Robert’s Mick impression deserves an award.
Some people try to be cool, and some people actually are cool. Bonnie Raitt is the latter. With a slick band on the main stage and a slick hand on her slide guitar, she led the crowd in a well curated set that contained originals such as Grammy-winning ‘Just Like That’ and a truly excellent selection of covers.
Lukas Nelson & co’s reputation as the band of choice for artists like Neil Young proceeds them. Once you’ve seen them live you’ll know why. They shredded to a packed crowd with a set that included songs from their new album Sticks and Stones and a touching cover of ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground’. Utterly sublime.
Midlake remain as reliably rocking as ever, delivering a 13-song set which turned the Ridge tent into the place to be, drawing in passers-by with highlights such as ‘Roscoe’ and ‘Antiphon’ to a fired-up crowd who sang right back.
The heat that pooled in the tent couldn’t stop legions of fans from packing in for a truly stunning showing by Alison Russell, anchored by a lush and longing rendition of ‘Persephone’. Her female-led band and her unflinchingly frank songs filled the air, their impact being felt long after instruments had been set down.
Rising artist Kyshona bought a calm, meditative tone to the stage in a darkened tent with a stripped-back set that included highlights such as ‘Same Blood’. The crowd sang along in the same unity that the track calls for, led by Kyshona’s bluesy and commanding voice.
Stephen Wilson Jr (always use his full name: he does) brought his self-professed brand of Death Cab for Country to Haley’s Bar. In what felt like a much-longer-than-9-song set he packed his personal intensity into fan favourites such as ‘Year to Be Young: 1994’ and even a cover of Nirvana. One to watch.
The holy trinity of Jude Brothers, Willi Carlisle and Dylan Earl joined forces once again, along with fellow Arkansan Bonnie Montgomery, to bring the sweet, earthy music of the Natural State to the Friday night crowd. Their one-time setlist of centuries old covers and originals proved a hit even against the headline slot.
Melissa Carper and Brennen Leigh accompanied each other across their individual sets to bring an elegant charm to proceedings. Needing nothing more than each other and the twinkle in their eyes, they commanded the crowds with witty repartee, divine harmonies and a truly mesmeric brand of old-time magic.
The chairs that thronged the front of the main stage emptied as the crowd rose to their feet for the sibling rockers and their rousing renditions of ‘Hold Me’ and ‘So Caught Up’, who also delivered a whack of soul with tracks like ‘Oceans of Emotions’ and the 'Tennessee Whiskey'-esque ‘Take My Heart’.
For more on Black Deer Festival 2023, see below: