On Saturday afternoon at this year’s Deer Shed Festival, the Obelisk Stage played host to the Northern Panel: The North Will Rise Again? Chaired by The Guardian’s Dave Simpson, a select panel (including playwright Nick Ahad, comedian Kate Fox, Adrian McNally of The Unthanks and ex-Kenickie band member Marie Nixon) engaged with the audience in a lively and passionate debate about the cultural differences that continue to exist between the North and South of England. And whilst there was a clear acknowledgement that austerity and a relative lack of state support has had a damaging impact upon the North culturally, over the course of the weekend Deer Shed Festival once more proved that this part of the country can still produce events of great artistic quality, diversity and value.
At its inaugural outing in 2010, Deer Shed Festival offered just a single day and night of contemporary music and art. Headlined by The Wedding Present, the original festival presented a total of 13 acts performing across two stages. Deer Shed has since gradually expanded into a three-day, 10,000 person capacity event showcasing not just music but also a wide array of science, spoken word, comedy, cabaret, literary, arts and performance activities and workshops that are geared up for the whole family. And it has achieved this quiet evolution without ever losing sight of the festival’s guiding principles of being fun, friendly, family-oriented and, perhaps above all, incredibly safe and relaxed.
Focussing our attention upon the musical elements of Deer Shed, the festival crackled into life early Friday evening with the sparkling Gwenno. Along with her fellow countrymen and women Super Furry Animals, the award winning folk group 9Bach and indie-pop outfit Sŵnami, she sits in the vanguard of the current Welsh-language musical revival. Gwenno’s songs about Cardiff (“when it was nice and exciting”), Cornwall, and cultural difference are awash with the most delicate and lovely of soft synth-pop textures. She oozes warmth and charm and quickly taps into Deer Shed’s predominant audience (more than 50% of those here are 15 years and under) by proclaiming “power to the children; they are our future”.
LoneLady confirmed that she is now the keeper of the flame for the sound of modern Manchester with a set that bristled with energy and invention. The twitching, calibrated funk-pop of ‘Groove It Out’ once more threw down a gauntlet defying you not to move your feet to the music.
Just like the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote’s continuing faith in ACME Corporation products, quite why Field Music are not absolutely huge remains one of life’s great mysteries. But staying ever cheerful in the face of rather limited commercial success does come as second nature to Sunderland’s Brewis brothers, as does the wonderful execution of their songs for which the words crisp, creative, and clever were most surely invented.
As they had similarly done to great effect at the Long Division festival in Wakefield last month, the Leeds based DIY operation Hide & Seek Records picked up the reins of the Obelisk Stage after dark and rode it off into the wee small hours with an innovative bill that included the Leeds dance-duo Galaxians, madcap American Thomas Truax, and the imperious Post War Glamour Girls.
Annelotte de Graaf is Amber Arcades, and she got Saturday off to a perfect start with a collection of “groovy morning songs.” Declan McKenna then proved that youth is not, after all, entirely wasted on the young. The 17 year old from Hertfordshire won last year’s Emerging Talent Competition at Glastonbury Festival and on the evidence of his early afternoon slot here – one full of powerful, polished pop tunes – it is clear to see why. He must surely be destined for greater things in some indie-pop firmament of the future.
Before chairing the debate on the North/South cultural divide, Dave Simpson took his place on the Obelisk Stage sofa to speak to Brix Smith Start. And the one time TV fashion guru showed that there is so much more to her than just some sassy, pug-wielding American who once happened to be married to the frontman of The Fall. Reading a couple of excerpts from her book The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise – the first was about going to Disneyland with Mark E. Smith, the second watching Italia ’90 in the company of Nigel Kennedy and Gary Linekar’s wife when the England centre forward was suddenly struck down by diarrhoea on the pitch – she revealed herself to be open, sensitive and extremely funny. Brix Smith Start later added generously to that list of personal attributes as she patiently signed copies of her book and posed for individual photographs with a long line of admirers.
Emma Pollock and Misty Miller added their names to an ever-increasing list of incredibly strong female performers at this year’s festival. The former brought her wistful, haunting tales of personal reflection to the Deer Shed table – the concluding ‘Old Ghosts’ from her latest album In Search of Harperfield was particularly moving – whilst the latter imbued the afternoon with a bunch of rollicking punk-blues songs from which ‘Taxi’ and ‘The Devil’ particularly stood out. Bisecting the two was recent Bella Union signing Holly Macve, whose elegantly wounded country-soul voice was equal parts fragile buoyancy and resigned despair.
Almost by way of a reminder that women did not have a complete monopoly on the afternoon’s events, Meilyr Jones then produced what was probably the highlight of the day in a dazzling set that transcended mere ordinary greatness. He seemed to have been transported onto some higher performance plane, one that enabled him and his exemplary band to wring even deeper levels of unexpectedness and beauty out of his already glorious baroque chamber pop.
Acutely aware of the family environment in which he found himself, Steve Mason strove manfully to keep in check the industrial language to which he is so clearly accustomed. He was much less successful, though, in containing a blistering set that spilled over into triumphal euphoria. His performance seemed to speak as much about the distance he has now placed between himself and a tortured past as it did about being chock-full of brilliant songs.
When on stage, Anna Calvi impresses as somebody who is firmly in control of their own destiny. What insecurities she may otherwise have were cast aside for an hour or so as she grappled with her voice and guitar and wrestled them into helpless submission. The penultimate ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’ was transformed into a colossal Hendrix-inspired catharsis.
For all that his reputation rests on ageless romantic torch songs, Richard Hawley is also someone who is capable of some pretty awesome power. The title song from his seventh studio album, 2013’s Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a perfect case in point, snarling as it does with an untrammelled psychedelic fury. ‘Down In The Woods’ – taken from the same record – is similarly riven with drive and aggressive intent. Yet Hawley balanced these more out-there moments with the sublime tenderness of ‘Open Up Your Door’ and a richly deserved encore of ‘Coles Corner’ in what was a perfectly weighted set that not only fully justified his Saturday night headliner status but also reflected the calibre of artist that Deer Shed is now capable of attracting to Baldersby Park.
Notwithstanding the various delights of Lanterns On The Lake, Dan Mangan, Ed Harcourt and Sam Lee – the English folk musician’s “adulteration, adaptation and progression” of traditional Gypsy songs and Napoleonic ballads was really something rather special – Sunday was always going to be about Beth Orton. Afforded the opportunity to meet with her earlier in the afternoon, Orton gave lie to the old adage ‘never meet with your heroes’. Her own experiences of being introduced to Bert Jansch and Terry Callier – but two examples that she cited – had both been incredibly positive, just as this encounter turned out to be.
Beth Orton spoke openly about her earlier albums, Trailer Park and Central Reservation and the downside of the fame that they had brought her; how much she had benefited from her friendship with Bert Jansch and how she had subsequently learned her craft as an artist; about having children; how her new album Kidsticks is the record that she had wanted Daybreaker (her third full-length release from 2002) to be; her feature acting debut in the film Light Years (which is due out in September); and her forthcoming tour of the UK in September and October.
A couple of hours later, and as the rains began to fall, Beth Orton was stood with her two accompanying musicians on the main stage at Deer Shed. Despite having earlier spoken about her dislike of playing during the day (she described Kidsticks as a “night record”), she managed to accurately convey to us both the atmosphere and meaning of this truly excellent album.
Beth Orton played with a creative freedom and the clear excitement and love of what she is now doing shone brightly through the descending gloom. She expertly wove older material – it was a real personal thrill to once more hear the intricate beauty of ‘She Cries Your Name’ and ‘Touch Me With Your Love’ after all of those years – with the more contemporary pleasures of Kidsticks and in so doing she brought the seventh Deer Shed Festival to a truly joyful and triumphant close.
In its seven year history, the Deer Shed Festival has expanded and developed. The most recent increase in its capacity enabled Deer Shed to create a project whereby a film would be shot over the festival weekend, one in which the audience had the opportunity to actively participate (in keeping with this year’s theme of At The Movies). Other advancements for 2016 included an Onboard Skatepark and the introduction of stand-up comedy at the festival for the first time.
But these changes and the festival’s expansion in numbers have not been achieved at the expense of losing any of its inherent warmth and intimacy. Just like an old friend, Deer Shed still remains reassuringly familiar, rewarding and an absolute pleasure to be around.
Deer Shed Festival 7 was held at Baldersby Park, Topcliffe, North Yorkshire between the 22nd and 24th July 2016
Photo credit: Simon Godley
More photos from Deer Shed Festival 7 can be found HERE