Black deer Festival e1687356782862

FESTIVAL REPORT: Black Deer Festival 2023

When: 16th – 19th June 2023
Where: Deer Park, Eridge, Kent, England

Since its debut in 2018 Black Deer Festival has come a long way. Headliners have progressed from Passengers to The Pretenders and Bonnie Raitt, the site has grown in size, and the quality of the line-up is reaching ever deeper into the rich pool of Americana (and adjacent) talent.

For 2023 the real gold in them thar Appalachian hills was found in places other than the Main Stage. Yes, on Saturday night Bonnie Raitt was great, and her opening song, ‘Made Up Mind’, was terrific, but over on The Ridge stage Amythyst Kiah was holding sway with just a guitar for company and a bunch of wicked songs peppered with cover versions. Closer ‘Black Myself‘ was a cathartic release and an understated version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ managed to sound different from the multitude of other versions out there.

The best artist of the weekend rounded out the Saturday night (up against The Pretenders on the Main Stage) at The Ridge; Canada’s Allison Russell. Her stage presence was immense and her passion for inclusiveness, both in the show and in life, was all-pervading. Her collective (her name for her bandmates) were all equally as impressive, and the messages of positivity and hope that she gave off, both through her music and her words, throughout were genuinely inspiring.

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Other cracking acts seen on The Ridge over the weekend were: folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman, with their interweaving vocals and soft rock-inflected folk songs; British singer-songwriter Simeon Dallas Hammond lighting up the early afternoon slot on Saturday; actor-giving-singing-a-go Damien Lewis, who to be fair has some good songs; and Drake White‘s life-affirming Sunday afternoon slot. The Ridge also hosted truly excellent line-ups for the songwriter sessions on both Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes, with the likes of Brandy Clark, Elles Bailey, Bella White, Kyshona, and Amythyst Kiah spread over the two days.

The other stand-out moments of the weekend came at the revamped Haley’s Bar, which has been completely opened up for this year. Previously its magic has come from the almost perfect replication of an American bar – spit ‘n’ sawdust kind of thing – but a lot of that was lost in the increase in size and it being opened up to the elements. All that being said, the heat and humidity of Friday and Saturday would have made it an unbearable place to be in its old incarnation, so the right call for 2023.

Friday brought what was essentially a two-hour set from Brennen Leigh and Melissa Carper, with each accompanying the other on their solo sets, Brennen on guitar and Melissa on double bass throughout. The duo brought the sounds of real country music to the festival, with many terrific songs and moments of humour between the two friends. Saturday had Tami Neilson absolutely bringing the house down with her powerhouse voice and underrated songs, while Sunday saw the lighter touch of Bella White and her homespun country, with her beautiful vocals and lyrics of ‘Rhododendron’ bringing the bar to silence.

There were also excellent sets from two of Nashville’s best singer-songwriters; Brandy Clark has turned from a great songwriter for others into a great songwriter for herself, while Amanda Shires has such a chaotic energy on stage that you can’t help but fall into her thrall for the 60 minutes she’s on stage.

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All that plus Steve Earle, Lukas Nelson, and Kurt Vile, who were all excellent and who haven’t even had a mention, which just shows how packed with quality the line-up was this year.

Two things that the festival needs to look at are the sound bleed from the main stage; it affected every other stage with artists commenting on it regularly. It killed any chance of subtlety on The Ridge or Haley’s Bar. Secondly, Live Fire… sort it out Black Deer. Since Covid, the Live Fire Stage has been opened up and is all the worse for it. Most people gathering to eat lunch and chat rather than engage with the action on the stage. And, bring back Dr BBQ!

Overall, though, Black Deer Festival has gone from strength to strength, its identity growing as each year comes around with bigger acts (hiya Bonnie and Chrissie) but also better acts (hello Brennan, Allison, Brandy and Tami), while maintaining it’s scrappy Americana feel. Best small festival of the year? Why, I think y’all would agree it is.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.