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FESTIVAL REPORT: Black Deer Festival 2024

When: 14 – 16 June 2024

Where: Eridge Park, Kent, England

2024 feels like a turning point for Black Deer Festival. Its fifth edition was smaller in size, had fewer stages, and less of the American Americana acts that it’s delivered on in spades in the past. The proliferation of Brewdog at the bars and the replacement of the atmospheric Roadhouse Stage with Cafe Nero adds to the sense that something of the original festival experience is slipping away.

Every festival evolves and changes, especially in this extremely competitive landscape where multiple festivals are cancelling every year. Black Deer has a niche though, it’s one of the few genuinely Americana and country music-focused festivals in the summer calendar, even rivals like The Long Road Festival, Red Rooster, and Maverick don’t have the same breadth and (usually) depth of roots leaning artists, and the vibe of the festival is usually on point too.

So, what about the 2024 edition then, how has that evolved? Well there were less of the top tier US acts, think previous Ridge (Black Deer’s second stage) headliners like Drive-By Truckers, Cam, and Allison Russell, and more UK-based stages like Cafe Nero and Superjam. Haley’s Bar also had fewer of the excellent middle ranking artists, like 2023’s Melissa Carper, Bella White, and Stephen Wilson Jr.

Enough of the naysaying though, Black Deer is still a festival unique in its breadth of artist, when the main stage has Nashville-based trad country artists Joshua Hedley & Brennen Leigh followed by electro-folker Villagers, then scratchy-bluesman Seasick Steve into headliner Sheryl Crow and her crowd-pleasing hit-laden set. Of that selection Hedley and Leigh were excellent, as a duo the rapport and country music chops are to be beholden; there’s a reason they call him Mr Jukebox. Crow’s headline set was possibly the best of any Black Deer so far, when you pull out a run of songs like ‘A Change Would Do You Good’, ‘Run, Baby, Run’, ‘All I Wanna Do’, ‘My Favorite Mistake‘, ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, and ‘Strong Enough’ in the first half an hour you know it’s a great show. Unlike some previous headliners who pretty much refuse to play the “hits” Crow’s take on it is formed by Lionel Ritchie who told her “Do you know when you play the new songs? NEVER!”

Friday’s Joe Bonamassa on the other hand doesn’t have hits; he has his guitar, his sunglasses and a crack band. And a new found hatred of the M25; “Fuck the M25. Fuck that road,” he proclaims after explaining they got stuck for hours and nearly missed the set. Bonamassa’s brand of long guitar-solo driven blues was preceded by Courtney Barnett‘s much more visceral take on guitar music, with her loud jagged guitars and pronounced stage stomping accentuating the apparent mundanity of her lyrics.

Dale Watson & His Lonestars really brought the Americana, with talk of bench seats in trucks and songs about Merle, Johnny, and George, the band put on an excellent show at The Ridge. On a smaller, more intimate, and more political stage, Lizzie No also excelled. Her songs are poignant and her humour dry, she fits a British audience well. She wielded the only harp on show at the festival as well.

Outside of Hedley and Leigh, the two best pure country music acts of the weekend came from opposite ends of the experience spectrum; true country royalty in Rosanne Cash, and relative newcomer Alyssa Bonagura. Cash’s set, where she was accompanied by husband Jon Leventhal, was all quite authority, compelling stories, and classy acoustic delivery, where Bonagura’s set was full-on, with an energy driven by its tight full band (all from the UK) and some great melodies.

Black Deer 2024 felt like a glass-half-full moment. At its heart, Black Deer is still the festival we all fell in love with originally, and the more it leans in to those roots – in all the ways – the brighter its future will be.

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.