Black Deer brings Mississippi Delta to rural Sussex

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Seventy-one year old Chrissie Hynde was anticipating a younger audience. She told us this twice so she must have meant it. Now it may just be me, but my feeling is that The Pretenders, for all their hardcore excellence (for once an old school band didn’t sound like a tribute act to themselves), don’t exactly have youth appeal. I’m sorry Chrissie, but that boat sailed some time ago.    

It’s a strange anomaly for an Americana festival, but Black Deer usually headlines a well-known British act on the main stage on the Saturday night. You need to attract the punters I suppose, but in my experience the real joy of this mid-sized festival is to be found elsewhere. There’s a genuine visceral thrill in chancing upon some extraordinary musician you’ve never heard off lamenting the loss of their wife/husband/dog/house/truck as you wander aimlessly around the smaller stages of this gorgeously situated festival site.

The music is often spellbinding and there’s something about Americana that tugs hard at your heartstrings. Indeed, I was moved to tears more than once over the weekend. And that’s okay y’hear, we’re good ole boys and girls and we’ve deep feelings an’ all. Talking of which, one thing I particularly love at this festival are the daily songwriter sessions, where four or five musicians with gigs later that day sit together and take turns to play a couple of their songs unplugged. For me this is the beating heart of the festival. The performances are often authentic, inspiring and stunningly beautiful.

An enduring criticism of Americana, of course, is that it isn’t representative of the huge diversity of American society. There’s certainly room for improvement, but I felt Black Deer did pretty well in featuring black acts this year, not least the brilliant Amythyst Kiah, Alison Russell (plus her excellent band), and the aptly named Powerhouse Gospel Choir. They were all highlights of the weekend for me. I should add that Black Deer gets top marks for its gender mix – every year there are a great many brilliant performers who are women.

On a prosaic level, there was an excellent selection of food options to suit all tastes this year. The bars too were good and well stocked. They were in my opinion overpriced though, £8 a pint is too much. The unmanned/womaned automatic drink dispensers were cheaper, but I’m far from convinced with this person-less approach, or for that matter the sense of creeping corporate commercialisation elsewhere onsite; there was a Café Nero for gawd’s sake. Call me a Luddite, but I like my festivals to feel homespun and independent, it’s part of their joy. To add to this minor rant, it is of course fine to list the line up online for smartphones, but a noticeboard in the middle of the site with what’s on, where and when would have been a major bonus. On the plus side, although in my view misguidedly cash free, Black Deer had thankfully binned its disastrous dedicated bracelet ‘credit card’ payment system this year.

Moving onto the even more prosaic: the loos were numerous and well maintained and the showers were also plentiful and reliably warm. Mercifully, the queues to everything were short all weekend, even on the especially busy Saturday. The camping areas were also really good, with plenty of space for tents and camper-vans within the truly stunning countryside setting. One small but very important addition: a friend with a wheelchair-using wife I met by chance told me disabled accessibility was very good onsite.

Harking back to Chrissie Hynde, I feel she was being a bit harsh about the age range as in reality it was pretty mixed. Yes, the average age is probably mid 40s, but there was a good number of hipster-esque 20-30 year olds knocking around enjoying themselves. The festival caters extremely well for children and teens too, with tons of activities including climbing, skateboard making, hammering and building with wood, drawing, and a Helter Skelter and a Ferris Wheel laid on for them.

All said and done it’s unlikely Black Deer will be the wildest festival you’ll ever go to, but it’s a lovely relaxed weekend in beautiful surroundings with some great music, so what’s not to like? And this year a redesign of the site gave it that much more vibrancy and intensity, which is a good thing as the best festivals are all about the vibe. I’ve been along to Black Deer four times now and always had a good time. All being well I’ll be there again next year.

Published on 20 June 2023 by Neil del Strother

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