Black Deer sizzles over chill June weekend

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Each year Black Deer surprises me. In my everyday life I spend very little time listening to country music, or rather Americana, it’s just not my thing. But there’s something so seductive about experiencing this music live that I just can’t help myself loving it at this festival. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the lyrics and performances, perhaps it’s the heart-on-the-sleeve emotion, or perhaps it’s the sense of innocence that permeates this musical genre. It’s music without side, without pretence.

For me the heart of Black Deer is found in the songwriter sessions, where four of the festivals’ featured musicians play - in turn – three or four of their songs unplugged on one of the smaller of the five main stages. The result is often truly moving, indeed more than once I’ve shed a tear. Unfortunately, this year I only got along to one of these sessions as a friend got sick and I had to look after her. Perhaps this was due to the unseasonal and festival-unfriendly chilly and wet June weather? She’s recovered now thankfully…she owes me one! 

While the headliners – in this instance Sheryl Crow and Rufus Wainwright – are the big draw at festivals, personally I love to just mooch around in the hope of chancing upon someone I’ve never heard of playing something wonderful and authentic. This year at Black Deer this tactic was a bit of a disaster at first as I arrived at the end of the last song of at least five excellent-sounding performers…before I finally got lucky at the bijou Superjam stage. Keiron Marshall’s searing guitar-based blues was a revelation, with a gravel voice to match. This barnstorming performance was my highlight of the weekend.

There were other great performances of course. I particularly enjoyed some of the Superjam students’ sets for example, as well as Dale Watson and his Lonestars, The Shires and The Folly Brothers to name but a few. It was gratifying to see the gender mix of the acts too, there were many excellent women performers. If I was being picky I’d note that the acts are predominately white, but that’s partly due to the music genre as Beyoncé has recently evidenced. Some of the acts were also just a bit too safe for me: I’m a bit tired of Seasick Steve’s homeboy twangy thang for example, albeit he seemed to go down well enough with the crowd.

The festival reduced its physical size a little this year which in my view was a success as it created more of a buzz having people that more tightly packed in. It did though also result in some music leakage across the stages which, while not extreme, was at times an unwelcome distraction. As ever at Black Deer the demographic was predominantly middle-aged, friendly and very well behaved, it’s not a wild weekend, but there were also a good number of younger people around as well as a fair few families – there’s plenty put on for children.

The gorgeous rural-Sussex setting is quintessential England, more cream-tea with the vicar than hot-dog with a hillbilly, and it works a treat. It’d be a lovely place to spend a weekend even without the music. Talking of which, if you want a break from the music there’s a fair bit otherwise to keep you occupied, including a cooking stage, eating competitions (yuk), axe throwing, a mechanical rodeo bull, a surprisingly busy – to me at least – tattoo parlour, and a silent disco. Okay the later involves music, but it’s not live.

Once again then Black Deer pulled the branding iron out of the fire and created a sizzling – if not sizzling weather – weekend of Americana music and gentle frivolity. For me this festival provides a charming, entertaining and relaxed doorway into the summer festival season. I hope to be back again next year.


Published on 23 June 2024 by Neil del Strother

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