Last night saw the Black Deer festival return to Kent in glorious style following a two year hiatus.
A sun-scorched Eridge Park welcomed back the crowds for the first festival since Covid brought a halt to the ambitious independent festival, which has quickly grown to become Europe’s leading celebration of everything Americana.
Has Black Deer lost its way since the break? Would the inclusion of big names from the world of indie rock and pop ruin the intimate country-blues vibe?
If such questions were being mumbled in hay-strew corners of the park’s fields and woodland, they didn’t didn’t affect the first day, and didn’t detract from the atmosphere of what remains very possibly the best festival of its kind in the UK and Europe.
Bigger than ever, Black Deer has managed to retain a relaxed but vibrant feel – with its various tents and stages set amidst ancient parkland, creating a strange hybrid American-Kentish rural idyll.
When the sun sets on the first night of the festival, the idyllic setting – soaked in a marinade of ale and smoke – takes on a magical air; and in such a backdrop the meanest of critics would find it hard work to pour any scorn on what is at heart a joyous celebration of a musical counter-culture.
Throughout the afternoon, crowds lapped up sets from the best folk, country and blues bands you might hope to see, with the likes of Wildwood Kin, Blackwater County and the Outlaw Orchestra providing the perfect soundtrack to the opening afternoon, while big Americana names such as the Felice Brothers didn’t disappoint.
Standout moments came from Irish Mythen and William Crighton up in the Roadhouse Bar, before Midnight Skyracer provided perfect bluegrass harmonies at the other end of the field in Haley’s Bar.
Of course the musical vibe shifted into slightly more mainstream territory as the headline acts took to the main stage, and it brought the prospect of some interesting tension.
To put it bluntly, in the world of country and blues, indie-rockers James are not kings – but by the time they took to the stage there was no air of revolution in the crowd; no sign of any banjos and fiddles being fashioned into makeshift crossbows and loaded with sharpened drumsticks.
Genuine artists, who emerged from an indie-rock scene in 1980s Manchester, James are as gnarled and hardened as any road-worn band of hillbillies, and have all the musical chops to go with it. They just do it in a different accent.
Of course it helps too that they’ve got a bag of massive hits like a Come Home, Sit Down and She’s a Star, all of which seem tailor made for drifting anthemically over the evening air of the first night of a festival.
Roll on today…