2018 was probably my quietest UK festival summer since my early teens. I did my standard day at Reading for seeing Fall Out Boy, made the short trip to Canary Wharf for both days of Nashville Meets London and went up for a day at the inaugural The Long Road as 2 of my really good friends were playing but it had been nearly 2 years since I had last pitched up my tent and experienced the joys of a weekend where clean involved a shower in a can, wet wipes and using dry shampoo!
I can’t remember why I couldn’t make Black Deer for their first running of the festival last year but I was really looking forward to my first experience down in Kent this summer! There was a lot of positive talk about Black Deer from people that attended last year then looking at the lineup I thought it looked incredibly strong for a second running of an event where there was a focus towards specific genres.
I arrived by train at Tunbridge Wells station about 11:15 and (despite the fact that in the end it didn’t actually affect me as I got a lift to the site in the end) saw the first positive sign that the festival was really organised and doing things right! Every single festival in any genre I have ever been to prior to Black Deer makes an absolute mess with organisation working alongside the staff at stations and directing people to taxis or any other arranged transport like a shuttle bus in this case. This was so good to see that there were a number of large signs inside the station directing people to the correct exit and where things were. More importantly staff at the station KNEW firstly there was an event going then more importantly could assist people with where to go!
On the road again was well signposted and the entrance clearly marked. The check for if people had prepaid for parking was done, it was quick which didn’t hold up incoming traffic and there was no messing around. There were plenty of stewards around to assist and direct people when parking up and as a recurrent theme throughout the event stewards and security all seemed to have a purpose that wasn’t excessive nor were they standing around doing nothing.
As I had a media wristband I picked this up from the box office not too far from the first end of the carpark which for me was really quick and easy then travelled on to the campsite entrance. Some people may moan that it was a long distance to move things from the cars to the campsite or the main entrance but again I have been to a lot of festivals and yes it’s not quite as convenient as Isle of Wight for example but isn’t excessive as a distance and from the cars is all downhill anyway. Bags were checked a lot more thoroughly than I have seen at any other camping festival which yes again people have to queue for a bit but I suppose they are there to ensure there are not things that are dangerous rather than policing the amount of alcohol people were bringing so I guess a more thorough search of bags is not a bad thing.
After the bag checks there were people that were issuing out the camping wristbands, I didn’t really pay attention to this as I already had my purple one but the 3 people I was with all got sorted in like 30 seconds if that, so seemed a really quick process. Everyone had a wristband regardless of day tickets or camping or weekend or production staff as the event was totally cashless and IT IS THE BEST POSSIBLE THING TO HAPPEN AT FESTIVALS!!!!!!!!!!!! Anyone that disagrees with this statement clearly has not been to enough mainstream festivals where you are buying an excess of paper tokens that end up getting soggy or lost, then not being able to use them when you decide you want some vodka later on in the day. The fact you don’t need to take your wallet out (so is one less thing to worry about after a few beers) is awesome and it is so convenient having everywhere accepting them for everything from food to drinks to merch to any side stalls where they can always tell you your balance after every transaction.
The wristbands all had different colours which meant security checks into the main arena were really non exist ant if you didn’t have a bag, they just checked the colour and you were in. Depending on when you got to the site there were queues for people arriving at the arena that were not camping which again seemed to move quickly with the wristbands being allocated so the whole payment and ticketing process was smooth and well organised.
The campsite was well marked out and when we arrived there were people on hand to say where there was more space (which was handy when you are looking for space for a group of tents) and yes it is on quite a bit of a slope but not an instant eye sore of a campsite like some festivals. The were plenty of toilets that were all situated in the middle of the hill along with the showers and water points. The campsite also had a sufficient number of food stalls, coffee and a small shop which all again were on the cashless system. There was also an acoustic stage called “The Yard” which was under cover and always seemed to have a nice amount of people around whether chilling out or just as passing footfall that had plenty of picnic tables outside (that also served the food vendors) along with the only bar for the campsite. Also there was a fire pit and the absolute genius structure (that we particularly enjoyed in the early hours of Sunday morning after leaving the arena) that was The Magic Teapot which ended up being a late night jam session with people that had their guitars on the campsite and we thought was really cool. At the bottom of the campsite hill there was an additional entrance to the arena which brought you in by the Main Stage.
So finally we get to the arena itself – this may read a bit lengthy and quite in depth before you get to the really interesting bits but I just want to stress in as much detail as possible why this is such a superb event so people will know as much as possible to why we can not recommend the festival enough! The arena has one main outdoor stage along with “The Ridge” and “Supajam Stage” which are the standard festival circus tented stages. I am going to go out on a limb and say the 2 most well thought tented stages I have come across at any festivals over here! Perfect in size – not excessive nor too small in size and plenty of entry or exit access! In addition to this there was a small outdoor acoustic stage next to the Live Fire demonstrations and 2 very large indoor bars with a big stage inside called “Haley’s Bar” and “The Roadhouse” so plenty of music choice. There were also plenty of other bars and food options available around the site that were reasonably priced by festival standards and service at the bars especially was really quick.
The beer I’m guessing was supplied by Fullers as Frontier was the lager and Cornish Orchard the cider (showing this knowledge by drinking far too often in The Spread Eagle in Croydon) that were £5.50 a pint which is on par with London prices so not excessive. They had some Sierra Nevada and bitter of some sort (I couldn’t tell you which or how many types as I don’t drink it) that may have been a different price but all of them were served in a reusable hard plastic cup (which we like the environmentally friendly aspect and the Black Deer cups themselves) that cost £1 the first time and as long as you took it back each time they would fill up a clean one as typical at sports grounds etc. There were also spirits (which I may have moved onto on Saturday night) available at some if not all the bars which I think was £9 for a double and mixer which again is really reasonable.
That pretty much sums up the logistics of the festival, yes there were plenty of toilets in the arena and whilst still being spacious there isn’t an excessive distance between 2 points in the arena and the sound level management between the stages was perfect! You would hear the main stage in the open areas but there was no clash when you were at another stage. The only site comment I would make is for the campsite especially it probably needed a lot more bins! It seemed a very clean site as people there seemed to tidy up their own mess but you couldn’t always find one if you needed it! I am also really really big on recycling so I do like to see bins for different materials particularly near where the food stalls were.
I literally had to think hard to find what could be improved and that is just from me being a bit of an Eco Warrior trying to save the planet and all that as this really is a very enjoyable weekend! The first reason I really like it as a festival is that it reminds me a lot of Latitude which has always been my favourite UK festival because it is so chilled out, is inclusive for all, attracts a nice crowd of people and is really family friendly! Black Deer ticks all of those boxes on the same level. You can have a great time whether you are a family with young children, a group of friends or just going on your own so there is no reason to think it isn’t right for you whatever your circumstances!
I think the Main Stage lineup that they assembled for the Saturday was especially top drawer and this like the other stages had a good mix of full band and more acoustic sets that catered for a lot of musical tastes!
It was fantastic to see Morganway playing to a huge crowd on Friday night and the first band I saw at the festival. I firmly believe these guys are the best we have right now in this whole UK country / Americana ecosystem. I find their whole set captivating in that they have a lot of memorable tracks and nothing that ends up being forgettable. I think as a live band and as musicians they are absolutely phenomenal with the amount of energy along with some fantastic harmonies. Their self titled debut album is out on August 2nd which we are really excited to hear and you can pre-order HERE
Band of Horses were epic as a headliner, it was a terrific set that is everything you could want from your top billing! Probably the most “rocky” of the acts I saw which I was big on where the whole vibe and tempo really got a lot out of the crowd. They are a band that had been on my list to see for ages and they really didn’t disappoint.
They were preceded by The Staves who were band I was the biggest fan of prior to the event and for me were the highlight of the whole festival! I have been a fan of the Staveley-Taylor sisters since I first came across their 2015 album “If I Was” when a friend caught them at Glastonbury that year and put me on to them then since then I have delved through the back catalogue regularly but it wasn’t until the back end of last year I got around to seeing them live for the first time at Brixton Academy when they were opening up for First Aid Kit.
There is an obvious tendency to draw comparisons between what Emily, Jessica and Camilla do with the sound of Klara and Johanna in terms of musical style, chilling harmonies and being a band of sisters but I would say The Staves overall sound is more towards the folk side which goes down so well at a festival like this. Their banter with the crowd an each other is fantastic so let’s throw a third band of sisters into the mix for good measure as there is also quite a bit of a similarity to Haim (except with a bit more of a filter on stage) with this and a similar early Fleetwood Mac type vibe. They are very different to both these bands but sort of gives you an indication if you are not familiar with them. I loved the Waterboys cover to finish and I am a big Springsteen fan who has seen plenty of artists commit heinous crimes on Bruce’s classics but their version of I’m on Fire is one of the most magical things you will see live!
My weekend points of notice also included seeing acoustic sets from Alabama 3 and Justin Townes Earle who I were aware of previously by name but hadn’t really listened to a lot of music prior to, I liked them both a lot and thought the storytelling along with their banter was very entertaining. The Southern Companion are always great value, superb to listen to along with being one of the nicest, most laid back and professional bands in the UK country and americana scene. I didn’t catch all of the John Butler Trio set on Friday night but from knowing nothing whatsoever about them, I really liked what I heard and would definitely recommend checking out their back catalogue along with taking the opportunity to discover them live if you can. Then I think this will definitely not be the last time I will want to see Chance McCoy, a name some may be familiar with as a former member of Old Crow Medicine Show. Definitely one of the highlights of the weekend for me and really enjoyed hearing what he is doing as a solo artist now.
Lastly onto The Wandering Hearts: I thought their set was really good which was the best I have seen them, it got an absolutely fantastic reaction from the crowd where people discovering them for the first time were blown away by them, I definitely prefer hearing them full band rather than acoustic, they have some really good songs, their harmonies are always super tight and I’m a big fan of AJ’s voice BUT as hard as I try because I really really want to like them, I still just don’t get it!
I just find it nice, nothing more than that and at the same time nothing I actually dislike, I had almost convinced myself this was going to be the time when I when finally got it but I still just can’t put my finger on it why their sound isn’t anymore than “it’s alright, I suppose” to me! I really want to hear more new music and hope it can finally change this because the “why can’t I bring myself to like TWH” dilemma is something have had for ages then irritates me even more so as people I work with that had gone for the day with no knowledge of any of the acts playing thought they were the standout performers of the festival which a lot of people would agree with.
I had other commitments on Sunday night so had to head off early afternoon so didn’t really see anything because I may been up very late (no danger of an appearance from my princess alter ego here) on Saturday night. This leads in to my only other area for improvement needed. There needs to be a better source of late night music in a bar that is more accessible and appealing to more casual or country fans! I’m not saying there needs to be a new country party somewhere because the festival doesn’t have that sort of vibe. However of the 2 late night bars, The Roadhouse was absolutely packed so clearly very popular but was definitely too heavy for us then I really liked Haley’s but thought the music was too focused towards swing and structured dance (which the bar was far too busy for) rather than music people can sing along to with groups of friends after quite a few drinks, either the dj didn’t want to play things different or couldn’t gauge what he was playing wasn’t working so was was not a great choice for being on the decks in my opinion. An after party at this event I suppose you could call it, really needed some 80s, 90s and early 00’s country along with maybe some commercial folk, soft rock along or some americana classics to make it more accessible and enjoyable for everyone – would love this to change for next year!
Like I have emphasised this is a very welcoming event that has a very chilled out vibe that is very friendly for families but equally as inclusive for groups of friends. What I found great is that I didn’t recognise everyone’s face and you weren’t constantly bumping in to people that try and know everyone’s business like you find when you go to gigs in London or at some of the other purely “country” events. Nobody is pretentious, everybody seemed to be really friendly just wanting to have a good time and there is no politics involved. This is great because the market is expanding and is attracting new fans or different people to appreciate these wonderful genres of music along with all that comes with it.
I genuinely did not really know what to expect from this festival but I very quickly fell in love with the atmosphere, the surroundings and the layout that it really is so well organised and going in such a great direction in only its second year. It incorporates so many of the best festival aspects and is driving an openness to access the world of country, roots and americana. How this is accessible and relaxed it is for all fans and types of people attending is so refreshing and I am sure this will continue to grow and grow very quickly.
I cannot recommend this festival enough, it really does encompass everything positive about the world of country and americana in a wonderful setting that is so welcoming to everyone! There are some super early bird tickets at a terrific price available HERE and we really hope you can join us for a glorious weekend in the countryside in 2020.