For the first day of the annual Black Deer Festival, the gods have been kind and the sun is trying to break through the clouds. The UK is back in love with country music and all things Americana - at least on a musical level. This level of acceptance for the genre has not been seen on our shores since Dolly, Kenny and Tammy topped the charts and the Wembley Country Music festival was a must-see on BBC2. Black Deer is only in its sophomore year but it already feels like a must do on the crowded festival calendar.
With accreditation, wristband and security smoothly out of the way, it's immediately noticeable that the staff here are friendly and the vibe is very cool and relaxed. No sooner am I in the door of the festival proper than the Supajam tent loomed into view and luckily Emily Mae Winters is about to start her set. Working in a trio with a guitarist, Dan Beaulaurier (I think, someone please correct me if I've got that wrong) and John Parker on upright bass, Winters switched between slower tunes such as the lovely 'Blackberry Lane' to the more up-tempo 'Hook, Line and Sinker' with ease. An engaging and fun personality with a terrifically versatile voice, her material has a wide range but fits together nicely in a live setting with 'Wildfire' a definite highlight. 'Come Live In My Heart & Pay No Rent', which is actually based on a poem by Samuel Lover from the nineteenth century, is another gem in an impressive set while John Parker came to the fore with his bowed bass work adding atmosphere to the epic 'This Land'. With a new album 'High Romance' set for release in July, things are looking good for Emily Mae Winters.
The great thing about Black Deer is the range of music on offer and my top tip is to be willing to change your plans at short notice with music seemingly around every corner, there sure is a lot going on. The next thing to catch my ear bought me to The Ridge stage. Canadian act Gordie MacKeeman & His Rhythm Boys are listed in the festival programme as "High Energy roots music" and that proved to tell only half the story. The elastic limbed, fiddle playing frontman attacked the songs with a gusto and energy last seen when the Tasmanian Devil was in pursuit of Bugs Bunny. Gordie fully lived up to his 'Crazy Legs' moniker mixing the old, 'Listen To The Mockingbird' with tunes of a more recent vintage, including an impressive take on the Top Petty classic 'Kings Highway'. Alongside some very impressive musicianship, the band also proved adept with the vocal harmonies. A crowd-pleasing highlight of the set found the fiddle player taking a solo while balanced atop an upright bass, his bow shredding in all directions. Gordie and the guys proved the perfect festival band for mid-afternoon at The Ridge.
Next port of call found me checking out a few songs by The Sheepdogs who were back at Black Deer to play all three days after rave reviews for their showing in 2018. The Saskatchewan group are just a great band it's that simple. They have the three essentials for any great rock band: terrific vocals, great tunes and smokin' guitar work. If you've any love for classic, bluesy, southern, country rock these guys could well be your new favourite band. I'd caught a great show by the guys late last year at London’s soon to close Borderline (sniff) which eased my pain a little as I looked to find other delights lurking at the festival.
As I wandered off in need of refreshment a heavy doom-laden sound was wafting across Black Deer. Closer investigation revealed Duel a quartet from Texas who, deep in the bowels of the Roadhouse tent, are in full flow. I've no idea what they played regarding song titles but boy did they work hard and that closing number was monstrous in a good way. Rooted in the early 70s their massive hard rock sound with huge riffs, pounding drums and rumbling deep bass went down a storm. The creation of a mini mosh pit, that included a bevy of barefoot young ladies who'd sprung straight out of Haight-Ashbury a few decades too late, was a joy to see. Duel turned out to be pretty awesome and, for me, fully vindicated the addition of the Desertscene guys bringing some heavier sounds to Black Deer. Seriously, what's not to like about Thin Lizzyesque harmony guitars parts with the phaser pedal, and probably a million other guitar effects, turned up to eleven. Surprise of the day award goes to Duel.
After the onslaught that was Duel is was time for something a little lighter and a whole lot more country. Black Deer had pulled off a bit of a coup in adding legendary country singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson to the line-up. A good number of the crowd had obviously come to check out a bona fide country legend on the weekend of his 83rd birthday. The term legend is bandied about these days but Kristofferson penned 'Me and Bobby McGee', 'Help Me Make It Through The Night' and 'Sunday Morning Coming Down' to name but three; was one quarter of country supergroup The Highwaymen alongside Waylon, Willie and Johnny and to top things off was Bradley Cooper before Bradley Cooper. Then when you add in The Strangers who had backed the late, great Merle Haggard for many years you've the real deal in classic country terms. To be totally honest as much as I love the songs, and The Strangers sounded fantastic, I needed to move on after a few songs. I did have a quick chat with three ladies in the beer tent later whose year had been made by Kris Kristofferson at Black Deer, so there you go.
The reason for my moving on was to catch UK rock/folk/Americana act Morganway whose recent run of singles had caught my attention. The band have been honing their craft since 2016 and revolve around the trio of twin brothers Callum (bass/vocals) and guitarist Kieran Morgan and keys man Matt Brocklehurst. In more recent times the addition of singer SJ Mortimer, fiddle player Nicole J Terry and drummer Ed Bullinger has cemented the line-up. A debut album is set for August 2nd release so things are looking bright. On my arrival, Morganway were all on stage and ready to go but a sound issue had halted their progress. This unfortunate happening (at a festival that ran like clockwork with superb sound in all the venues) could have been a disaster. I've seen bands never recover their poise in a live situation after tech issues and the following set become a sullen disaster. I need not have worried as the band launched into their opening track before an appreciative crowd that rapidly grew to capacity. The likes of latest single 'Let Me Go’ really highlights the vocal interplay between Callum and SJ and proves to be just one of many strong, catchy tunes peppered through their set list. Morganway have the capability for five-part vocal harmonies, which will bring obvious comparisons to the likes of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, while Nicole Terry's fiddle adds something different to the mix and enhances their country/folk crossover possibilities. Standouts in their set were many but if pushed I'd pick out the epic 'Frozen In Our Time' which builds slowly from a Pink Floyd/Dire Straits beginning and expands around a stunning vocal from SJ, while Terry's fiddle playing adds a folky twist to the sound. Another gem is 'Hurricane' which finds the band rockin' out far harder than I expected with Kieran taking the opportunity to peel off a string of highly impressive and pretty spiky guitar breaks. Morganway demonstrated real crossover appeal and have a sound that should appeal to classic rock, pop and Americana fans. A great show from a band who should go far.
A mere fifteen minutes later and Australian act John Butler Trio hit the stage with the excellent 'Wade Into The Water' as impressive a festival/stadium rocker as you'll find. Now I’d be the first to admit I'm not overly familiar with Butler's back catalogue but as impressive as Butler sounded it all left me a little cold as things went on. The overall sound is very rhythmic, to the point where I felt I was being bludgeoned by an hour-long drum solo. Don't get me wrong; the band sounded fantastic and the crowd loved it but it wasn't for me. I'll be taking the time to investigate his album releases in the future as this might well be the key to appreciating the John Butler Trio live experience.
The day was wearing on, and it felt like time to give the old bones a rest, but I just had time to check out Hayseed Dixie - that rendition of the AC/DC classic 'Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap' never gets old - before I made it to Haley's Bar. I'd seen Sam Morrow and his band a week earlier in Balham and thought he was fantastic. My initial thoughts were confirmed as Sam and his three-piece band demonstrated a mastery of country rock with a soulful funky edge that, on occasion, reminds me of Little Feat. Sam's albums are great and his stripped back rockin' live show works equally as well. The two different experiences are equally effective. I left day one of Black Deer with the mellow strains of 'San Fernando Sunshine' keeping me company for the long trip home on what was a fantastic day of live music.
Review by David Vousden. (Part 1 of 3)
Many thanks to Simon Green for his wonderful photography.