Day two at Black Deer broke bright and sunny, which always does wonders for the spirit and rejuvenates a tired mind and body. As usual, where to start our musical journey was a tough choice, but Jessie Buckley won the day, mainly on the strength of positive feedback from the photographers in the pit. This feedback turned out to be a very good tip as Buckley and her excellent band won over a crowd that didn’t really need to be won over, as she had them in the palm of her hand from the off.
The flame-haired singer, in white t-shirt and jeans combo, mixed tracks from the film ‘Wild Rose’ with new material she’d worked up with her excellent band (Neill MacColl on guitar and backing vocals) and a few tunes they just plain liked including the ubiquitous Steve Nicks/Fleetwood Mac classic ‘Landslide’. During the course of her hour on the main stage Buckley demonstrated she can sing as well as she can act (very, very well), has a very engaging personality (her recollections of playing shows with Ashley McBryde and the crowd reaction to her recent hair cut were priceless) and obviously doesn’t take herself too seriously, “I’m that tart off the telly” but is very serious about her music. Jessie Buckley is going to be one to pay attention to on the silver screen and the live stage going forward.
Fresh from Jessie Buckley’s impressive set I made my way back to Haley’s (named in tribute to Black Deer Co-founder Gill Tee’s brother Chris Haley who was tragically killed at just 19) to catch a full band set from The Southern Companion aka Darren Hodson and friends. The Southern Companion’s sound is rooted in traditional country but has a real widescreen, filmic quality and I found myself making mental comparisons to singer-songwriters who started out in the 90s such as Edwin McCain, Darius Rucker (in his Hootie days) and John Gregory, an artist who slipped between the cracks back in the day. In a full band setting Darren and the lads are pretty feisty with some cool tunes and a guitarist in Simon Johnson who peeled off some nice solo’s as their set progressed (coincidentally Johnson co-wrote some of the songs on ‘Wild Rose’ with Jessie Buckley). The Southern Companion are going straight to the top of the list of acts I need to investigate further.
Back to The Ridge stage and I was able to get a great spot centre stage for John Smith. I’d heard tell of Mr Smith’s guitar prowess but the guy can really sing and aided by bassist Ben Nicholls (who, if I’m not mistaken had hot foot it over from Jessie Buckley’s band earlier in the day) performed one of the sets of the day. A track from the first album performed sitting down was an intricate, percussive tour-de-force while he also demonstrated clever use of plucked strings at the top of the neck while utilizing a brass slide, the sort of technical stuff that causes a sharp intake of breath and sounds fantastic. All this technical stuff is all very well but John Smith the singer-songwriter was also on point as a sublime ‘Far Too Good’ proved - a really lovely performance of a lovely song. Smith also has a way with a story or a joke, usually about the far-flung corners of Devon, and introduced Ben Nicholls as his clone caused much amusement in the crowd (see pic). You really do get the feeling that Smith is very comfortable in his own skin and that the marriage of his technical and compositional skills will enable him to reach a larger audience going forward. A very impressive and comfortable time was spent in the company of John Smith.
The main stage was again calling and luckily it’s very easy to get between the stages at Black Deer. The Wandering Hearts were in full flow as I arrived and sounded superb. I’d recently heard some mixed reviews regarding the trio which, in the main, seemed to question the idea of them working with a band. I’d disagree with this notion as the addition of bass, drums and second guitar adds a little more power and improves their ability to project in a festival environment, it also adds to that classic rock pop / Fleetwood Mac vibe they’ve got going on (a solo Justin Townes Earle would follow on from The Wandering Hearts on the main stage and leave me a little cold, despite the fact that I like his records). Performing on a big festival stage is all about projection and involvement, which can prove tricky, but I felt The Wandering Hearts nailed it. The harmonies were spot on, they've a truckload of catchy tunes and the trio seemed happy and relaxed, “I’ve been told I need to introduce the band more, but now we’ve got this big banner. We’re The Wandering Hearts" Francesca laughed. The really good news is their fans are great, they sing every word and the age range seems to be much younger than you’d expect with plenty of teens and early twenty-somethings to be seen and heard. The Wandering Hearts could well turn out to be the future of country music in the UK and on this showing, you wouldn’t bet against them.
For a little break from the music I decided to have a little wander and see what else the festival had to offer, while I toyed with the important things in life; chicken or brisket, lager or IPA? I noticed, as I meandered, how geared Black Deer is for children and young families. You’d be hard pushed to find a child who wouldn’t want to hit large bits of wood with a hammer, while the adults amongst us might want to try their hand at axe throwing. It might not be an Olympic sport but it sure looked a whole lot of fun. We obviously come to festivals for the music, but it’s far from the only thing to keep you amused and entertained at Black Deer.
Black Deer 2019 images by Simon Green.
Back to the music and next up on the main stage, The Staves. The three sisters were decked out in white, an angelic look that matched their stunning vocal prowess. Jessica, Camilla and Emily’s voices blend beautifully with minimal instrumentation, just a little guitar and a dash of keys forming the base from which the sister’s voices rose higher and higher on the breeze; to a point where dogs in nearby counties were covering their ears. Impressive stuff to be sure and Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ is always welcome. A good number of those gathered obviously had The Staves at the top of their must-see list and I’m sure they went home happy.
A short walk up the gentle rise and I’m back at the Supajam tent where Irish Mythen is casting her considerable spell over a full house. Mythen seems to be here, there and everywhere this weekend as word of mouth about her performances reaches epidemic proportions (including on the shuttle bus from the station). The Irish born, Canadian based singer-songwriter has been referred to as a force of nature, which I’d agree with if we’re talking about a whirlwind battling with a tornado. The last time I witnessed an artist who belts out her songs and attacks her guitar with such fire I was watching Melissa Etheridge at the Town and Country Club in London in the early days. Mythen’s set consisted entirely of requests from people she’d met at Black Deer, to which she added some lovely stories (editing out some of the harsher bits as there were children in the audience) with ’55 Years’ and ‘Sweet Necessity’ among many standouts. The seemingly inevitable broken string was greeted with the quip (paraphrasing) “People think this is part of my act”. Irish Mythen got more people talking at Black Deer in three days with her unbridled passion and positivity than a thousand talking heads on your TV screen could ever hope to do, and did it with a smile on her face. If Irish Mythen plays a show anywhere near you, just go, you can thank me later.
With the dark closing in and a chill in the early summer air, there was just time for me to catch a little of Band of Horses. The alternative rockers were an interesting choice to headline Black Deer and, I feel, a good one. Frontman and only original member Ben Bridwell seems happy to follow his muse and the band effortlessly blends country/Americana tinged material with more straight-ahead Alt-rock. Bathed in blue light, Band of Horses are punchy from the get-go and prove an ideal main stage closer. Any band that can break up their guitar-based bluster with ‘No One’s Gonna Love You’, which is still a thing of shimmering beauty, is alright in my book.
With the sounds of Band of Horses fading into the distance it was time for the long trip back home. It was sad to see the end of day two, but the festival programme told me there were still lots on the list for day three to keep the expanded RGM team amused, in fact, day three would prove to be another excellent day...
Review by David Vousden (2 of 3)
Photography by Simon Green.