The RGM team doubled in size for day three of Black Deer in an effort to reach into even more of the many nooks and crannies from which live music could be heard floating around the site. On arrival, RGM and Black Deer favourite The Sheepdogs were doing their thing on the main stage (impressive as they’d closed the Supajam tent the previous evening). The Sheepdogs were again going down a storm with ‘Nobody’ a perfect complement to a sunny day with its Paul McCartney & Wings tribute/pastiche breakdown and no less than three guitarists trading musical blows to complete their set. A great start to the day.
I had an interview lined up with Texas troubadour, and all around nice bloke, Paul Cauthen so I’ll hand you over to Rich Barnard who took over the job of seeking out the best Black Deer had to offer:
RB: One of the acts I wish I’d caught more of was singer-songwriter MG Boulter, whose unassuming delivery and warm, comforting vocal displayed an impressive balance between Nick Drake and Paul Simon. Even from the little I witnessed, however, I’m certain that this is a reductive assessment and he actually has plenty of Boulter to offer too. His pared-down setup of acoustic guitar, upright bass and small drum kit provided the perfect picnic rug moment after The Sheepdogs’ more-than-rousing opening set on Sunday’s main stage and MG Boulter is certainly a name now firmly on the RGM radar.
In the dark depths of The Roadhouse stage, I found Hertfordshire’s Redwood, who are just one example of the many acts that don’t conform to the festival’s ‘Americana and Country Music’ subtitle. Black Deer are unafraid to mix things up stylistically and for me (and for anyone else who’s ever eaten too many Doritos in one sitting) that can only be a good thing. Redwood are a punchy, crumpled, young indie band whose three guitarists and bassist each stood before an enormous pedal board from which they did not flinch as they delivered washes of delay, distortion and deliciousness. The sound was at once powerful and delicate as the jangling guitar layers intertwined and the vocals became more and more ethereal... definitely one to watch.
On the folkier, bluegrassier side of things, The Trials of Cato - who describe themselves as two parts Welsh, one part Yorkshire - played a fantastic set at the Supajam tent. Delivering a mix of instrumentals and songs - both traditional and original - the trio stormed and stomped their way through their slot with Tomos Williams on guitar, Robin Jones on banjo/mandolin and William Addison on bouzouki. Highlights of the set included ‘Gloria’ and ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’, both of which were performed with so much charm and style you couldn’t fail to be smitten. The band have a raft of tour dates in the diary so there’s no excuse not to go out and catch them live near you if you missed them here.
With my Paul Cauthen chat done and dusted the RGM team reconvened and tried out the pizza, which turned out to be pretty good on both the pizza and the value fronts. As this point Irish Mythen was again winning over all and sundry from the main stage, reinforcing the point that she’s equally at home on stages large and small. Janis Joplin’s ‘Mercedes Benz’ could be heard loud and clear, so I’m guessing her passionate attack was again proving too much for those poor old guitar strings. Our next port of call was back to the Supajam tent where Rich again takes up reporting duties:
RB: The RGM festival tagteam couldn’t spread itself quite far enough to catch every single artist the Black Deer festival had to offer across its many stages but by crikey we had a good time trying. One of the simplest ways of killing several birds with one stone was by visiting the daily songwriter session in the Supajam tent, where four acts performed songs in the round. The Sunday session was hosted by Billy Bragg who was clearly very much at home playing and introducing fellow artists Paul Cauthen, the Worry Dolls & Larkin Poe.
Bragg, unsurprisingly, had penned a spontaneous Boris/Brexit rant for the occasion but contrasted this with the beautiful ‘Willing’, a song detailing the perennial trials of the troubadour (he should know) and thereafter, camaraderie was shared on the subject of various airlines’ ability to lose or destroy guitars. While Larkin Poe’s crunchy-Strat-with-lapsteel sound was arguably slightly out of step with the format, the duo quickly revealed themselves to be in a class of their own. We were particularly lucky to catch them in this intimate setting as; predictably, you couldn’t get anywhere near as close for their main set later in the day. Larkin Poe’s ability to fuse early blues with more modern soul and dress it in such energetic and impressive guitar work gives the pair something very special and their performances this weekend were among the best we witnessed. Alongside this, the Worry Dolls held their own with their gentler, folkier, acoustic loveliness. The simplicity of their songs and purity of their vocal harmony is disarming and we will be following the duo’s next moves very closely. Texan star Paul Cauthen made up the final quarter of this stylistically disparate bunch (Black Deer do like to mix it up) and gave as much passion and heart to his old-school country delivery here as he did for his packed-out main set, which was plenty. The power and emotion of his vocal commanded a hush among the assembled, and rightly so. When surprise guest Kimmie Rhodes joined the session there were smiles all round - and tears too - as she delivered a pin-drop version of ‘Love and Happiness’, a song which featured on the Mark Knopfler / Emmylou Harris collaboration album All The Roadrunning. She then led her fellow musicians in an all-together-now rendition of Buddy Holly’s ‘Raining In My Heart’, which had all the artists pitching in. Cockles warmed all round.
With the feeling that we’d seen something just a little bit special in the Under The Apple Tree/ Songwriter Session, we wandered back down into the Ridge Stage to check out Lucero. The heavily inked Memphis rockers do look a little on the scary side but their mix of old-school alt-country and Springsteenesque storytelling features plenty of melodies delivered with a punky attitude. It’s very hard to take your eyes off frontman Ben Nichols as he prowls around the stage like a tiger in search of lunch (or Bourbon) while delivering the songs in a surprisingly clear, gravelly drawl. As their set wore on it looked like Nichols and co looked to be having a pretty good time. I know I was, as the set featured a good selection of tracks from their recent ‘Among The Ghosts’ album, which pleased me no end as that’s a damn fine record well worth checking out if you’ve not done so.
Larkin Poe is a name well known to me but I’d honestly not investigated the duo properly until today. Their contribution to the Songwriter Session had laid down a pretty impressive marker, so it was hardly a surprise when they took to The Ridge Stage and blew everyone away. We were forced to observe from a distance as the sisters introduced a packed tent to the blues, mixing traditional tunes (‘Black Betty’ was a welcome surprise) with their own compositions, adding a splash of soul and an almost pop nous, and doing it with impressive, crowd-pleasing, flair. Megan’s lap steel is often the lead instrument, but for me, Rebecca’s thick guitar tone is the cement that holds everything together. The fact their voices blend so well is an added bonus. The girls also know how to rock and Rebecca can throw a shape with the best of them. Everything Larkin Poe did today left the RGM team very impressed.
It seemed fitting that our day should finish in Haley’s Bar, where Paul Cauthen was about to play a show that would prove a highlight of Black Deer 2019. Paul had a pretty busy day at Black Deer; on arrival, he did a couple of interviews, and then contributed to the Songwriters Session before squeezing in an acoustic show outside the Roadhouse. Now, after a short break, he was back for an evening slot with his full band. The results were spectacular as Cauthen and his incredible band blew the roof off Haley's with a selection of material from ‘My Gospel’, ‘Have Mercy’ and the upcoming ‘Room 41’ record. The new material sounds fantastic with ‘Preyed For Rain’ destined to be a crowd pleaser for many years to come. Cauthen is a live wire on stage, totally caught up in the music his body jerking and moving with the beat. If I didn’t know better I’d say he was plugged directly into the main electricity supply. When you add a bunch of cool songs into the equation, delivered with that huge baritone, you've something a little bit special. As I mentioned earlier his band is fantastic, with the MVP award going, by a hair, to Matt Pence for his incredible drum work. By the time Cauthen and band were rockin’ and funkin’ their way through ‘Cocaine Country Dancing’, they had the whole tent on their side, hardly surprising as 'CCD' is fast becoming a signature track. Paul Cauthen and his band were very special indeed and with a return to the UK set for later this year you’d be a fool to miss him.
Sadly it was time to say goodbye to Black Deer 2019. It’d been an absolute blast and after Paul Cauthen’s stunner of a show, it seemed like as good a time as any to mosey on home. Black Deer proved to be everything I’d hoped it might be. The Staff were friendly; the music fantastic, the guy who served us chicken on day three was still in a good mood and the great British weather played ball. The only really difficult decisions we had to make was who to go see, which is a problem I can live with, and just goes to show how good the line-up was. I'm confident that Black Deer will go from strength to strength and I'll be counting the days to Black Deer 2020.
Review by David Vousden
Additional reporting Rich Barnard
Principal photography Simon Green.