Now in it’s second year The Black Deer Festival is an award-winning event celebrating all things Americana and Country. We were lucky enough to attend in 2018 for their first year and loved every minute so had high hopes for 2019. Taking place just outside Tunbridge Wells in Kent and with a capacity of 10 000 this year’s Black Deer looked set to be bigger and better. We were not disappointed! Blessed with blue skies and sunshine Eridge Park looked stunning with vast, sweeping views of the surrounding Kent countryside as the weekend began.
I’m no expert when it comes to Country music, but even I had heard of many of the big names heading this year’s line-up. Country legend Kris Kristofferson set the bar high with a classic set supported by The Strangers on the eve of his 83rd birthday. The big names continued with The Shires, Band of Horses and Billy Bragg all performing on the main stage. The Ridge saw the likes The Magic Numbers and Fantastic Negrito. While The Roadhouse played host to a heavier scene with a mix of whiskey fuelled blues and psychedelic rock thanks to the likes of Steak, Left Lane Cruiser and Brant Bjork.
We caught the John Butler Trio playing a packed out set at the Ridge on Friday night. Despite this being the first night of their world tour they delivered a perfectly polished performance. Butler had the audience captivated with his quirky life philosophies ahead of Faith and We Want More. Indeed, both Butler and his music are inspiring yet totally relate-able which makes them both so likable. The show climaxed with their classic, Zebra which had the crowd bouncing, singing along and grinning from ear to ear. Having been a fan of the John Butler Trio since my travelling days back in my twenties this was the absolute stand out highlight of Black Deer for me.
Hayseed Dixie were next up, with a full house and enthusiastic crowd they too did not disappoint. If you’re not familiar with this band…they play well loved classics with a hilly-billy twist. Think The Ace of Spades played on a banjo and you’re half way there. They put on an awesome show with The Eye of the Tiger and Buffalo Soldier being particularly well received. An incredible opening night and just a taster of what was in store for the rest of the weekend….
Black Deer is as much about food as it is about the music. The festival celebrates the art of outdoor cooking and the the lifestyle surrounding it in it’s own area dedicated to food and cooking: welcome to the world of Live Fire. This year Live Fire offered it’s own line up of cooking demonstrations, and competitions all taking place in the Arena where the likes of Nick Weston of Hunter Gather Cook and Ray ‘Mr BBQ’ Lampe shared their skills.
Aside from Live Fire much of the food stalls at Black Deer hail from Deep South influences such as The Smokin’ Rat BBQ and traditional Hot Dogs. Everything purchased on site had to be paid for using a festival top-up chip which attached to your festival wristband. Despite initially being dubious about the top-up system it meant that queues moved quickly and even long lines were dealt with swiftly. Another positive addition to this year’s event.
The Black Deer team have clearly gone out of their way to make younger festival goers feel catered for. We were already impressed with the family provision at last year’s event but 2019 took this to another level. A large area of the festival was dedicated to The Young Folk. Sensibly this was also an area which also offered the most natural shade under a number of large trees.
Here little one’s could enjoy exploring toys such as space hoppers, giant naughts and crosses, mini tee-pees and water play whilst parents could relax in a safe, fenced off space away from the busier main event. Our youngest enjoyed joining in with a guitar workshop, climbing trees and dressing up whilst his older sister got stuck into the craft activities offered by Freckles & Fire and Imagine, Make, Play. The kids area even had their own mini stage with artists performing throughout the weekend. A really great provision for families of all ages.
There was a real buzz about Black Deer this year. It was noticeably busier than 2018 but not so that it ever felt crowded or over whelming. The quality of attention to detail throughout the event, from decor and memorabilia through to general organisation and services was consistently very good. The vibe was hugely positive with many festival goers having the time of their lives and wearing smiles to match. It seems Black Deer is going from strength to strength thanks to the dedication of founders Gill Tee and Deborah Shillings. 2019 was an epic year. I can only imagine what the team have in store for 2020, but I certainly hope to be there.