June 22, 2018
Eridge Park, Kent
The Black Deer festival site in the Kent countryside on the edge of Tunbridge Wells made quite an impression. The idyllic view stretched for miles, even from the car park. A great sign for a fantastic weekend to come.
You know how it is on the first afternoon of a festival. You start out slow, checking out where the stages are, what food trucks are on site, maybe check which bands are on later. That is unless the first stage you come to has a surprise songwriters’ round with Sonia Leigh and Sarah Darling. When that happens, you stay exactly where you are.
Darling had the early crowd singing along to More Issues than Vogue. Next round brought her latest single, Diamonds. The crowd was silent then to take in that flawless, gorgeous voice.
Sonia Leigh was up next with her cool mix of blues, rock and Americana.
Apparently that wasn’t enough genre fusion because she invited our Katy Hurt up to add a touch of UK country to the mix!
Striking Matches performed with Sarah Zimmerman singing and Justin Davis on guitar. So far, so good.
When Leigh gestured over for some support on the guitar eyes naturally turned to Davis, but Zimmerman picked up the electro-acoustic and absolutely smashed it (and basically everything) with her slide guitar skill. Moment of the festival right there on day one.
Same, Sonia, same!
Same, Justin, same!
Striking Matches continued to wow with their guitar work, harmonies and close relationship on stage.
When Leigh’s turn came back around, there was a curve ball: she gave up her final song! Riots were only averted because she had two more performances coming up over the next 12 hours. Her altruism was so that rising star Catherine McGrath could give an acoustic performance of her latest single, Lost In The Middle.
Time for a sea change, fitting the range of Americana, country and roots artists that Black Deer had brought together. The Outlaw Orchestra came from the Deep South – Deep South, UK, that is!
They didn’t let that stop then from imbuing down-home, swampland iconography, including an alligator head bass ornament.
Their raucous stage show epitomised a roadhouse performance on The Roadhouse stage, though they attacked it as if they were main stage headliners.
Hot on the heels of McGrath’s appearance, another act hoping for crossover commercial success, The Wandering Hearts, were in full swing on The Ridge stage. Although they’ve built a following singing as a four piece, they were here playing with a full band.
Tim Prottey-Jones really got into it, leaping in the air and running around to jam with the players in the back. His frenetic performance didn’t only added to the sneaking suspicion that he secretly longs to be in a nu-metal band!
Truth be told, not every member of the band seemed as comfortable in the full-band setting. Perhaps they need more time to get used to it, as many of their performances have been shorter sets and showcases.
This sense was magnified when Striking Matches joined them on stage. Despite being gracious guests, all eyes were on those consummate performers and their mesmerising guitar work.
Zimmerman slayed that slide guitar in these heels! Daaaamn!
It was great to see Striking Matches jamming with Americana Music Association UK’s Instrumentalist of the Year Tom Collinson on keys. More of that in the future, please!
Emerging from the dark tent, it was surprising how hot it still was. Temporarily blinded by the light, the other senses heightened and a distinctive voice floated through the air from way across the site. Running towards the beautiful sound led to Danni Nicholls. She combined modern original songs with a low register vocal from another era.
Noble Jacks packed the crowd in to Haley’s Bar for bluegrass-inspired jams.
The bar was named in honour of festival co-founder Gill Tee’s brother Chris Haley, an avid music lover who died tragically aged just 19.
Meanwhile, back over on The Roadhouse stage, Warsaw Radio were the most straight-up rock band on the bill so far.
Rebecca Reidtmann was first up the Sound Lounge curated Live Fire stage.
She performed with The Savannahs on BBC One last year. They’re now smashing it as a trio (next year, please, Black Deer!) and Reidtmann is performing with her own band. The Live Fire tent was a respite from the blaring sun without missing out on music.
Having tantalised her growing fanbase with a cameo during the songwriters round, it was now time for Catherine McGrath’s main stage performance.
Her band backed her up in the true sense, subtly pointing out that he guitar wasn’t plugged in before she and the crowd noticed, and then being there to round out her sound.
The set was well selected to showcase her catchy songs and Swift-style head voice.
Next up was Liv Austen on The Sound Lounge curated Live Fire Stage. Except that wasn’t Liv Austen on stage. Luckily, she’d only been postponed, not curtailed, so she got some extra time to explore the beautiful site and I didn’t have to fight anyone. [Unfortunately, it seems that The Black Feathers took the hit later on as curfew approached.]
Time had been carved out for The Wandering Hearts to perform an unannounced acoustic set. Word spread quickly and the tent filled up in minutes.
The band seemed infinitely more comfortable in the 4 piece format, channelling ABBA as they harmonised on their well-rehearsed arrangements and laughed at each other’s antics.
They rising stars performed rousing songs like Fire & Water and Devil in Disguise.
They seemed genuinely touched by the crowd’s reaction; there was a risk of a riot of the band hadn’t been permitted one more song.
Liv Austen finally got to put the fire into the Live Fire stage, kicking off with a feisty version of an already sassy song, Miss Nobody.
She had attracted enough fans to a tent in Kent that there was a singalong even to one of her unreleased tracks, Train of Thought. This was followed by a cover of Selena Gomez’ Back To You.
Austen showcased her vocal talent with a sweet, plaintive song, Whole Heart, backed up by Jon Wright on the guitar.
Then they raised the tempo and kept it with there with two Chris Country A-listed singles, Don’t Regret A Single One and The Next Time, and a surefire future A-lister, Window Shopping.
I’d have been worried for the person having to follow that if hadn’t been Megan O’Neill who was clearly more than capable of smashing it in her own right (and who was sitting next to me singing harmonies during Window Shopping, smiling almost as much as Austen herself)!
Megan O’Neill took to the stage bathed in the glow of the setting sun.
With a beautifully clear voice and impressive keyboard skills, she captivated the crowd with thoughtful songs from her latest album, Ghost Of You, such as Bottle.
She also powered through arresting songs like Half of Myself and Don’t You.
This was the first terrible clash of the festival because Sarah Darling was playing over on The Ridge stage. Oh, the horror! Luckily, they were close enough to run between the two. Darling delivered a delightful cover of Ronan Keating’s When You Say Nothing At All.
She then reprised the singalong More Issues Than Vogue. She had performed it acoustically earlier during the songwriters’ round, and this time was backed by a full band for that extra kick that the catchy chorus deserved. It’s “a song about my addiction for shoes and shopping,” she joked.
The Live Fire stage was curated by those involved with The Sound Lounge, a venue that has danced around the edges of London with stints in Tooting and Wimbledon. The co-owner of the venue, Hannah White, closed the stage for the night.
Having already smashed it during the songwriters’ round and The Wandering Hearts set, Striking Matches might have had a good claim for band of the festival even before they closed down Friday night’s main stage. After that crash course in this band, there was no surprise whatsoever that they absolutely nailed it. They need to be on the main stage next year, no question.
In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t catch all of the set. Partly because it was great to catch up with Tom Collinson, and partly because I knew if I hit this one hard I’d have no memory card space left for the rest of the festival!
American Music Association UK award winner Robert Vincent had the crowd in the palm of his hand at Haley’s Bar. The hot, sweaty tent was absolutely rammed.
Meanwhile, Sonia Leigh was nailing it over at the Supajam stage. With so many good music to fit in around the site, Leigh’s duet with Katy Hurt had already been and gone. However, Hurt’s band The Healers were still going strong as Leigh’s band.
Her acoustic set waslush but her electric performance was really something else. Her heady mix of genres, relentless energy and biting wit were irresistible. Highlights included Walking In The Moonlight and Jack is Back.
As the final notes range out, the summer sun was long gone. It was time to climb into every piece of clothing available and try to get some rest ahead of a packed day of music to come. Luckily it was clear that the first artist of Saturday would be just as good as the last artist on Friday: Leigh would be opening the Roadhouse stage! Perfect.
Like what you see? There are more photos of the show over on Flickr. Please follow me there, and here:
Want more photos? Try my travel, nature and street photography website, Out To The Streets!