Eridge Park, Kent
21st - 23rd June 2019
The year continues a pace, skidding past like a jack-knifing juggernaut, months passing in the blink of an eye. June was gone in a flash, largely because we had been anticipating our return Black Deer festival. This was Whiskey Preachin's second time at Black Deer, and we were blessed with perfect festival weather; no rain, plenty of sunshine, and enough cloud cover to prevent over-heating. We had been asked to play some of our favourite records to round off Friday and Saturday nights in Haley’s bar, the stage that was to host some of our favourite bands over the weekend. We had an absolute blast spinning our best gumbo rock and outlaw boogie for the enthusiastic crowd. Thanks to all that came and tore up floor for us.
Black Deer must be very happy that their second year was so successful. Without being party to the stats, it felt as if there were more people on site than last year. The cashless experiment was hopefully received positively overall, despite the occasional grumble that could be overheard to start with. Once again, there was a great diversity of music across the weekend, catering to the more popular end of the market while managing to satisfy the aficionado, no mean feat.
Having negotiated our way through accreditation, pitched camp and cleared security, we made our way into the festival arena, the beautiful setting of Eridge Park. As we arrived, the familiar refrain of Me and Bobby McGee caught our ear and drew us toward the Ridge Stage, just in time catch the living legend, Kris Kristofferson. Sure, he was a little shaky at times, and he never has had the greatest voice, but boy, can he pen a tune, and, for a man about to celebrate his 83rd birthday, he still has great presence. It was a joy to join the crowd singing such classics with the man responsible for them.
Last year we were lucky enough to play records after The Sheepdogs, which was always going to be difficult to beat. This year, on the Friday night we had the great pleasure of following another Whiskey Preachin favourite, Sam Morrow. Sam’s sound is somewhere between funky rock and west coast twang, a little outlaw, a lot of LA and a whole load of groove. The people were ready for their first night to go with a bang and the tent was packed as Morrow’s band laid down tune after tune of the good stuff. Their version of WP favourite Shotgun Willie (from Willie Nelson’s Atlantic album, of the same name) was a lot of fun, as was their cover of Don William’s country disco nugget, Tulsa Time. If we had needed a boost before spinning our tunes, Sam Morrow and his band certainly put us where we needed to be.
The rest of Friday night is a collection of fragments and blurs stitched together like a patchwork quilt, albeit one with more patches missing that present. Suffice to say, Haley’s bar was rammed, and the floor was jumping. We kept things fairly funky, in a WP kinda way, before handing over duties to DJ Hank JD Sleek, who was also running the Texas two-step classes the following morning.
We didn’t make Hank’s two-step lesson on Saturday morning, deciding that a quick trip to nearby Tunbridge Wells and a hearty breakfast was probably a good option. One of the great things about Black Deer is its size and proximity to civilisation (if you class Tunbridge Wells as civilised). Never overcrowded or cramped, there is always somewhere on site to sit, relax and watch the people go by, but it is very easy to get away from the site and into town if you need a break, or if you have forgotten something. An hour spent away from the festival site and we were ready to get back to it.
Ryan Bingham kept the Ridge stage packed for his Saturday afternoon set, even if he was nearly upstaged by his excellent backing singers, who complimented his almost Dylan-esque country vocal delivery nicely. Elsewhere, Martin Harley played two sets on the Saturday afternoon, an acoustic set in the Roadhouse and the one we caught in Haley’s Bar, his first gig with a full band in at least six years. If he’d had concerns, he needn't have. Both the drummer and bass player really complimented Harley's exceptional guitar playing and the new songs they debuted, which the band had recently been recording together in Wales, certainly whet the appetite for the forthcoming album. He's playing several dates around the UK this year, so catch him if you can.
Speaking of exceptional guitarists, The Sheepdogs have at least three of them, we couldn't have asked for a better band to round off Saturday night. They even have a song for the occasion, delivered expertly to the packed crowd, along with several more from their excellent Changing Colours album. It's a great sight to see the genuine look of surprise on faces in the audience as they witness the 'Dogs and their tight harmonising guitar lines for the first time. It's the same look that was on our faces when we caught them at Black Deer last year, a real treat. In fact, the band have been touring solidly for the past eighteen months. Drummer Sam Corbett took some time out for cancer treatment, but he is thankfully back in the saddle after getting the all clear, and this time performing as a father having celebrated the birth of his first child (our heartfelt congratulations on both counts, Sam). While chatting with Ewan and Ryan from the band, we also heard that Ewan was looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet, and the chance to write the new album before heading into the studio. If you get the chance to see The Sheepdog’s perform live, don’t miss it. The albums are great, but live they really are at the top of their game.
Award for the orneriest performer of the weekend has to go to Justin Townes Earl, whose set on the Main Stage was sprinkled with his entertaining stories and his colourful language, despite attempts backstage to manage his vocab. Although his barbed comments to the audience were all delivered with a prickly humour, it was apparent that you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him. Clearly his father’s son, but for God's sake, whatever you do, don't request Guitar Town!
As the festival rolled into Sunday, it still had surprises to give up. We had been looking forward to seeing Paul Cauthen’s set on Sunday evening, but we were also fortunate to see him solo in the afternoon. Interjecting wry stories between his strumming and singing, Cauthen performed a selection of his slower material, the songs chosen to show off the full power of his voice in an acoustic setting, bringing a gospel tinge to his tales of weary excess.
The acoustic delights continued in Haley’s Bar with Blind Boy Paxton, an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist and raconteur who delighted the early evening crowd with his renditions of swing, ragtime and old-timey music, demonstrating his prowess on the fiddle, guitar, banjo, harmonica, piano and spoons, not to mention his wonderful sense of humour, charming story-telling and his poetry recital. Any normal person would probably be content to play any one of these instruments as well as Paxton. This is no simple one-man-band shtick, this is exceptional manifest talent.
Black Deer 2019 didn’t go out with a whimper on Sunday night, either. We had been highly anticipating the full band performance by Texan Paul Cauthen, and, having looked forward to this moment all weekend, the man and the band turned it on and let it rip. The music was more r&b influenced than expected, but the twang was still there, and the crowd loved it. The dance floor was jumping and the faces were smiling all around by the time he closed the set with current single, Cocaine Country Dancing, a slice of twenty-first century honky tonk disco to blow the cobwebs away. By WP standards, this was the peak point of the Sunday, satisfaction guaranteed. The final band of the night were an extremely popular act, The Dead South. While not exactly where Whiskey Preachin focus our attention, the band had the tent jam packed to the gunwales with their brand of orchestrated alt.old-timey bluegrass. It was a thoroughly enjoyable performance that had the audience in rapture, but it would have been nice to get to the bar!
As the over-turned semi that is 2019 continues to gauge strips of worn out asphalt from our heart-worn highway, not only can find relief in our memories of good times spent with friends, we can look ahead to the good times to come and the friends yet to become. Roll on 2020; rock on Black Deer.