After an extended bedtime story, only Villagers are left. The skies appropriately dark, Conor J O’Brien comes across as an indie Harry Potter, his young, slight frame variously bashing the bejeezus out of a parlour guitar and mourning into his microphone. There’s something distinctly eerie about the band – take the midnight-steam-train harmonies at the end of ‘Ship of Promises’: there’s nothing quite like its collective microtoned dissonance this side of a Steve Reich score; guitar strings are bent out of tune or played deliberately a semitone out, adding to the sense of unease. For a young man, O’Brien has plenty of deep concerns – there’s not much sense of sunlight here, with clanging drums and portentious lyrics – even with the occasional lighter musical moment, the sense of dread isn’t far away. Or maybe it’s the chilly night air making it all seem more dramatic than it actually is.
In any event, Villagers are the perfect warm-up act to one of the unsung highlights of the festival – a midnight showing of the seminal 1922 German vampire film Nosferatu, accompanied by live, improvised piano from virtuoso cinephile Darius Battiwalla. Groundbreaking in many ways, Nosferatu was almost lost to history when all prints were ordered to be destroyed for infringing the copyright of Dracula, upon which its story is based. Luckily, a handful of copies survived, saving the profoundly disturbing lead character (who remains genuinely frightening even in this desensitized era of plentiful gore) from an end more ignominious than that which finally befalls him in the film. The piano accompaniment rises and falls beautifully in tandem with the narrative of the film, Battiwalla note-perfect for almost two hours. A rare treat.
Despite the official theme of Monsters, Deer Shed’s actual theme, on Sunday at least, is ‘chilling out’. Rarely does a festival achieve such an atmosphere of relaxation, with seemingly every guest either lazing in a camping chair or sprawled on a rug under the non-stop sunshine. In tribute to the genius of the programmers, Sunday’s musical menu was perfectly judged for such an atmosphere. French obscuro-popsters We Were Evergreen tantalised with exotic accents and quirky tunes, and were thought by many to be a particular highlight.
Malcolm Middleton’s new act Human Don’t Be Angry was controversially ignored in favour of a spoken-word event – music journalist Dorian Lynskey and Chumbawamba guitarist Boff Whalley discussing the history of protest music. Lynskey was here partly to promote his book on the subject, 33 Revolutions Per Minute – A History Of Protest Songs; nevertheless his analysis was the highlight of the discussion, which proceeded at a leisurely pace, possibly hindered somewhat by the warmth of the tent. The usual suspects of the Sex Pistols and Crass were brought up, David Cameron’s sincerity in claiming he likes The Smiths was called into question (the conclusion was: he probably said that because he actually does like them), and Boff Whalley described how the introduction of fame to a previously obscure band like Chumbawamba changes your career path so much that you end up assaulting the corpulent frame of the Deputy Prime Minister. It was all interesting stuff, and Lynskey clearly knows his subject, but the irony of such a polite conversation about what should be a shouty and emotive topic hung in the air like a swear word on prime-time television.
Leisureliness must have been in the air, because Cherry Ghost popped in a slow-burning set of hits accompanied by guitar and keyboards only. The full band wouldn’t have been appropriate given the horizontal nature of the crowd, but the full power of songs like ‘We Sleep on Stones’ and ‘Mathematics’ were a little lost. Still, a warm performance, and he does have loads of good tunes, so a fittingly chilled-out finale to the weekend.
All that said about the music, vast swathes of the punters couldn’t care less about the performances. For the kids, it was all about getting their picture taken with a man in a skeleton suit, making a cardboard guitar or a clay monster, learning to hula hoop, or simply playing inside a massive cardboard box. No mention here has been made of the numerous kid-friendly activities in the Deer Shed itself – the storytelling, the poetry, the spiders and snakes – because one can’t be two or three places at once. But suffice to say they happened, and from the reactions of the kids who saw them, they were brilliant.
Anything else of note? The food stalls were excellent – with two notable exemplars – the Lamb Bhuna of home-made curry purveyors Sizzle and Spice was, to my mind, the best I’d ever tasted, and the chef agrees, claiming it’s the best curry in the world right now. I’m not well-travelled enough on the subcontinent to be utterly certain of the veracity of that claim, but as someone who spent several years in Bradford, I can verify it’s right up there with the best of them. And Thomas the Bakers of Helmsley rocked up with their deliciously fresh fancy goods, with no festival-style price hikes, making the 60p they charge for a Yorkshire curd tart the bargain of the festival. It’s the little details that matter at Deer Shed – a secret insider informs me that mountains of metal roadways were hired before the festival began to ensure the heavy machinery required to install the tents didn’t mash up the then-boggy ground. But then they were removed so we could all relax on the grass – impressive stuff. And I am bound to say that all the stewards and volunteers were lovely, and the festival couldn’t happen without them. So give yourselves a big round of applause!
In these days of health and safety, and restrictive but genuine concerns about the safety of children when they’re out of sight, it can be very difficult to genuinely relax when the kids are let off the leash. Deer Shed is about as close as it gets to letting the kids run off with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they will return in one piece. There was the odd stressed parent as their charges had failed to return at the alloted time; I hope it’s fair to assume there was a tearful reunion not long after. In summary, Deer Shed comes heartily recommended for the whole family. Some festivals you need a holiday to recover from – Deer Shed is both holiday and festival wrapped up with a sunny smile. I will be back – with more people – next year.