Right. Let’s get something straight right from the start. Deer Shed 2016 was essentially perfect: a wondrous box of delights for young, middle and old alike. Whilst the event has evolved over the years, if someone said, “Freeze. This is perfect. Don’t change anything,” I doubt there would be any complaints. The camping is spacious and quiet. The toilets are clean and useable. The food is utterly delicious. The bar is well-run and well-stocked (some of us still mourn the loss of Ilkley’s Mary Jane, however). The crowds are beautiful and well-behaved… well, at least the kids are. Oh, and someone must have paid the weather bill because the sun shone nearly all the time.
And so we come to the entertainment. Deer Shed is effectively two festivals in one – a box of delightful activities for kids – stuff so unique that they only get to do it here – and a proper music festival for grown ups. We’ll come to the kids’ stuff in due course, but let’s consider the music first. If you think a festival that welcomes so many children just tags on a few bands to keep the adults half-amused, then think again. I don’t know how they do it, but Deer Shed’s music lineup is second to none. A festival of any size would be proud to come up with such a fresh, forward-looking bill. For a modest spot of land in the North Yorkshire countryside, it’s nothing less than a triumph.
By the very nature of Deer Shed, one often has a youngster tugging at one’s sleeve, wanting to go and jump around outside the bubble stall for the hundredth time. The list of missed bands gets longer and longer, but that just makes one even more appreciative of the music one does manage to see. First up for me were Leeds’ Eagulls, whose sound is the natural result of owning several Squier guitars, a floor full of reverb pedals and a record collection largely consisting of the Cure’s more introspective records. I’m not exactly sure what the frontman’s on about, and the whole shebang is based on some purposely obtuse chord progressions. But when it all comes together they create an urgent wash of heady nu gaze that urges you to close your eyes and get swept away.
Friday night headliners Everything Everything have made the inevitable, if not a little unsettling, transformation from regular indie band to some sort of futuristic gospel praise outfit. Singer Jonathan Higgs wears ankle-length robes, holds his hands aloft and teases the crowd with his oblique commentary on the state of everything. He even retreats to his own podium at the back of the stage on occasion, cavorting and exclaiming like a greasy televangelist, except with something better to sell than false hope. A quite extraordinary performance: danceable, unforgettable, slightly disturbing. [Should be interesting to see what the Americans make of them on their first headline tour of America that begins this week. – Ed.]
Saturday dawned with the hazy memory of having an impromptu jam session around the piano in the Obelisk tent. Whether real or imaginary, such late-night escapades are soon forgotten in favour of the promise of a sunny day, and plenty to do with it. FEWS shake off the cobwebs with a pre-midday slot of their driving instrumental post-rock. It’s the sort of thing that you can get lost in, labyrinthine melodies hidden within an incessant motorik rhythm section. Teessiders Cattle & Cane give me a little “festival moment”: the weight of a child on one’s shoulders, bopping away in their own little way to a warm-hearted band… such fleeting yet timeless moments of joy make the grind of life worthwhile. TGTF has come across Misty Miller a couple of times before, and she’s never been the same performer twice. Currently in a goth-inspired phase, her rock ‘n’ roll ditties remain as strong as ever, and her passion for reinvention means somewhere along the line she’s sure to hit on a persona that really propels her into the mainstream.
Somehow I managed to get rid of the kids for an hour or so at this point, and found myself in a state of euphoric peace lounging at the back for Emma Pollock‘s set. Hardly a household name, but her former group The Delgados will be familiar to students of Scottish indie bands, and her solo set was an absolute masterclass in grown-up songwriting. One delightful tune after another fell from her guitar, and backed by an excellent band she was an unexpected treat. Her song about dark skygazing was hugely evocative: a more sublime way to close one’s eyes and lay back in the late afternoon sunshine it’s difficult to imagine.
TGTF raved about RHAIN‘s double performance at Kendal Calling last year, and her set in Deer Shed’s Obelisk tent was the stuff that legends are made of. Her voice is nothing less than astonishing, and the rare beauty of her jewelled songs quickly had the tent full to capacity. Her friends Plastic Mermaids, fresh from their own storming set earlier in the day, backed her for a few numbers, but it’s when RHAIN picks some simple piano chords to compliment her extraordinary vocal performance that really showcases what she is capable of. To witness a musician of such powerful talent in such intimate surroundings is a very rare treat; the electric atmosphere and the standing ovation that followed her performance is testament to the intensity of what she is capable. Utterly, utterly wonderful.
Stay tuned: the second half of Martin’s review of Deer Shed 2016 will post here on TGTF tomorrow. Same bat time, same bat channel.