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.
If one was to hold a competition to find the most picturesque view in festivaldom, what would be on the shortlist? Certainly the legendary vista of the entire site from Glastonbury’s stone circle. Perhaps the imposing aspect from underneath Primavera’s vast concrete solar monolith across the Mediterranean sea. Equally as impressive, in a considerably more natural way, is the view just past the entrance barriers into Kendal Calling. The grassy site stretches out down a gentle slope, pocked with multicoloured canvas. Billowy cumulonimbus hang in a vast sky graduated between royal and baby blue, whilst on the horizon sit the imposing peaks of the Lake District. Just into the distance, tantalisingly obscured by trees, can be seen the tents and stages of the arena itself.
The geographical fortune of Kendal Calling doesn’t stop there. Being located roughly equidistant between the conurbations of Manchester, Glasgow, and Newcastle upon Tyne contributes to a heady melting pot of accents from three cultures that, let’s be honest, aren’t renowned for being shy of a bit of a party. And Kendal seems to specifically for their requirements: there’s guitar music aplenty, sometimes with a distinctly ‘laddish’ slant, and non-stop dance music until 3 AM for those so inclined towards a bit of an uplifting boogie. Which, as it turned out, for one night only, was me.
The rest of my time at Kendal mostly was spent at the Calling Out stage, a modestly-sized tent featuring less well-known and more up-and-coming acts than the household names hosted on the main stage. The very first act of the festival were Concrete Knives (pictured above), given a cruelly short 30 minutes in which to get across their funky Gallic guitar-pop. They rattle through several from debut ‘Be Your Own King’, Morgane Colas apparently floating in a self-induced trance when singing. They’re a rare treat, funky, cerebral and humorous all at the same time, and I can’t wait to see them do a full headline set (5/5). Champs have a lovely, summery take on the songwriter duo; something like ‘My Spirit Is Broken’ is just the sort of keening, sweetly-harmonied ditty that you want to hear emanating from a warm afternoon tent (3/5).
Waylayers turn up the tempo somewhat. Theirs is the sound of guitar songwriting meeting Balearic beats and synths as on the anthemic ‘S.O.S.’, which is dancefloor-worthy even without needing a remix. Harry Lee has enormous physical presence, dominating both the stage and the little keyboard from which he generates any number of uplifting synth lines. His vocals are often the spit of Diagrams’ Sam Genders, while the music treads a similar path to other practitioners of the dance crossover genre such as Friendly Fires; the fact that ‘Fires’ was produced by Ewan Pearson of TGTF former faves Delphic is surely no coincidence. Are they still unsigned? Surely not for long (4/5).
“I washed my hair for you / I shaved my legs for you too” – the first couplet of ‘Next To You’ neatly summarises Misty Miller’s brand of guitar-based feminism, and the enormous blues riff which explodes seconds later indicates how serious she is about it. This is properly dirty garage rock, as simple as it gets: two, maybe three chords, drums bashed as hard as possible, and as generous a dose of swagger from the eponymous young frontwoman as one could reasonably hope for. Nothing particularly complicated here, but a generous dose of attitude and a nice loud electric guitar go a long way, and considering Misty is still only 19 years old, this is a particularly impressive performance (4/5).
Clean Bandit (pictured at top) are an unusual proposition, with their uneasy blend of dance music overlaid with a variety of classical stringed instruments and some MCing – effectively an updated version of the Dads’ car stereo favourite ‘Hooked On Classics’. A couple of minutes into this year’s ‘Mozart’s House’ single, the beats stop completely and the strings play a few bars solo, before the inevitable four-to-the-floor kick drum reappears, and it all goes hands-in-the-air again. The MC mines the depth of cliché in his classical music references – staccato, pizzicato, they’re all there, sticking out like four crotchets in a bar of waltz. One can’t help but think that fans of neither genre are served well – do dance heads really want strings all over their music? And it’s a rare kind of classical music fan that thinks, “what this string quartet recital really needs is a nice 909 bassline!” Nevertheless, there is some virtue here – the twin female vocalists give good show, the whole thing could act as a decent, risk-free primer to the charms of dance music for débutantes, and overall it’s all pretty good fun – if you don’t mind a bit of cheese in your mid-afternoon sandwich (2/5).
Whether or not it’s the fact that Morecambe’s The Heartbreaks are treating Kendal Calling as something of a homecoming gig, what with them being just a quick trip up the M6 away from home, there’s something in the demeanour of Matthew Whitehouse and co. that demonstrates that they’re not just making up the numbers here. They would end up playing three times in the same day, including an acoustic set, but the Calling Out stage set was as good as any place to catch them. Clearly steeped in the aesthetic of the swinging ’60s, in many ways The Heartbreaks are keeping alive the straight pop of the pre-grunge ’90s, with a sweet, upbeat songs about girls. There’s a clear Smiths influence, which is no surprise given the band’s enthusiasm for them, but they come across as far more joyous than the Mancunian miserabilists. If you’re in the market for slice after slice of optimistic guitar pop, The Heartbreaks are who you should be listening to (5/5).
A few minutes in the company of Willy Moon soon assuages any doubts that his underwhelming Liverpool Sound City performance was anything other than representative of the usual standard of his work. His set consists of vignettes of self-aggrandising cliché; he himself is an obsequious musical magpie that steals the shiniest but most worthless musical baubles. For example, a compilation of lyrics from recent album ‘Here’s Willy Moon’ tell their own story:
“ain’t coming back no more / yeah yeah / how you like me now / one, two, three, four / I got what you need / got a strange affliction deep in my soul / I wanna be your man / when I was young my mama said / I put a spell on you”
Make no mistake, the first time these musical ideas were invented, they worked, because they were new and exciting. But to simply rehash them and sell them on as one’s own work, isn’t just plagiarism, it’s insulting the intelligence of one’s audience. Moon has an obvious talent for performance, but a desperate hole where there should be some decent, meaty bits of song – pretty much all of which are under 3 minutes long, and some are under 2. Usually brevity in music is to be applauded, as long as what is presented is an original idea, concisely expressed. In Moon’s case, his are underdeveloped foeti of songs, birthed at too young an age, dressed up in the glitter of production to disguise their weakness (1/5).
Public Enemy, on the other hand, have a lot to say, perhaps quite a lot more than can be easily understood on first listen by a white Yorkshireman. The show is highly theatrical, with Flava Flav making an appearance ages after things have got going; in fact it was three songs in, because the photographers were preparing to leave after the customary three songs, only to be called back by Flav because he hadn’t had enough of the limelight – the first time in my experience that an artist has called for more photographic exposure rather than less. And certainly the first time that terms have been overruled directly from onstage. Flav makes an impassioned tribute to the unfortunate black American teenager Trayvon Martin, to whom he dedicates his continuing to wear the clock around his neck. There’s entourage scattered around the stage, seemingly just standing there most of the time, but overall it’s a pretty highly-charged affair, set amongst what it could be said is a fairly inoffensive, apolitical bill. And there’s nowt wrong with that (4/5).