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.
Before we review this year’s Kendal Calling 2015, we must spare a moment to remember Christian Pay, the unfortunate soul who lost his life at the festival in the early hours of Friday morning. Four others are ill in hospital, two critically, after taking substances they thought would help them have a good time. Few of us can honestly say that we haven’t at some point put something of unknown provenance in our bodies, the safety of which could not be guaranteed. Most of the time we get away with it but in this case the outcome was the worst one imaginable. The pain that his family and friends must be feeling is simply indescribable in words. For what it’s worth, my, and no doubt our readership’s, thoughts and prayers are with you.
Solemnity turns to anger when one considers the turn of events that has led to this tragedy. I am utterly sick of hearing of people being regularly harmed and sometimes killed in the pursuit of chemically-enhanced happiness. Anyone who takes a legal drug – caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, prescription medication – has access to a quality-controlled supply of goods from a responsible retailer at a reasonable cost. Indeed, alcohol enthusiasts are particularly well-served, even though said drug turns a significant number of those that use it into slurring, staggering, incontinent, occasionally violent, husks. Those who choose something other than drink to help their party experience along are forced to buy from the black market, with all the risk that entails. Our drugs policy is killing our children. If you accept that people will always take drugs, and that legislation is largely ineffective at stopping them, then prohibition is revealed for the folly it is and always has been. Nobody should have to die in the quest for a good time. In this writer’s opinion, MDMA and cannabis should be licensed for public consumption. If that had been the case, Christian Pay would have spent a night full of love on Friday, rather than everyone who knew him enduring a lifetime of pain.
This year saw the biggest and best Thursday night ever at Kendal Calling – a superb way to celebrate the festival’s tenth birthday. Yes, there were some teething troubles getting so many Thursday visitors onto the site – those who turned up early queued for 3 hours or more. Personally, I drove over after work, encountered no traffic at all as always, and parked directly opposite the festival entrance. Depending on where you’re prepared to camp, Kendal Calling has surely the shortest car-to-tent distance of any comparably-sized festival, a bonus when all you want to do is get the tent up, crack a beer, and listen to the first band of the weekend.
James headlined the Thursday night party, and were a superb choice. Where their compatriots have faded away, against all the odds James are still looking and sounding both fresh and expertly sharp after a quarter-century of practice. They’re not necessarily relevant to everyone (the teenagers camping around me had blank looks when I mentioned I was going to see James – “Who’s he?”), and I must make the personal confession that I thought they were finished after 2001’s ‘Pleased to Meet You’, but that’s my fault, not theirs. After all this time, they’ve mastered the art of the teasing slow-burn buildup, both on the micro level of a song – ‘Sit Down’ being a case in point, the whole thing reimagined as an admirably restrained ballad – and the macro level of a whole set. There’s no two ways about it, a great headlining band.
The alternative was the equally compelling Future Dub Project in the always-reliable oasis of hot comestibles Chai Wallahs. Their sound melds reggae rhythms and electronica, a male rapper and a superb female singer.
Friday saw rain of the kind that is commonplace for Kendal. Wet, dreary, mudogenic. Judging by the vast number of sodden-brown appendages that used to be sneakers, not all of the crowd have grokked that Wellington boots are essential festival accessories. Ah, the folly of youth. The beauty of Kendal Calling is that, in contrast to some of the nation’s bigger events, all the stages are but a matter of minutes stagger away from each other, so one can see a year’s worth of bands in a single weekend. At least you can on Friday, when the spirit is keen and the legs fresh.
Louis Berry is a Scouse rock ‘n’ roller – one can infer from his reference to ‘Her Majesty’s pleasure’ that he may have been something of a naughty boy in the past – but he’s clearly discovered the redemptive power of music. Being blessed with a veritable roar of a voice, he and his sharp band seem perfectly at home on the big stage, the songs drip with Liverpudlian heritage (La’s, Cast, er… The Beatles) and do the massed ranks of Merseysiders proud.
Rhain is a startling discovery, her modest Bristolian twang belying a genuinely world-class singing voice, as if Björk, Kate Bush and Kiri te Kanawa were reimagined as a bundle of flapperish trustafarian kook. She accompanies herself with a bit of minimalist piano, but it’s really her voice that steals the show, as powerful as an opera singer one minute, squeaky and coy the next, all delivered with such disarming modesty that endears one to her even more. I didn’t hear a finer or more notable voice all weekend.
Having been reliably informed by my considerably younger camping buddies that Fuse ODG is the next big thing, then I had to pay him a visit. It’s dancehall, Jim, but not as we know it – self-nominated as the sound of ‘new Africa’, Fuse himself is a singer and rapper, and he’s got a decent band with female harmony backing and a big Notting Hill sound system blasting out the tunes. Exciting enough, and apparently he’s the most successful Ghanaian singer on iTunes, but I must confess this sounds much like all the other dancehall-inspired pop I’ve ever heard.