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Deer Shed Festival 2014: Day 1 Roundup

 
By on Thursday, 31st July 2014 at 2:00 pm
 

On Saturday the 26th of July, on the occasion of its fifth birthday, Deer Shed Festival finally came of age. I mean no disrespect to Villagers or Darwin Deez, but Johnny Marr is the perfect climax to Saturday night at Deer Shed. He drew a crowd to Baldersby Park’s gently sloping natural auditorium unmatched in both size and enthusiasm than in any previous year. By virtue of writing the music to countless songs that soundtracked the lives of the adults in the crowd when they were young, free, and unencumbered by the offspring who were variously marauding around the site in frenzied glee or asleep in their arms despite the noise, for an hour or so they gave Marr their undivided attention and appreciation as he reeled off one classic after another.

Even though perhaps not as much a household name as his Smithsian lyricist and singer, by virtue of avoiding the latter’s rum pronouncements on vegetarianism, race, and sexuality, and sticking to what he does best – playing decent music – Marr succeeds in a similar, but much larger fashion, to that which Gaz Coombes did the previous year. A combination of life-affirming back catalogue hits, each of which instantly evoke dusty memories of life past, together with new material that easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the older stuff, is a recipe for success at Deer Shed Festival. Thusly are memories of the future made.

But Deer Shed Festival is far from being just the Johnny Marr show, and the adventure commenced the previous sultry afternoon. For those that don’t know, Deer Shed festival is held in North Yorkshire, just off the A1 on the way to Thirsk, in the beautiful grounds of Baldersby Park. The unwritten rule of Deer Shed: bring the kids. Even though the music is as good as anywhere, the real focus is on giving children a good time throughout the weekend, so if you’ve an aversion to the little blighters, look elsewhere. If you need an event where the kids are kept amused as Dad moshes down the front, Deer Shed is for you.

After a less-than-arduous 5-minute walk from car park to campsite, silently congratulating oneself for attending an event of a sensible acreage, and a bout of fumbling with canvas and string in the baking hot sunshine, refreshment and musical entertainment are less desired than demanded. Teleman were welcome succour. Comprising three of the admired Pete and the Pirates but swapping jaunty guitars for more considered electronica-enhanced melodies, they mix Erasure’s way with a dramatic synth-pop arc with Belle and Sebastian’s observational twee. All We Are eased the main stage into the late afternoon sunshine with the gentle ebb and flow of their gently atmospheric, shoegaze-influenced pop. Contenders for “The xx imitators of the Year” award, along with Woman’s Hour.

PINS are impeccable now. Watching them transform from a rickety band of noiseniks just a couple of years ago into today’s whirlwind of glamour and red lipstick is a life-affirming experience. They combine the power of 1970s New York glam-punk rock with an overlaid sweetness of melody and delicacy of touch comparable with any Supremes classic. While the phrase “girl band” has loaded connotations of manufactured, shallow pop nonsense, bands like PINS are doing their best to reclaim it for groups of talented musicians who just happen to be women. Whether or not there’s any great feminist insight is open to debate, but nevertheless, theirs was one of the performances of the weekend.

Next comes the only major misstep of programming of the whole weekend. Just as the sun starts to think about lazily drifting towards the horizon, and the main stage crowd are tucking into their evening meal of organic houmous and vintage prosecco, along come Toy to blast away the early evening reverie. On record, TOY are more considered, melodic, and song-focused, but live they come across as an incessant wall of noise; they’ve got three guitars and they’re going to turn it them all up to 11. ‘Join the Dots’, the title track from their début album, is a case in point – its climax of multi-layered guitars, phased into the next universe, is an undoubtedly viscerally thrilling piece of music, but perhaps not enjoyable if it disturbs little Johnny’s digestion and makes the whole family go scrabbling around for the ear defenders.

It’s not that they’re a bad band. Far from it. In fact, along with Temples, they’re one of the most convincing neo-psych bands in the country right now. But in this instance it’s a case of right band, wrong stage. Various overheard grumbles pay testament, including the old classic, “it’s just noise!” A considerable chunk of the Deer Shed crowd rock up to the main stage auditorium in the morning with their camping chairs and stay there all day, so in a way have little choice as to what they are made to listen to. Whatever is on the main stage influences the enjoyment of the entire site, and the Friday evening slot needs to be something less challenging, a little funkier, to properly match the mood of the audience.

A band on the correct stage are Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip – they play the tented Lodge stage, so aural participation is distinctly optional – but certainly recommended. Pip’s gently political and moderately sweary diatribes (“that last song had an MF in it, sorry parents!”) combined with Sac’s dubstep-flavoured soundtrack excites many audience members into a display of such extrovert dad-dancing that any child would be excruciatingly embarrassed. The atmosphere in the tent is genuinely charged with enthusiasm; Deer Shed’s first foray into urban/rap/hip-hop is superbly received. More please. In common with several other acts, Pip seems genuinely pleased to have such a diverse range of ages in the audience – officially the most people on shoulders ever at one of their gigs, as children are raised aloft to experience “the man with his head on upside down”.

The main stage headliner is British Sea Power, but inevitably for many parents their slot coincided with trying to settle one or more very excited children to sleep. They sounded great from the campsite. When eventually the kids are settled, the last attraction of Friday is the genius that is Darius Battiwalla accompanying a silent film: this year, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. It was intended to be The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari but had to be changed for licensing reasons, which would have suited the time travel theme far better, and also the patience of the crowd: Caligari is a mere 67 minutes long, whereas Hunchback is over 2 hours. Whilst I’d happily listen to Battiwalla play over a cornflake advert, that’s a long time to spend watching Lon Cheney gurning, and by the time the film’s impenetrable plot reached its climax, the audience were variously physically uncomfortable or sound asleep. It’s surprising how loud a small boy’s snores can be in the auditorium of a silent film!

Stay tuned for more of Martin’s coverage of Deer Shed coming soon on TGTF.

 

Deer Shed Festival 2013: Day 1 Roundup

 
By on Thursday, 25th July 2013 at 2:00 pm
 

Right in the middle of his Saturday night headline set at Deer Shed Festival 2013, Darwin Deez brought his band to the front of the stage, and all four men lined up in silence. Then a metronomic electro beat kicked in, and they began to move. Initially, just an arm would go up in response to a recorded note. Then each dancer took on a musical motif as his own, limbs locked in time with the music, until they were a blur of moving body parts, aligned in rhythm but diverse in motion, as if the internal workings of a wristwatch. It spiralled from there: in pairs, each couple chiding the other – using nothing but the power of dance – to even higher levels of highly-skilled yet light-hearted boogie-banter. It was a moment that summed up the entire ethos of Deer Shed Festival: do something fun; do it well; do it with the unselfconscious devotion of a child. And if it involves putting a cardboard box on one’s head and pretending to be a robot, so much the better.

Rewind a day or so, and the famously clement Deer Shed weather made putting up a tent both a pleasure and a chore – baking hot sunshine is perfect when the work of tent-erection is over, cold beer in hand, but slightly less enjoyable whilst in the process of whacking tent pegs into baked-hard ground. Still, it beats rain in any form, and Deer Shed still has a 100% record for no significant rain at any of the four events so far, a record which leaves many festivals blushing with envy. The site itself was significantly rearranged this year, cleverly making use of Baldersby Park’s natural bowl-shaped amphitheatre, although this sadly leaves the eponymous Shed outside the arena, looking very much unloved and forlorn. Perhaps it could be brought into use for… ooh, I don’t know… housing deer for the weekend?

Gaz Coombes Deer Shed 2013

No sooner was the tent upstanding then it was time for music. First up was Gaz Coombes, late of Supergrass, and what a superb opening gambit he turned out to be. His recent work, as chronicled in long-player ‘Here Comes the Bombs’, was very much in evidence, as expected, as was heartbreaking recent single ‘One Of These Days’. Songs such as the sub-3-minute stomper ‘Whore’, and the more circumspect, spacey almost-prog of ‘Universal Cinema’, were rapturously received by a crowd who appeared initially not to know quite what to expect.

What they got was a spectacular performance from a well-drilled and vastly experienced practitioner of alternative guitar-pop. A lady or two might have swooned at the sight of his impressively-sideburned visage. Imagine the delight of the crowd when treated to an acoustic interlude of a couple of Supergrass numbers, including the divine ‘Moving’, which excels when given a stripped back treatment. Then imagine that delight transforming into headbanging ecstasy when the very last song turns out to be the storming ‘Richard III’ from Supergrass’ sophomore release. Not a brow was left unsweaty. (5/5)

Edwyn Collins Deer Shed 2013

By chance, a member of our entourage is acquainted with a good friend of Edwyn Collins, and from him has learned how devastating the double cerebral haemorrhage and subsequent complications Collins suffered in 2005 actually were. Thusly, we’re under no illusions about how impressive it is that he’s here at all. Which makes reviewing his performance a little tricky. Collins himself isn’t overly mobile, his right side clearly considerably weakened. He sits on an amplifier throughout and plays no instrument. He has an odd way of speaking – in short, sharp facts rather than conversational sentences. His speech is slurred. Yet here he is, confidently headlining. It cannot be overestimated how significant an achievement that is, and a tribute to Collins’ efforts of rehabilitation. Such sentiment is largely irrelevant, however, in the context of musical criticism. And whilst on the surface this could be a difficult listen – a bald reading of some relatively obscure songs from a man who slurs his words and is liberal in his approach to perfect pitch – anyone with even a casual familiarity with his work will appreciate the resonance of this performance as a whole.

The set ranges widely over Collins’ long career – the white funk of his Orange Juice period still sounds fresh in ‘What Presence?’, time hasn’t dulled ‘Gorgeous George’’s edge, but it’s the new, post-illness material that’s most impressive. We get a smattering from 2010’s superb Losing Sleep LP, including the Northern Soul-influenced title track and the touchingly romantic ‘In Your Eyes’. But the best bits come from this year’s ‘Understated’. If Collins’ voice is damaged, his ear for a tune is still factory-fresh. There’s a strong autobiographical thread running through his newest songs: ‘31 Years’ and ‘Understated’ are barely-concealed musings on his past, his achievements, and what the future might hold, all bound together with expert songcraft. Bad health may have robbed Collins of his ability to play his cherished guitars, but it has thankfully left his musical brain intact. A performance for connoisseurs, but what it lacked in accessibility it made up for in depth. (4/5)

A particular highlight of last year was Darius Battiwalla’s piano accompaniment to the eerie ‘Nosferatu’. This year, Darius was back with 1925’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. ‘Phantom’ tells the story of Erik, a hideously deformed figure who lives deep in the bowels of an opera house, falls in love with a leading lady, and proceeds to terrorise all those who would stand in his way. A disturbing portrait of manic depression, it contains some genuinely chilling scenes, notably the casual way Erik dispenses with his first underground caller.

The production is astonishing even when viewed with a jaded modern eye – the subterranean lair is a romantic gothic masterpiece, and the restrictions of black and white film are used to its advantage when portraying the inky blackness of water, and by the use of tints to reinforce the emotional context of a scene. Battiwalla’s playing is an absolute joy, so expertly reflecting the on-screen action, one could close one’s eyes and imagine how the story was developing. Beautiful melodic vignettes of disparate theme, pitch and tempo flow together to create a seamless soundtrack, all the more impressive for being played without sheet music. Cinema doesn’t get any better than this. (5/5)

Head on over to Martin’s Flickr for high-res versions of his photos taken at this year’s Deer Shed Festival.

 

Deer Shed Festival 2012 Review (Part 2)

 
By on Thursday, 2nd August 2012 at 2:00 pm
 

Part 1 of Martin’s report from Deer Shed Festival 2012 is right this way.

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.

 
 
 

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