Deer Shed: The Ultimate Family festival
A bold statement in the title, but one richly deserved and let me explain why. Festivals on the whole are geared towards the 18-40 plus age bracket, and because popular music hasn’t really changed that much in the last 30 years, they are not now just something that the students or young adults go to. Generations have now grown up with festivals, and so they have increased in number because more people of all ages want to go to them. But whilst there are gestures towards a ‘family’ element - with perhaps a field labelled ‘family camping’, or a quieter area and maybe a fairground ride or two, on the whole the idea of having your toddler or even a young teenager with you at a festival would still fill most parents with dread. Not so, here at Deer Shed, and over the last 7 years this festival has recognised that it’s important to get the whole family here, and they have encompassed all of that into the event, to the point where there are as many kids as there are adults here, and the entertainment is built around, fun, music, education and sport. As a parent I know that if my kids are happy and entertained, then so am I, and I can then start to relax and really enjoy what there is to offer in terms of live music too.
Before even attending, I was already impressed, even the ticketing purchase was as simple as it gets, website, book – pay the price of the ticket and car park only, no nasty booking fees or camping charge adding £50 to your event ticket, oh no – and not even a postal charge as your ticket is either mobile or emailed to you instantly – brilliant, if they can do it why can’t the bigger festivals do the same?
You then realise that the organisers have put on so many workshops and events that you probably aren’t going to see much of your kids as they gravitate towards the science tents to build robots or to solve a murder mystery with a forensics team, or perhaps they want to go to the sports field, play swingball, build a Shaun the sheep with an Aardman model maker or a minion from cardboard, or maybe just create giant bubbles, or streetdance or singalong to Pitch Perfect. The list is far too extensive for this review, they were even making a short feature film and used volunteer kids to act naughty in the movie – not easy, seeing as everyone was so damn happy to be here.
Then let’s talk retail outlets and pricing – hats off to them, I found water at supermarket prices, coffee at £1.50 a cup (instant, proper beans were £2.50), reasonably priced kid’s meals, I didn’t feel like I was being ripped off, and the range was as good as you would find at any festival. The bar areas were well stocked with your normal lager and cider but also a decent range of well-kept York Brewery ales, priced at a reasonable £3.80 – not £5 for a pint of warm festival piss – take note BST/Leeds/Reading/Glastonbury/Latitude!! Their idea of a returnable plastic cup for an initial £2 deposit worked so well that there was very little litter around, and even the toilets appeared impeccable.
Finally, the music! It’s what I’m supposed to be reviewing really. But before I get into that just an initial word around the range of artists. Rather than filling the 4 stages with 70’s, 80’s and 90’s ‘hasbeens’ and the rest being local artists playing for their ticket. Someone has done an awful lot of work selecting, probably handpicking some of the acts. We’ve got a selection of up and coming Mercury Music prize nominated artists like Anna Calvi, C Duncan and then some hallowed heroes like Richard Hawley and Beth Orton. Bands with a more pop edge like Everything Everything and Rae Morris, and some interesting and very new artists that I would expect to see on much bigger stages in the next 5 years. This is a place to discover new talent and not just to reminisce about 20-year-old anniversary albums. The roster of artists has been as carefully thought through as the extensive kid’s programme, and no there isn’t a wide selection of techno/rap/punk/metal acts but the artists fit the audience, but with the capacity to stretch their musical senses and hopefully come away with a new favourite.
Actor on the main stage opened proceedings proper, led by vocalist Louisa Osborn who conducted the band through some dreamy psychedelic sounds ‘Kisses’ being a highlight and then she picks up a guitar to enhance the space scape feel of ‘Girls Do’. What a start and the sun was shining and starting to really warm up.
A quick hop next door to the brown covered tent called the Lodge for a stand out performance from a very young Mahalia. Looks like a young Corinne Bailey Ray sounds like a younger Lianne La Havas, but the sweet teenage sounds of love lost, not being a ‘side chick’ (which she explained to the oldies what that meant) ensured that this performer is one to watch in the next few years. It was hot and sweaty and her dungarees and turtle neck top might not have been the best option, but her voice and guitar cut through all that and this girl from Leicester will be a big draw on the gig circuit very soon.
The main stage rang out to the sound of some great indie rock as ‘Fronteers’ a new band from Hull took to the stage. Think Cast/Oasis and some great harmony vocals to match the guitar delivery. If Blossoms from Stockport can break through to the mainstream then there is no reason why Fronteers can’t do exactly the same, they hold the same freshness without any annoying keyboard twiddly bits.
I ran across to the Obelisk stage (not easy in the sunshine and heat) to catch 3 songs from one of my favourite altfolk female singer songwriters – Jess Morgan. Voice like an angel, lyrics so heartfelt, and I wished I could have stayed for longer but at least I heard ‘Modern World’ and her amusing story about being sick in a drain in York and that it had to be industrially cleaned afterwards (no I’m not joking). That’s the problem with festivals, I want to try and see everything – you can’t, obviously, but when the site is reasonably compact, it is possible to catch half a set of each. So with that in mind I’m away to the first visit of the ‘In the Dock’ stage for White. Glad I did, as this Scottish band produce some of the finest catchy electric pop this side of Duran, and with an enigmatic frontman in Leo Condie seemed to at times be channeling the spirit of Billy Mackenzie.
‘Future Pleasures’ a highlight and a busy tent was dancing away as I left to catch a few songs of ‘Gwenno’ a songstress from Wales. Gwenno charmed the Lodge audience with a distinct heady brew of Welsh or Cornish lyrics and electronic sounds. Her drummer was a character and kept the young crowd entertained with his facial expressions, but it was Gwenno Saunders, (a former member of the Pipettes) whose ephemeral vocals shone through. Wow – went from Indie to Electro Pop via Folk and back on this crazy musical tube map. Great selection of artists and its only halfway through day 1.
Lonelady on the mainstage felt quite cold and introverted in comparison to other bands, but still an extremely tight performance and Julie Campbell from Manchester is a formidable songwriter, ‘Groove it out’ sounding fresh and stirring from her. Back to In the Dock for ‘Field Music’ who had packed out the tent – a favourite at the festival having played it before, they whipped up the crowd with some singalong catchy pop. Kids very young danced at the front of the railings with their parents watching dote fully behind.
Eagulls were my disappointing band of the festival, very moody, unusually quiet and reserved and maybe that was due to the young sparse audience (as most were watching Field Music), but the normal punky energy didn’t come across from them at this festival with very little to show to an audience. Headliners ‘Everything Everything’ on the other hand brought colour and a hell of a lot of dry ice with them to the mainstage as they belted out the hits ‘Regrets’, ‘Spring/Summer/Winter/Dread’. The caped crusader Jonathan Higgs led the band through a triumphant headline slot ending with the laughable lyrics relating to “a fat child in a pushchair” in ‘No Reptiles’, and the emphatic dance of ‘Distant Past’. Day one was over and legs sufficiently tired, but looking forward to a full session starting bright an early at 11am the next day.
‘Fews’ were lit early (geddit?) and their choppy guitars and shaky heads were exactly the tonic to blow out the early cobwebs. Sounding a bit like the Editors the In the Dock stage rang out to their Swedish/American hybrid sounds. ‘Amber Arcades’ shoegaze summer feel felt a little trite in comparison, but the soft female vocals of Annelotte de Graaf can be heard across the park and oozed a gentle lull over the crowd awaiting Declan McKenna.
Declan is a young lad (still) and has an equally young looking band, but they have great energy and a frontman who doesn’t lack any confidence or enthusiasm. Prepared to jump into the pit in front of the audience and to cover Fleetwood Mac ‘The Chain’. The younger kids loved it and he spent the rest of the day at the festival being interviewed and signing to anything that didn’t move. Tuff Love were having a tuff time as they didn’t have much of an audience in their tent, but their fuzzy grunge pop was really great, and I wished that I could have stayed for longer but I had to get to the Lodge for ‘Plastic Mermaids’.
This turned out to be the set of the festival, one of those you had to be there moments. Already an eclectic mix of funky bass, guitars played with a bow, understated raspy vocals, a keyboard sampler stood on mannequin legs and enough dry ice to fog out the first 20 rows. Yet you also hear choral uplifting pieces and a danceable cowbell beat that is irresistible to anyone from 5 to 85. That was all well and good, and then a young girl in a denim jacket appeared, offered some nice background vocals at first. Then the jacket came off and so did the roof of the tent as she started to melt faces with her operatic overtures, hitting notes that only a classically trained singer can do, follow this with a sharp scream and then the band kick in with a funky beat and the opera singer turns into a Bjork like pixie bouncing around. It completely took me and the rest of the crowd by surprise. Her name was ‘Rhain’ make a note of that – the find of the festival and one I will be following for years to come.
Everything after that felt low or lost in comparison, ‘Catlle & Cane’ were great but having been blasted with some real singing even their quality rock/country wasn’t enough to lift me back to where I had been. Emma Pollock a Scottish singer songwriter bearing a remarkable resemblance to KT Tunstall equally didn’t lift me, and as for ‘Holly Macve’, despite her remarkable stunning country twang voice, and bleach blonde hair with red lips look, the crowd were all sat down looking like they were about to fall asleep.
It wasn’t until ‘Misty Miller’ on the main stage that we got some much needed oomph to proceedings. A trad country/rock and blues performance delivered by a young sleazy starlet in the making. Much tattooed, a patchwork set of dungerees and smile to light up the whole festival, she brought songs about lonesome cowboys and lyrics like “You maybe something she stirs in her tea, but baby you’re more than sugar to me”. Back at the lodge, ‘Meilyr Jones’ delivered his erratic but brilliant persona to a growing crowd. Not quite knowing what to expect he prowled the stage looking like he could erupt any second which became compulsive viewing.
Then we get another highlight for me – ‘Rae Morris’. I’ve followed this girl for the last 5 years, watching her talent grow with every performance and having been away from the live circuit for a few months recording her 2nd album, this gig was one to savour, and she didn’t disappoint, playing most tracks from her ‘Unguarded’ album and a new one ‘Someone Out There’ for the audience. The sun shines throughout and the clarity of her voice is a true gem, goosebumps abound and it’s over too quickly.
Steve Mason seemed more concerned with the people on the hill eating Melton Mowbray pies than anything else, but his professional delivery, soothing crisp vocals made it a surprisingly great show. The sunny weather did help and as it started to dip in the late afternoon the festival launched 2 hot air balloons into the sky as Steve was still playing on the main stage.
2 acts left on the roster for me and the next was outstanding, despite starting later than scheduled ‘Anna Calvi’ delivered a stunning dramatic performance, great guitar and dark vocals set to equally dark lyrics. Percussionist playing all manner of cymbals and squeezeboxes added to the keys drums and guitar. It was a perfect end to the day and ‘Blackout’ brought tears to my eyes with its perfection.
The official headliner for many was ‘Richard Hawley’ and even now I’ll still admit I don’t quite see the almost devoted worship that some people attach to him. He’s a great guitarist and writes some superb songs, and has a lovely low quality to his voice, but, I’m in no mad rush to run out and buy his albums or watch his live show. I enjoy it, it’s a good ending to the night as the sun disappears over the hill but I was more uplifted and excited about the new acts I had seen in the day than this.
The final day and opening on the pallet stage was Sam Griffiths and Conor Hirons (amusingly incorrectly spelt as Carol). Great to see a festival giving some local talent a stage, and these two from York have got talent, playing some lovely acoustic tunes for those grabbing an early morning coffee or beer. I hope they get further breaks and bigger stages to play in the future.
The Sunday saw some further interesting performances – Mt Wolf a combination of electro with mostly high falsetto vocal but occasionally hearing an almost digeridoo sound coming from the main vocalist. Some real anthemic qualities overlaid made this act grow an audience over the 40 mins that they played.
‘Saint Sister’ were a beautiful pair of Irish girls mixing keys and a harp to their gorgeous vocal harmonies and Steven James Adams proceeded to walk amongst the audience unplugged, singing folk songs dressed in a Napalm Death T shirt. Steve brought Dan Mangan up for the finale of his show and Dan reciprocated when it was his turn to play the lodge stage later in the day. If you like your folk with a Cornish twist and lots of “Johnny O” then Sam Lee and friends is right up your street. Barefoot and holding what looked like an encyclopedia that made a grandad groaning sound every time he squeezed it, Sam seemed like a very nice chap, but I have to say I ran…to the beer tent!
That left Ed Harcourt to charm and croon his way through a great set of tunes and Beth Orton to bring the day to a close with her mainly keyboard based tracks. Sadly this was the only time it rained just before Beth played, but that didn’t dim the spirits of the festival which I will return to again and next time I’ll bring more families!