When: 28th to 31st July 2023
Where: Baldersby Park, Topcliffe, North Yorkshire, England
Deer Shed strikes again. That’s 13 times now and we are still counting. The fiercely independent, family-run, family-friendly festival of music, comedy, arts, science, theatre, and sport for people of all ages began life back in 2010 as a rather modest one-day affair and since that time Deer Shed has grown into a hugely popular, well-established, extremely well-run staple of the UK festival calendar. It has achieved this status by a process of quiet evolution, incremental expansion, and an unwavering commitment to the principles of intimacy, inclusivity, sustainability, and safety, all coupled to the delivery of first class entertainment. Deer Shed Festival is a joy to behold and this year’s event proves to be absolutely no exception in that regard.
Several thousand folks once again make their annual pilgrimage to this most green and pleasant corner of North Yorkshire and by lunchtime many of the scheduled activities are slowly whirring into gear. The sports arena is already open for business, the kayaks on the lake have set sail, and a bewildering number of workshops have begun. The Feral Farm is picking up a head of steam and once more illustrates how the simple act of tossing loose straw either into the air or at each other can still keep countless kids amused for hours on end.
The music commences shortly thereafter with Katie Rigby (Manchester), Lass (Wigan), and Mi Mye (Wakefield) evidencing another of Deer Shed’s strong commitments, that of promoting new and emerging Northern artists. Mi Mye, the creative vehicle driven by Jamie Lockhart, is one of many acts over the weekend who is acutely aware of Deer Shed’s demographic; each and every year, half of those in attendance are under the age of 16. With this in mind, he avows to keep any industrial language to a bare minimum but fails miserably in his resolve during ‘it hurt me’ which does contain some swearing, partly, it would seem, to remind his partner Emily Ingham of her in-song cues.
Another local artist Spielmann wants to live his life without regret and by adding his lovely baritone to some belting pop tunes stacked high with skyscraper choruses he is certainly not going to die wondering. Talking of which, Joe Evans rather helpfully reminds us that “we are all going to die.” But W.H. Lung’s lead singer is also quick to add “so we may as well dance.” And by the time that the Mancunian band reach a climactic blast of ‘Showstopper’ and‘Inspiration!’ with their wild confection of post-punk, synth-pop, and relentless grooves the Deer Shed audience, both young and old, has cheerfully joined them in that most noble of pursuits.
Deer Shed is not frightened to ring the changes. Both Steam Down and The Comet Is Coming bring some improv jazz to the party and with it a further departure from Deer Shed’s already innovative programme of music. It is a bold move on the organisers’ part. Speaking with a number of people on site the following day, The Comet Is Coming certainly divided opinion but to these ears at least the sheer physicality of their sound, a torrent of muscular rhythms played with an almost apocalyptic abandon certainly demands your attention. If the trio’s natural lifespan is about to end, as has been reported, then they are certainly leaving behind an indelible mark.
Given the number of children sporting NASA T-shirts and the occasional adult in a spacesuit you already got the impression that today was going to be all about Public Service Broadcasting. And so it turns out to be. Not only are the band from South London headlining the main stage tonight but their creative force J. Willgoose, Esq. is in conversation with Guardian journalist Dave Simpson earlier on in the day.
First here at Deer Shed ten years ago when PSB’s drummer Wrigglesworth somehow managed to put one of his sticks right through the snare drum, J. Willgoose, Esq. is clearly happy to be back. A warm, self-effacing individual he talks openly about PSB’s early image as being that of “rumpled, left-wing academia”, one involving corduroy and something which continues to this day albeit now without the leather elbow patches. He tells us an entertaining story about contacting the BFI (to seek permission to use some of their archive film footage) and speaks fondly about Berlin, one of the three places he had ambitions to play (along with the Glastonbury Festival and New York) as a place of great culture and creativity. Asked about future goals, Willgoose feels very fortunate to still be able to be making music in the current post-pandemic, economic climate which has caused so many newer bands and venues to struggle or pack in altogether.
The rains begin to fall just as Public Service Broadcasting take to the stage later that night but some inclement weather isn’t going to prevent them delivering a rousing, triumphant audio-visual experience that fuses a massive swell of electronic sound with historical information films. When PSB first appeared at this festival they were a two-piece outfit featuring only J. Willgoose Esq. and Wrigglesworth. Just like Deer Shed itself, though, they have since evolved and developed and are now a core unit of four (with JF Abraham and Mr B) augmented by a brass section, dancing spacemen, and the Berlin-based Norwegian singer EERA whose stunning vocals light the touch paper to ‘Let’s Dance’.
Much happens at Baldersby Park between these two Saturday staging posts, though. Both Joseph Coelho, the Childrens’ Laureate, and the highly-rated stand-up comedian Bridget Christie are unfortunately not able to appear but Katie Pritchard – self-described as ‘Comedian, Musician, Actorian, Idiot’ – who was already due to both perform and MC later in the Big Top, steps in for an energetic 45 minutes of stories, poems and even an impromptu dance to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ which all the children present are more than happy to join her for.
There is the perennial multitude of workshops. Deer Shed remains the mother of invention with a staggering range of inspirational, expressive, educational, and fun opportunities for children of all ages to investigate, invent, and enjoy. This year also sees the Bradford School of Arts join collaborative forces with Deer Shed to form their own Creative Zone. And the Wild Swim in an adjoining stretch of river and the neighbouring Sauna are further welcome additions to the festival.
And all the while the beat goes on. Panic Shack are a revelation. The Cardiff band are big on creating chaos and having themselves a real good time yet in amongst all this daftness they still have time to belt out some killer tunes. As their set ends, all four women collapse theatrically in unison. They have certainly earned their corn. And talking of women, the day’s schedule at the Lodge Stage is refreshingly given over entirely to female artists, the highlight of which is undoubtedly Hussy – the musical project of Sophie Nicole Ellison – who produce a fabulous melodic structure of sonic expression that is beautifully rough around the edges.
“Look, it’s Gaz from Supergrass.” Thus spoke the Toyota Yaris TV advert from a few years back. Sure, it is him, but don’t expect any Supergrass songs. Instead you get a raft of solo Gaz Coombes material, including a magnificent ‘Long Live The Strange’. “It’s about coming across a beautiful moment when you least expect it.” Couldn’t have put it better myself, Mr Coombes. A rainbow arcing over Deer Shed just adds to the magic of the occasion.
In the days before it expanded into a three-day event, Sunday used to be the long, serene goodbye at Deer Shed Festival with everyone shutting up shop and drifting off home by late afternoon. That sense of peace and tranquility still pervades the sabbath at Baldersby Park, a feeling that August Charles captures to perfection. The skies above may be starting to look a little ominous as the future-soul artist from nearby Leeds takes to the stage on the stroke of midday – everything works with such beautiful precision at Deer Shed – but he quickly dispels any gloom or hangover from the night before with a gorgeous set.
Similarly joyous is Rae Morris, making a most welcome return to Deer Shed after a 13 year absence. Playing her only festival date of the summer, we are certainly most blessed to have her here today. During ‘Under The Shadows’ she weaves in some strands from ‘Running Up That Hill’ and it is certainly very easy to draw certain comparisons with Kate Bush, though the phenomenal American singer-songwriter Laura Nyro may be a better benchmark such is the shared intimacy and power of their art songs.
Holly Ross and David Blackwell from The Lovely Eggs host The Lovely Eggs Book Club at the Lodge Stage sharing their, and the audience’s favourite books. Perhaps not surprisingly, the choices of reading are nothing if not eclectic: John Kennedy Toole’s ‘Confederacy of Dunces’, Philip K Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, feature alongside Hemingway in the hosts’ top book choices; Cormac McCarthy and David Mitchell are amongst those of the audience. We all come away with inspiration for our next book haul.
The American record producer Gordon Raphael is in conversation with Dave Simpson where he talks about his journeys from Seattle and New York – the first time “a dismal failure” due to his battle with alcohol and then an unfortunate burning down of a recoding studio – and onto Hebden Bridge where he now resides. “All roads lead to West Yorkshire,” he says. Raphael prompts an interesting discussion around the serendipity of success, the “last chances”, which turn out to be the start rather than the end, and of “second chances,” both personally and professionally.
Over in the Big Top, the Family Catwalk Extravaganza, brought to Deer Shed by Ghetto Fabulous, is part fashion show – a clear nod to the origins of Vogue-ing – with lip sync challenges and dance-offs. It is slick, entertaining and fun, with the winner voted for by the audience. This explosion of glitter, and colour sets the tone for the rest of the afternoon’s Big Top entertainment with the delighted young audience members being told by the catwalk host “your journey to sparkle doesn’t end here, it starts here”.
Back on the main stage Gwenno is the essence of Celtic charm. She sets the scene, and shows her cultural and creative diversity in the process, by singing ‘Tir Ha Mor’ from her 2018 album Le Kov entirely in the Cornish language. She follows this by giving the crowd a brief lesson in Cornish ahead of ‘Eus Keus’, an exceptional pop song that celebrates 10,000 years of cheese offering as a gift to the gods. She is enjoying herself and, make no mistake, so are we.
The Mary Wallopers bring plenty of bodhrán beats, ballads, and blarney with them all the way from Dundalk. It is righteous Irish soul, raucous, rebellious, and undoubtedly real. Whilst the prospect of an appearance later by The Delgados – the Scots’ indie-rock stalwarts who had reformed last year after a 17 year sabbatical – is immense, this particular Deer Shed experience ends with The Big Moon. And as the bruised skies open in earnest the London foursome continue to shine brightly and a deeply moving ‘2 Lines’ provides us with one of those very special Deer Shed moments, of which there are always so many.
Additional reporting: Claire Eggleston
Photos: Simon Godley