Nestled away between its bigger siblings of Thirsk and Knaresborough, Topcliffe is a wilderness of wonderful North Yorkshire woodlands that doubles as the campsite for Deer Shed Festival.
2022 saw the event in its twelfth year and possibly even more stellar than ever before, with four fantastic stages, a plethora of craving-satisfying food and drink vendors, and more child-friendly activities than you can shake a stick at. Lights were strewn across each of the areas, where hay-covered tracks became muddy, well-trodden paths by the time the weekend’s gloomy-come-sunny weather had done its worst (and most unpredictable).
There was a distinctly family-oriented flavour to the place — you felt safe no matter what age you were, and that was credit not only to all the fun-seeking punters and happy campers, but the stallholders, too. And, of course, none of it would’ve been possible without the outstanding Hanglands team*, who I owe a big thanks to the press accreditation for.
While others pitched up, we parked up. From candy floss stands to places selling flower-entwined headbands, there was the lot. Vintage shops were in the thick of it all, too, along with a tent run by Headingley’s The Vinyl Whistle, so you could peruse records. I believe Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard even did a signing there after their set on the Sunday.
As you entered the site, its fairground feel came into view, with a sky-piercing Ferris wheel and helter-skelter that oozed popularity among the younger demographic. Likewise, the so-called Feral Farm was a hay-strewn runaround for erratic kids. But you could slow the pace down entirely with a massage at the Welfare tent or a plant pot or metal flower craft workshop. There was everything and more.
But the evening’s excitement on the Friday came in the form of tiger-print-suited Nadine Shah, who not only wowed the crowd that had gathered by the Main Stage, but was thrilled to be performing her first headline slot at a festival. The singer was ultra-charismatic and her ease on the mic made the revelation that it had “only taken ten years” to be invited to perform at such a coveted slot all the more surprising. The somewhat mysterious yet beguilingly enchanting quality of Shah’s vocal tones really drew you in — the clarity of the band who provided her instrumentals really complemented her style, too. What an opening night!
By contrast, and at the fault of the weather only, the Saturday had a damper beginning. We seemed to open the car doors at the worst possible second, as the clouds unleashed a downpour of soak-you-to-the-bone rain that pinged off the not-so-glamorous clear ponchos we threw on. No regrets, though. We ploughed onwards to the main thoroughfare and over to see Elanor Moss’ folk-fuelled set. As finger-picked, acoustic strings in drop C filled the air, Moss’ vocals breathed life onto a cover of The Magnetic Fields among others, plus a wealth of her own material. That included an unfinished track that she played in the hope of being inspired by her audience. Moss’ humble display was punctuated by little bubbles that were persistently blown across the air — the sort of endearing charm you’d only get at Deer Shed.
As we trudged across the squelching grass to find somewhere to grab lunch, London’s 16-piece Balimaya Project were front and centre and getting everyone boogying in the drizzle. The combination of Djembe, full drum kit, saxophone, trombone, trumpet, electric guitar, bass and more all suitably commanded people’s attention and seized it from the sigh-inducing weather. What rain? The vibes were immaculate. It was time to embrace Deer Shed’s impeccable variety.
It was that real mix of genres that gave the festival the edge for me. The line-up had been curated with range and diversity at the fore, and it really showed when you bounced from jazz to pop, folk to grunge. And the latter is where deathcrash came in. Their set took us from Deer Shed to Deer Shred.
While I’m a Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains fan and would recommend deathcrash to those who also are, what they laid on was vastly engaging. Their blend of melancholic grunge saw a steady stream of soft, sombre riffs predominantly from Telecasters, which could start slow then raise the tempo to build up. They seemed to work on atmospheric feelings that were immensely scene-setting, almost score-worthy. The band didn’t seem to buy into the ferocity that their name suggested at first read, but they sure nailed the clever dynamism of their sound.
Rewind a couple of months and my first time seeing Porij lasted all of about five minutes, because of festival set clashes. Classic. But that was okay, because Deer Shed’s line-up gods had shone down on me favourably and carved out a comfortable window in which I could catch the electronic outfit again, properly. Through feel-good tunes such as ‘Nobody Scared’ and the newer ‘Automatic’, they had the crowd well and truly gripped — and I’m talking young and old, drunk and sober.
And when the lights played ball with the sounds, there was a magnetism around the room. The energy was right up there and it felt as though the party had started. Porij specialise in serving happiness on a silver platter and so witnessing their full show was just magical.
The muddy saunter down to see Plantfood culminated in a late arrival at The Acorn and, therefore, not the best spot in the house for photographing their jazz-led set. It was a fairly diddy stage that the band had utterly packed out. To their credit, every single woodwind note was expertly pulled off, and you even got a few members enjoying elongated solos for maximum impact. Why not?
The Leeds-based six-piece especially dazzled with their rendition of John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’, which had a few of their own token idiosyncrasies. Shout-out to the girl behind me who more worryingly nodded to her friend that they were covering Ariana Grande’s ‘7 rings’…
Saturday’s standout event was, quite rightly, Self Esteem. What a time to be watching her perform, too, just mere days after her Mercury Prize nomination. ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ is an album that’s been going from strength to streaming strength, and it’s critically acclaimed for a reason. Every hip-shaking moment of Rebecca Taylor’s show was electrifying and sharply choreographed with backing singers, dancers and musicians, who helped her to deliver lashings of pure pop.
There was a humorous irony throughout and she knew it; Taylor was promoting not giving into stereotypes or doing the conventional, all in front of hordes of married couples with tots. She also acknowledged at one point that she’d “just realised how hard it [was] to do this set in front of children. But I’m not mummy, so it’s not up to me”.
Cooler still, her whole ethos of girls championing and supporting girls came, upon reflection, just a night before England won the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022.
Perhaps the fastest hour ever passed as Self Esteem’s ‘Fucking Wizardry’, ‘You Forever’, ‘I’m Fine’ and more top-drawer bangers were seamlessly exhibited in front of us. As the last song was announced, there was a comedic “Don’t boo, we’re knackered” in response to the crowd’s clear sadness that the set wasn’t going to continue all night long. We’d have all been very much up for that.
Our final act for the day came in the form of hip-hop-sampling jazz artist, Alfa Mist, who hails from London and brought with him a full band of uber-enthusiastic, overwhelmingly talented musicians. In fact, they even showcased a track from his guitarist’s latest album, as he’s apparently signed to Alfa Mist’s label. A pretty cool union. In The Dock was a stage left buzzing.
Sunday was a day for bassists of great calibre. And far warmer, sunnier weather at that. The Record Weekly team of two spent the first half back In The Dock, where Van Houten put on a locally brewed slacker-pop masterclass of which I couldn’t get enough. Believe me, their quality was something else, and that comes with no bias in spite of having previously worked with their bassist.
Their morning set was fun and engaging, and it even brought with it some new tunes, including the total earworm, ‘Coming of Age’.
The loud and dynamic Treeboy & Arc had the co-mic responsibilities down to a tee, and they were quite possibly one of my finds of the weekend. I wasn’t ready for their healthy dose of post-punk, which, if you read a lot of my articles, you’ll probably imagine went down a treat. I could’ve stayed bopping about to their scuzzy effects, red-hot riffs and roared vocals all afternoon.
Before the superbly palatable Bored at My Grandmas House at the Main Stage, a sashay or two up and down the site resulted in bursts of fabulous pop covers from brass band Back Chat as we licked ice creams and slurped coffee. Props to Mans Market, my city-centre Chinese restaurant of choice, for the cauliflower bao buns. Lunch done well.
I really rated Bored at My Grandmas House (AKA Amber Strawbridge) myself, having not listened to much of her arsenal of dreamy tracks before. The bedroom pop movement is big right now and the Clue Records signee is deservedly going places. Her craft is much gentler when in studio-recorded form, but on stage, the might of the amps and full drums propel the catchy cuts to a new dimension.
At this point, the sun was blazing. The jacket was off but balancing on the shoulders to shield my skin from burning while Cardiff’s Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard (so ace they named themselves thrice) did their thing. Whether they hate it or not, I have to draw the comparison between their sound and Queen’s. It’s remarkably similar, with funky keys, confident vocals, tapping of cowbells. The whole nine yards. I mean that as a compliment, too. While we relished the sunshiny vibes — and heat of the rays to boot — singer Tom Rees was valiantly carrying on despite “never [having] had as much sweat in [his] eyes before”.
For me, the pinnacle moment of Deer Shed was around the corner. It began with a hi, hug and photo with Lia Metcalfe, the powerhouse behind The Mysterines’ deeply seductive vocals, ahead of their set. You’ve seen me mention the Liverpool rockers before? Well, I won’t be making any apologies, because they’re absolutely sensational and undeniably one of my favourite bands right now — and of the past five years.
I grabbed a pint, donned my shades and absorbed the atmosphere as the low rumbles of their soundcheck washed across the Main Stage.
They stole everyone’s gaze with ‘The Bad Thing’, ‘Old Friends / Die Hard’, ‘Hung Up’ and all their other belters, as the sun caught their scratch plates in mirrorball effect. The band can do no wrong; they thunderously, captivatingly play with such conviction and skill, and they’ve more than earned their seat at the table. And just when I thought my third time of seeing them live couldn’t be trumped, I went and caught a setlist (the perks of being more than twice the height of children) — my equivalent of a bouquet at a wedding.
Golden hour saw the buoyant Bull round off a majestic weekend. Their multi-instrumental five-piece setup was wonderfully thrilling to watch, and you could tell each one of them was delighted to be there, doing Deer Shed for their third time. The Acorn, in my opinion, was too small a stage for a band of their stature, but its character matched theirs. While there were some calmer moments and some more frenzied, the York outfit were all about the good vibrations. And, although I was grinning from ear to ear throughout every track, ‘Green’ still emerged as my longstanding favourite.
As if they weren’t likeable enough, when news spread of the England football win, they even wheeled out Baddiel, Skinner & The Lightning Seeds’ ‘Three Lions’. It was the lasting had-to-be-there ingredient of an all-round exceptional few days of music.
*With thanks to Hanglands for the press access