Back in the mid-’00s, inspired by the likes of Arctic Monkeys and The Cribs, NME heralded the arrival of the ‘New Yorkshire’ scene. It’s tempting to suggest there’s been a resurgence of that regional indie uprising, given that Leeds post-punkers Yard Act and Rotherham pop provocateur Self Esteem were nominated for the career-changing Mercury Prize last week. “I’m not being coy,” the latter said NME after the news broke, “but I can’t believe what’s happened!”
It’s a stroke of luck that both acts grace the bill at this year’s Deer Shed Festival, which is held in the stately grounds of Baldersby Park and overlooked by an imposing Georgian country pile. The 10,000-capacity North Yorkshire knees-up is distinctively “family friendly”, with children’s activities sharing the bill with the bands, meaning you’re as likely to see kids kayaking down the lake in the middle of the site as you are to catch some of the most innovative indie artists in the country.
Not ones to lean too far into the cross-generational cosiness, sarcastic Yard Act frontman James Smith dedicates the withering ‘Rich’ to anyone who brought “their whole family here in boutique camping”. For all his affected spikiness, though, the frontman lets his guard down with the elegiac ‘100% Endurance’ – a song inspired by the band’s supportive fans, who showed him that you don’t need to be cynical all the time; that “life’s alright and people are alright”.
One of those people turns out to be Isaac, a young Yard Act stan who’s turned up in Smith’s typical stage uniform of oversized specs and a long beige mac. Smith plucks him from the crowd, promising, “The stage is yours, Isaac”, which – judged by their fabulously chaotic closing rendition of ‘The Overload’ – proves to have been a sound prediction.
Gleefully undoing all that unexpected sincerity, Cardiff retro-rockers CVC opened the Main Stage early on Friday afternoon with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Their sparse crowd is no reflection on the group’s flamboyant set, and frontman Francesco Orsi takes it in his stride, joking between songs: “Thank you Wembley!” Liverpudlian performance art-punk Beija Flo, meanwhile, rocking a tasselled leotard and channeling the persona of a kids’ TV presenter, brings charming heaviness to the In the Dock tent. It might be called ‘Boring’, but the grungy feedback of her best tune should please the heartening number of punters, young and old, milling about Deer Shed in Nirvana merch.
Another uncompromising solo act, Bristolian future-punk Billy Nomates, commands the Main Stage with nothing but fulsome, hip-hop-style backing tracks and her no-fucks attitude, which even withstands the Yorkshire weather. “Deer Shed, I might have caught the rain,” she notes, before breezing into the closing refrain of ‘Emergency Telephone’: “And it’s raining in my heart…”
Fellow West Country star Katy J Pearson puts on an intimate evening set at the Lodge Stage by the lake. NME wrote that her latest album ‘Sound of the Morning’ “really excels” with “realism and rose-tinted fantasy” and when she says, “I released my new record a few weeks ago…”, the audience roars; it seems we’re not the only ones to feel that way.
The supportive atmosphere continues as Geordie indie hero Nadine Shah closes out the Friday night headline slot, announcing: “The last time we were here was in 2018. We’d been nominated for the Mercury but couldn’t tell you. Massive congratulations to Yard Act and Self Esteem!” She prowls the Main Stage in a tiger-print suit, her brand of needling alt-rock throbbing with menace, which she undercuts with unabashed warmth (“This is so lush; I love seeing all these young ones here – all these drunk parents! ”) and salty self-deprecation: “It’s only taken us 10 fuckin’ years to get a headline slot!”
The artists on the Main Stage on Saturday afternoon pull out all the stops to ensure they’re following in Shah’s wake. Dublin Americana don CMAT tangoes with her keyboardist to the tongue-in-cheek melancholia of ‘Lonely’, while Limerick rapper, poet and singer Denise Chaila arrives onstage 10 minutes early to recite the lyrics to her empowerment banger ‘Anseo’. She returns to the song during her fizzy and optimistic set, which sees her backed by a DJ and flanked by two MCs. Introducing the chest-beating ‘Chaila’, she tells the kids in the crowd: “Until you find a superhero anthem for yourself, I hope this can be yours too.”
Headliner John Grant is also on inspirational form, dedicating the defiant piano ballad ‘Glacier’ to “anyone who’s going through a really shitty time”, though his set is at its best when he focuses on the ravier side of his oeuvre. As the man from Michigan grinds on his haunches to the filthy funk of ‘Black Belt’, you have to wonder if he’s ever heard the words “family friendly”. Grant bookends the show with dancey material and if he loses the audience a little in the middle, the singer-songwriter at least seems to know it, shrugging: “They call me DJ Wet Blanket – I can ruin a mood at 10 paces.”
There’s no chance of dampening spirits on Sunday, though, when a spontaneous cheer ripples across the site as the news comes in that the England Lionesses have triumphed 2-1 over Germany at the European Women’s Football Championships. “Congratulations!” beams Pip Blom guitarist Tender Blom before the Dutch indie-poppers bounce around the Main Stage as if they’ve won the Euros themselves.
Cardiff power-poppers Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard match that celebratory energy (“At Cardiff Central Station,” pants frontman Tom Rees, “I once saw a seagull trying to mop up a Feast – I feel like that Feast”), as do Scouse grunge revivalists The Mysterines. At the end of the pummeling set, bassist George Favager passes the band’s setlist to a young fan, who covets it jealously. Mission accomplished.
Fervent music fandom defines Django Django’s Sunday night headliner slot, too, as singer Vincent Neff tells the sizeable audience: “You are the hardcore – you lasted it out. Fair play!” From the psychedelic rockabilly of ‘Tic Tac Toe’ to the anthemic indie of ‘Default’ and a surprisingly faithful cover of The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the London art-rockers throw everything they have at closing the Baldersby Park bash with an infectious optimism that’s typical of this weekend.
For all its family friendly ethos, with wrestlers knocking lumps out of one another to the crazed delight of hundreds of baying children in the Big Top – and this writer’s nine-month-old particularly taken with milking a wooden cow at the Discovery Barn – Deer Shed is simply a great music festival. It just so happens to be ideally designed for taking your kids too. In terms of atmosphere, it’s like the similarly inclusive End of the Road and Green Man, but with more wrestling and general mayhem.
This balancing act is not lost on Self Esteem. Looking out across the sea of young faces on Saturday night, she jokes that she’s “just learning how hard it is to do this set in front of children”. Rebecca Lucy Taylor looks and sounds like an artist in her imperial phase: it’s amazing how much slicker her show, which boasts full-blown dance routines with her backing vocalists, has become around the release of her zeitgeist-capturing 2021 album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ .
After uniting the field with her bonafide anthem ‘I Do This All The Time’, she closes with tropical pop banger ‘The Best’, inciting the front few rows to pogo and laughing: “6 Music dads, come on! Get some air!” Inventive, funny, down-to-earth but arty: it’s new New Yorkshire – so good they named it twice.