End of the Road - Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset - 12-14/9/08
29 Oct 2008
"so many of the performers - from richard hawley to noah and the whale, bon iver to darren hayman -explicitly mention that out of all the festivals they've been to or played, end of the road is up there with the best of them..."
At around 3pm on the Friday, spirits were not as high as they could have been down Larmer Tree Gardens way. No sooner was the last tent peg in the ground, than the wall of rain that had been lurking in the distance made its way across the plains of North Dorset and did its business all over the End of the Road site. Anyone who had taken any notice of the previous week's Bestival was well-prepared for this soggy start, but a trudge to the arena uncovered more bad news - no alcohol to be taken inside. This is of course standard festival practice, but the word on the muddy field was that part of the bliss of End of the Road 2007 was being able to do just that. As the skies cleared briefly, though, any residual negativity disappeared with the drizzle and it was on with the show.
As far as quality of music goes, End of the Road has to be up there with the likes of All Tomorrow's Parties for hosting critically acclaimed acts (albeit rather less diverse) and any other festival you care to mention for sheer consistency. There are "must see" bands from first to last, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin to Calexico. There are the new (the winners of the Lucky Ten competition to play the festival, including The Accidental, Cats in Paris, Revenge of Shinobi) and well-worn (American Music Club, Billy Childish), the rising stars (Noah and the Whale, Laura Marling, Bon Iver) and old guard (Mercury Rev, Tindersticks), the cult heroes (Dirty Three, Low, Mountain Goats and many more) and Billboard hit-makers (Conor Oberst). And the true mark of consistency is that almost every band that plays over the three days is one that most in attendance would happily pay money to go and see.
So, having avoided most of the rain - and sadly a handful of the afternoon sets - it is with a fair amount of excitement and expectation at what my dirt cheap £105 ticket will bring me that I wander through the cluster of ethically sourced and fair trade stalls to the festival's second stage, The Big Top, to catch the second half of Laura Marling's nice-but-not-mind-blowing set. From here there is only one destination: to the main Garden Stage for Dirty Three. The Australian trio are in fine fettle, with frontman Warren Ellis on typically engaging form, ranting from somewhere behind his beard and supplementing his violin playing with an array of high kicks. In a folk-dominated weekend, the epic instrumentals they fit in to their 75 minute set (the long set times are a particularly welcome feature of the festival) are as powerful, fragile and absorbing as virtually anything that will be heard by Monday morning: a true weekend highlight before the first night's even over.
There's just time to pick up a hot and spicy cider from the Somerset Cider Bus (one of the hits of the weekend above all else) and it's time for Conor Oberst's headline slot with his Mystic Valley Band. The Bright Eyes man's set is certainly entertaining, particularly to those familiar with the recent solo album, with evidence of the same feeling of freedom that comes through so strongly on that record. The rocking versions of 'Danny Callahan' and 'I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)' and delicate solo renditions of 'Lenders in the Temple' and 'Milk Thistle' are musically great, but the performance is a little tarnished by the fact that Oberst himself gives off an air that he doesn't fancy "End of the World" or any other festival appearance where he can see his breath in the chilly night air. Thankfully this has no particular bearing on what remained a thoroughly pleasing first day. Indeed, moments like this only stand out because of the amount of other performers - from Richard Hawley to Noah and the Whale, Bon Iver to Darren Hayman - that explicitly mention that out of all the festivals they've been to or played, End of the Road is up there with the best of them.
With Saturday comes sunshine and things are going so well that even the "No Alcohol" sign has disappeared and everyone is free to wander round with whatever cheap cans of lager they wish to. This sunny second day allows End of the Road's crowning glory to come to the fore. The Garden Stage has to be the most idyllic setting in which I've ever watched music. Set in a clearing and surrounded by a line of trees on one side and hedges on the other, it is a natural amphitheatre, with antiquated buildings dotted around the edge to complete the Midsummer Night's Dream feeling of the place, along with the almost surreal scene of peacocks wandering amongst the people. On top of this, the sound on this main stage is as good as I've experienced at any outdoor show, something that makes such a difference given the different textures of the weekend's performances.
The first one of the day is Absentee, who put their unique and deliciously lugubrious stamp on proceedings. Bowerbirds then translate their bewitching songs to the Garden Stage, enrapturing the growing afternoon crowd with harmonious folk from debut album Hymns for a Dark Horse, while over in the Big Top, the slightly incongruous looking collective TheAccidental do something rather similar. With talkative boy-girl vocalists Hannah Caughlin (also part of The Bicycle Thieves) and Liam Bailey flanked by elder statesmen Stephen Cracknell (The Memory Band) and Sam Genders (Tunng), they look a bit funny, but sound perfectly lovely.
[NOAH AND THE WHALE]
With the sun out, though, it is difficult to justify being inside and so its back outside to see the closest to current pop stars on show over the weekend, Noah & the Whale. Predictably, Charlie Fink and cohorts' sunny folk-pop complements the weather perfectly, though, as with everyone who's been near a radio for half an hour this year, (for good or bad) the '5 Years Time' melody remained firmly lodged in the consciousness for many hours.
Late afternoon brings a multi-national three-way clash between Fins Seabear, Reading's Pete & the Pirates and Bon Iver from across the pond. After catching the first couple from Seabear in a very sweaty Bimble Inn tent it's fresh air time again and there's really nowhere else to head but to get a decent spot for BonIver. One of many of the foreign acts who espouse from the stage about what a special place this is to play music, Justin Vernon and his band reprise their triumphant recent UK performances, playing For Emma, Forever Ago in its entirety along with an impressive new song and a Talk Talk cover. The crowd sing-along of 'The Wolves (Parts I and II)' is as powerful in a big field as it was in a St. Giles Church back in June, and from start to finish it is a mesmerising display. If everyone takes one musical memory of End of the Road 2008 away with them, the majority will probably take this one.
Following an entertaining set from BritishSeaPower, it is back to the Americans to provide the closing entertainment of the night. Low's genre-defining slowcore can be intense at the best of times, but in the most controversial and unsettling moment of the weekend, singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk seems to suffer a complete breakdown during the course of their set. Silent for the first part of the performance, he announces half way through "What a shitty day. Everyone I love told me they hate me today". A mostly powerful but occasionally excruciating conclusion to the band's show culminates in a moment of utter madness as Sparhawk flings his guitar full pelt into the front row of the audience. It's a shame that he is having a bad day, but it's pretty dangerous. Luckily, no harm is done, but a few humble apologies from the remainder of the band don't wash away the nasty taste left in the mouth by an incident so out of keeping with the amiable atmosphere of the rest of the festival. All this puts a slight dampener on MercuryRev's grandiose headline gig, which makes for the perfect opportunity to explore the rest of the site.
A trip into the woods, or "Enchanted Forest" to give it its proper - and quite apt - name, brings some idyllic discoveries. With all completely lit by fairy lights, there is a "library" in one clearing, a public piano in another (ivories being tinkled by buskers throughout the evening - a drunken 'Bohemian Rhapsody' sing-along symptomatic of the fun to be had), and an isolated tent with a light up dancefloor in another (not to mention the "healing tent"). And these delightful touches are by no means the end of the bright ideas at End of the Road, with the Little White Lies film tent proving consistently popular, The Local and Bimble tents seemingly always full and even a small tent set up like your living room - complete with sofas, a record player and, remarkably, Trivial Pursuit. But back to Saturday night and after a lost while in the Enchanted Forest, a final stumble to the Big Top for Two Gallants is good fun, but the big tent sound unfortunately doesn't really do justice to their undeniably great songs. That said, the duo still conjure up some crowd-pleasing moments, not least an absorbing 'Despite What You've Been Told' and rocking 'Las Cruces Jail'. Spirits remain high for the remaining few hours of managing to stand up, with a variety of tents in which to dance and make further merry (walking into the Big Top to the sound of The Count Five's 'Psychotic Reaction' is a lingering memory).
With Sunday comes more sun and the promise of a day of music to rival the first two excellent ones. If there's any justice The Wave Pictures will be a hell of a lot higher on the bill at next year's End of the Road. Providing the perfect afternoon's entertainment, the band sound even better than on record through a sparkling set that includes crowd requests alongside favourites from Instant Coffee Baby. They are without doubt a weekend highlight and whet the appetite for what's to come. The band should also get some sort of medal for getting around as much as they do. Dave Watkins is clearly the most hard-working man of the festival, also reporting for duty with Darren Hayman and Jeffrey Lewis.
Jason Molina's set of Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. songs is a serene affair, but a beautiful one nonetheless, Molina at once dapper and reserved. End of the Road Records' own Woodpigeon are perfect to play the late afternoon set, the Canadians twee harmonies suiting the surroundings impeccably.
A poignant note is provided in the Big Top, where indie godfather Darren Hayman admits that him and Jack probably won't be playing too many more Darren and Jack Play Hefner Songs shows. A shame this would indeed be, but the all too brief set is a regressive delight, transporting many a viewer to a simpler time when John Peel was on the radio, Hefner were your favourite band and each of Hayman's 'Hymns' ('to the Alcohol', 'to the Cigarettes', 'to the Postal Service' etc) took on almost religious significance. The set closes - perhaps for the last time - with the set culminating in a brilliant guitar duel between Darren, Jack and who else but Dave Watkins.
Here there is a disastrous gap in this writer's weekend's experience. One problem with so much music is that there is always going to be potential greatness missed. In my case, I manage to spectacularly avoid some of the things I was really looking forward to during the course of the weekend, including both of The Acorn's two sets, Pete & the Pirates, Shearwater, Cats in Paris, David Thomas Broughton and Kurt Wagner to name a few. In this case, perhaps the biggest clash of the weekend - Jeffrey Lewis vs Tindersticks - results in me inexplicably missing both of them. However, my festival is brought to a fitting close by the wonderful Calexico, who are the perfect culmination to the weekend on the Garden Stage and outdo almost all that preceded them. The Tucsonites entertain all before them with their unique Mexi-Americana, getting everyone dancing to songs from the fantastic latest album Carried to Dust, as well as many a horn-filled tune from their back catalogue. It's nothing less than a superb end to a superb weekend of music.
End of the Road 2008 was undoubtedly an absolute success, but of course no festival is perfect. The sound in the Big Top (like almost every festival tent I've been in) was not the best, with the likes of Two Gallants not having justice done to their performance. There's quite a high proportion of families at the festival - something mildly positive or negative depending on which side of parenthood you sit - while the more neutral attendees might find that there's not a huge amount of variety on offer at the festival: if you fancy a spot of math-rock, reggae or drum'n'bass, you're probably going to be disappointed. Despite the likes of Dirty Three's post-rock instrumentals, Let's Wrestle's DIY indie-punk and Zombie Zombie's synth-fuelled weirdness, folk, anti-folk, Americana and associated genres are over-represented to say the least (though that is, of course, the point). And one profession that doesn't need to worry about the credit crunch quite yet is the brass players of the world - there was more trumpets and horns on show at End of the Road 2008 than an elephant on rhinoceros sex party.
These are merely trifling matters, though, and in general I don't think I can recommend End of the Road highly enough. The setting, the atmosphere, the organisation, the thought that went in to almost every detail, not least the music - from Calexico back to Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin -everything was nigh on perfect. With Early Bird tickets on sale already, I can't travel down the road to September 2009 fast enough.