Widely regarded as one of the best new festivals on the British circuit, End Of The Road brings the summer season to a close – the rescheduled Truck excepted in this instance – with not so much a bang, but more a dainty shuffle and a fizz-pop. Eclectic within a field though its line-up is, there’s a quality control evident that’s not always obvious at such boutique – whatever – events. To cut a not-long-really story shorter: it’s quite The Good.
DiS sent three scribes down to Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset, for three days (September 14-16) of sublime sounds; their words are arranged below, separately, as to mash them together in this instance would detract rather from the very individualist nature of what should develop into one of this country’s most acclaimed three-day festivals.
End of the Road promised familiarity and comfort over thrills and surprises. From lads rocking knitted hats and geetars to lasses with fringes and flutes, bands made themselves at home on cosy stages festooned with Christmas lights and bits of greenery. If at times it all felt like an over-long embrace from a fat great-aunt who favours purple velvet waistcoats and patchouli, the acts that shone the brightest delivered the gentle pleasure of feeling your pocket after escaping auntie’s clutches and finding a crisp tenner.
Friday carried a whiff of disappointment, but four hours in traffic and a slimy mist that descended the moment we pulled into the car park didn’t help. Arriving late, I caught only three songs from Scout Niblett. Her voice, which can sometimes be more complaining than plaintive, was here fiery, piercing and compellingly raw. I stumbled out of the tent, still transfixed, my heart racing. Five minutes of* Midlake *remedied that nicely, boring me to a stupor.
I don’t regret skipping* Yo La Tengo for Viking Moses, but his set was shambolic at best. On form, he is untouchable live. Singing – _roaring_ – through a throat clenched with suppressed emotion, he can be electrifying and leave grown men weeping. But tonight any tears were mine and welling up purely in frustration at his slack-limbed, unfocused performance. In the end, the kindness of friends who joined him on stage – Laura Golden Ghost, Liz Green, George Thomas, David Thomas Broughton, Howard Monk (the Rob Gretton to this folk Factory) – redeemed our Moses and probably kept him physically upright too. When George Thomas *found his way to the mic, ‘A Man on a Galloping Horse’ from his recent album was mournfully gorgeous. Give the man a slot of his own.
Saturday saw three women deliver extraordinary sets that put the boys to shame. (King Creosote, I’m looking at you: your adoption of MOR as a credible artistic direction and your shockingly ill-judged decision to slap a ‘Disco 2000’ beat on top of ‘You’ve No Idea Do You’.* Brakes, I’m looking at you too: everybody knows it’s a summary offence to rhyme _“pretty”_ with_ “New York City”_. The Pogues got away with it because they had soul. You do not. The summons is in the post. British Sea Power, I’m sure I’d be looking at you if I could remember a single thing about your set. But your blandness was powerful enough to erase an hour and fifteen minutes of music from my mind completely – remarkable. So thank you a million times over, boys and indeed girls of Hush the Many*, for your faith-restoring combination of delicate eloquence and crackling energy, and for a set that left the audience longing to enfold you in hundreds of grateful arms.)
** Alessi**, notching up an early point for the girls, offered the weekend’s first genuinely jaw-dropping moment. This wasn’t a reunion of the pop-tastic brothers who found fame in 1977 with ‘Oh, Lori’ (standout lyric:_ “Without you I’d die / Let’s never say goodbye”) but a sweet-16 lassie with a guitar and a rosy face that could pass for years younger. On paper she sounds like the kind of act you’d take your little sister to see and yawn through yourself. Her voice recalls Regina Spektor, but is more controlled and deliberate, while her sophisticated language and delivery blow away suggestions of mere whimsy or naive charm (standout lyric: “Some things are better sung than said / I’d like to walk around in your beautiful head / To dangle solar systems above your wicker bed”_). Delicate, articulate songs as precisely metered as an E E Cummings poem were interrupted with abrupt apologies that betrayed her jangling nerves. The frisson was almost unbearable – would she make it through the set without dissolving in a fit of tears? Narrowly, yes, and she earned adoring applause.
** Frida Hyvönen** charmed her audience as quickly and thoroughly, but with strident Swedish confidence and cultivated allure. Six slender feet in heels, peroxide blonde and with a slash of scarlet lipstick, she was like the star of a Fassbinder film – eloquent, frank, provocative, vulnerable and completely bonkers. Sat at an ancient, moody piano, she pounded out songs that at first sounded faintly like show tunes but were far darker and off kilter, her voice rising and falling from a full-throated Streisand bellow to a crystalline whisper. Slipping in non sequiturs and teasing dialogue with the piano, standing up to strike a pose, urging a photographer to come on stage (horrified to see he was shooting her from an unflattering angle), she was occasionally baffling and thoroughly entertaining.
Liz Green faced a harder task in winning over a tent full of listeners, particularly with an evening slot. A Streisand bellow you will not hear here. Her voice is close and guarded and her lyrics mournful and ominous, like Edward Gorey’s sweetly illustrated tales of children’s unpleasant deaths. From the first tremble of her guitar strings, she conjured up a world of dimly lit alleys and shadowy figures that settled around the crowd like a dense fog. Her sound can be traced to the turn-of-the-century Mississippi Delta, but her vision is subtly, deceptively modern, like Beck’s on_ One Foot in the Grave. Over the far-too-short set an initially rambunctious crowd was mesmerised into silence, but burst into gloriously slurred song for a jolly closing number called _‘Goodbye Booze’ and rewarded her with the loudest cheers the Local tent saw all weekend.
Sunday, the boys proved they were still able to rock. Herman Düne kicked off the long mid-afternoon lead-out perfectly, with the precise measure of emotion and energy you’d demand from the elusive, crucial second-to-last song on a mixtape. Their sound was deeper and tougher than the carefree sunniness of their albums, thanks perhaps to Turner Cody’s presence on bass, while the backing singers could have come straight from session work with Leonard Cohen. David-Ivar sounded like a man who knows his mind when he deadpanned, “You know I’ll always like you no matter what / If you get a little chubby, and you’re a little too fat”, several Gauloises and heartbreaks ahead of the apologetic boy who sang the same lines on_ Giant_. When he perched stork-like on one leg at the front of the stage, skinny grey jeans straining, beakish nose pointing skywards and greasy hair blowing in the breeze, it was nearly a vision of young Freddy Mercury immortality.
** Archie Bronson Outfit** delivered a set of such tightness, assurance and volume, they shamed any band that ever dared take to the stage with amps languishing at a measly 10. Sam, sporting a face-camouflaging ensemble of red baseball cap, large black sunglasses and leylandii beard, batted off light heckling and focused with ferocious determination on making vast amounts of noise – no crowd-pleasing theatrics here. He pounded home repetitive choruses of stark ferocity against the kind of explosive yet controlled racket that would do Jon Spencer proud, if it didn’t leave him with tinnitus.
An unplanned gig from the remarkable David Thomas Broughton capped Sunday evening. By then, he’d already played heartbreaking sets of staggering genius on both Friday and Saturday nights. His work – which owes as much to Vito Acconci’s body-conscious performances as to John Zorn’s Cobra, though above all it’s a sumptuously melodic delight – slowly builds up loops of vocals, guitar and random sound effects into the kind of music Erik Satie would have made had he owned a Digitech. As Paul Morley once pontificated (probably about a dreadful ‘80s band no one ever heard of again, but should have said of this), “It is music that, once formed, changes at every moment, until it dies. It dissolves, like a wave, like life. It makes you realise how a piece of music is like a metaphor for life – it comes into being, it does what it does, and then it disappears”.
The end of the 2007 festival season draws nigh, and so it must be time for End Of The Road. With more the atmosphere of a weekend-long picnic or country fete than the abject hedonism of many more mainstream festivals, it's a colourful, family focussed affair. Draped in fairy lights and bunting, End Of The Road offers a class above in friendliness, facilities, hot spiced cider and a seemingly never-ending smorgasbord of great food and music from the more mellow end of the indie-rock and alt-country spectrum. Here are some of the highlights, running order as mixed and mingled for the page as it is in my memory.
Napoleon IIIrd is the first band I see after running up the bank to the arena in the showering rain, tent still strapped to my back. A rousing set from a rising star, even if I do say so myself. Darren Hayman seems unable to put a foot wrong, unfurling perfectly formed, witty and world-wise songs with his trademark cockily tilted self-confidence and slanted charm. He later plays a set of bluegrass in the secluded piano clearing, hidden behind a glittering tree tunnel near the main stage.
All this in stark contrast to Josh T. Pearson, who looks like he's just walked on out of some yonder desert, strapping on his horned guitar for some powerfully apocalyptic, distorted, yowling tales of hopelessness, love and devils clashing with angels. He stamps his boot and the ground shakes, his eyes and teeth shining from beneath his cowboy hat and huge bushy beard. Later, Archie Bronson Outfit deliver robust, bludgeoning rock 'n' roll with no small lack of guile, while rocking indie godfathers (and mother) Yo La Tengo run through highlights of their vast back catalogue to the delight of (possibly) the weekend's biggest crowd.
On Saturday, Antipodean trio Devastations swan onto the stage slowly, tuning, fumbling with their amps, pedals and instruments as if playing in a practice room, before launching into a series of deathly ballads and squalls of piercing but musical guitar noise. Notably, the bass player delivers a slow-handed sexually charged performance of such magnitude that it'll keep the gathered young mothers in sexual fantasies for years to come.
Danielson and his multi-instrumental Famile troupe look as likely to try and sell you cookies or win a badge for river crossing than fill a generous one-hour slot on the big top stage. A cruel bit of scheduling means I don't get to see out their performance, but it's clear that they're really quite great - being happier than the Chipmunks playing a set of Monkees songs with the Krankies as a backing band and managing not be annoying doing it is really quite a skill.
The talk of the festival is a performer I had the misfortune to miss. She's a prodigious 16-year-old called Alessi, and respected sources say her name in the same breath as Björk and Joanna Newsom, passionately describing a haunting voice and vivid, memorable songs... one to watch out for in the future by all accounts.
David Thomas Broughton plays three sets across the course of the festival, each characteristically unplanned in the traditional sense, but rather the living culmination of all of his performances and writing to date. The music is tossed and rewritten, toyed with, mashed together, looped and battered in whatever manner Broughton sees fit from moment to moment. He's at once a heartbreakingly fragile character, shaking and moaning grim existential tales of lost love and death in that gorgeously dark and expressive timbre, but he just as easily breaks out of the singer/songwriter mould, frustratedly pacing the room beat-boxing, pausing to frown at his assembled instruments and instead storm off, striking poses and looping back improvised versions of pop songs, rants and repeated phrases, and using anything he can lay his hands on to create freeform rhythms. Every performance takes on a life of its own, and while for some the tumbling mass of ideas provides a frustrating lack of musical cohesion, the visceral and invigorating tight-rope act of its construction is my high point of the festival. Later that night, Broughton's beautiful ever-unfolding melodies still ringing in my ears, I glimpse my first shooting star, a white scratch across the sky that makes my breath catch in my throat. And I lie awake for hours, my teeth and bones clattering and clacking in the sub-zero black, my mind buzzing with sound and convinced there is no dawn coming.
The surprise performance of the festival comes on Sunday in the unlikely shape of famed music writer Everett True, who sings three ragged a cappella versions between sets on The Local Stage (one of which, a traditional nursery rhyme-esque folk song about death, sticks in my head for days afterwards). End Of The Road signings The Young Republic are seemingly everywhere with their polite and well-formed skewed indie-pop tunes. Viking Moses has brought a big band with him, and while his voice is as arresting and unique as ever, the new format seems to struggle to bring the best out of his songs - but it's definitely in there to be found.
Best new discovery The Wave Pictures receive warm onstage mentions from Jeffrey Lewis and Darren Hayman, and it's easy to see why - they perform a beguiling set of intelligent, wry stories of modern life, sex and young love, wrapped in tatty but pretty playing. I'm left wanting a lot more.
The same can be said of Fireworks Night, a dizzyingly talented dash-cutting ensemble trading in claret confessionals and gravel voiced, tobacco-stained drama, all told via sensitive piano work, nigh-on perfect string accompaniment and a fantastic songwriting flair. Their closing number 'Echo Swing' is among the best I have heard in recent years - this is a band surely headed for wider recognition.
Lambchop close things up on the main Garden Stage with a beautiful set drawn from their sprawling back catalogue. Three songs from Is a Woman stand out - Wagner's paper-dry croak of a voice often sounds best recounting small introspections and details of American life as found in 'My Blue Wave' and especially a gorgeous drawn out version of 'The New Cobweb Summer'. 'Up With People' sees things get rowdy with a civilized clap along, then the trim six-piece band walk off, leaving a lot of warmed hearts to wander into the cold English night.
Rachel Cawley’s Five Things Learnt At End Of The Road
1. It's best to keep things local.
That's both the local food and the local tent. The Pie Minister stall had travelled over from Bristol (not much of a journey) and was the most popular food stall all weekend. Not surprising - a huge selection of organic, locally sourced ingredients, along with massive servings of minty mushy peas and creamy mash potato.
On to the local tent: a location that became an institution over the course of just three days. Curated and compered by northerner-relocated-to-London Howard Monk, the local provided an intimate setting for some of the most fragile and absorbing performances of the weekend. Special mention must go to Liz Green, who arrived onstage for her first song to promptly fall apart and her to confess that she was literally bricking it with nerves. Cue the most receptive crowd reaction of the weekend - the set got rolling again slowly, picking up with confidence and verve until a sing-a-long finale. Liz's voice is direct from the turn of the century, an expressive but understand sepia-tinged sound that carries little hiccupping melody, rapidly intertwining with the sparse acoustic guitar. Quite how such a voice can belong to a twentieth century Mancunian is the real mystery here.
2. A little bit of twee never hurt anyone.
I bumped into a friend on Saturday afternoon. He looked at me all sour-cheeked and bemoaned the lack of riffs and the abundance of 'nice.' Sometimes too much 'nice'-ness can be sickening (see I'm From Barcelona with a hangover, you will understand). But there were some notable examples of sweetness and light being a delight -* Slow Club* were dependably bright and cheery, The Concretes understood how to perfectly balance dark and light, and *Danielson *were the cheeriest bunch of nut-balls to take to the stage all weekend. Lead singer Daniel has about ten different voices he swaps in and out of, a variety of chipmunk howls, beautiful falsettos and strangely gruff yet high grunts.
3. A clean festival is a happy festival.
You can keep your Reading, your Leeds, your Glastonbury - I may be prematurely middle-aged, but a clean festival site is a literal breath of fresh air. On day three I scanned the central area of End of the Road and stood stock still, puzzling over just what was missing in the view - not a single paper beer cup, or discarded food container on the floor. Instead there was green green grass and a selection of recycling bins. Think of Kelling's broken window theory - enough effort kept the place clean the first day, and not wanting to be the first to drop litter, no-one did. To discard and drop would have been an absolute End of the Road faux pas. This state of cleanliness ran through to the toilets - consistently stocked with loo roll and hand freshener, they smelt more heavily of pot pourri than excrement.
Now listen to me destroy any festival credentials I ever had: Saturday morning I showered in comfort. I didn't use the festival showers, adequate as they were; they still had the customary queue. Instead I drove the car down the hill to Shaftesbury, breakfasted in a delightful courtyard cafe and proceeded to visit a hotel swimming pool. There we had hot showers, shampoo, soap and hairdryers. Now tell me that's not worth a four pound swimming fee - next time I'll remember the swimming costume!
4. But a clean band is a boring band.
King Creosote must take the booby prize for disappointment of the weekend. It's no sleight on his voice - that remains the expressive weighty tool that it always was. Rather, it was all the crap that the voice was being shielded by that spoilt the day. There was no need to turn ‘Not One Bit Ashamed’ into a MOR dirge, and certainly no need to turn new single ‘You've No Clue Do You’ into a ‘70s disco pastiche. Three songs and I'm off out of the main arena to mourn the loss of something I once loved.
5. David Thomas Broughton is incredible.
On Friday David played on the Local Stage, last thing at night. On Saturday, David played at the Bimble Inn, late evening. On Sunday David played at the Local Stage once again, mid afternoon. He became the stalwart of my festival. A name that I'd be told enough times by friends talking of his wonderful, ad-hoc, chaotic sets - but a name I'd overlooked, in the way that it is so terribly easy to overlook yet another man with an acoustic guitar. This is different though - deserving of an essay not a paragraph. The tools of his trade are many and varied - the most English of voices, a northern accent heavy with the sound of wind and rain and the melody carried of swallows and house martins. The stage becomes another place - a bedroom perhaps. Objects are moved back and forth, with an irritated expression, as if it's not working. But the act is built around nothing quite working - heartbreaking melodies that disperse as rapidly as they evolve, looped sounds that build shaky rhythm sections, the lyrics of a teenage yearning crush. David Thomas Broughton is tricky to understand - he invites wide-eyed awe as much as he invites out-loud laughter. However he is a truly intriguing proposition - whose music barely repeats over the course of his three weekend sets, and will no doubt continue to evolve for years to come.
All photographs by Rachel Cawley