End Of The Road Festival - Larmer Tree Gardens, Wiltshire
So another year, another End Of The Road in deepest Wiltshire. The ninth iteration of the festival continues to grow, with more people, more real ale, a new salt beef bagel stand and more big headliners, The Flaming Lips being the biggest this year.
Some things stayed the same: the Somerset Cider Bus, the great burritos, the peacocks, the late night Tipi Tent sets (apart from Saturday night?), and the Garden Stage being the best setting of any festival. A criticism of the festival this year has been the number of repeat bookings with former headliners Yo La Tengo (flitting between wildly overbearing noise and softly thoughtful melodies) subbing the Wood Stage on Sunday being the most obvious, almost swapping places with Wild Beasts who are that night's headliners.
But all the way back on Friday, what happened? Well, Peggy Sue are the epitome of an EOTR band: harmony-driven folk starting proceedings as they mean to go on. If that’s not your bag there are plenty of other options throughout the day. Drenge filled the Big Top with their noisy, rifftastic fare, their dual sonic attack of guitar and drums set the tone for the weekend’s listening in the circus tent. American indie popper Jenny Lewis tried to brighten up the miserable overcast British August day with her sunny pop before Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks referenced Oasis’ 1996 Knebworth gig during their hour of slacker rock.
As the evening drew in, Temples - who surely have played every festival in the country this year - are Temples; they’re solid performers who are a little too polished live. Israel Nash may look like an Americana Justin Lee Collins in the Tipi Tent but his Laurel Canyon, slide guitar sound is great - the kind of thing that is slowly slipping away from the festival. So it’s a little boring when the act of the day is the headliner, but when it’s St Vincent and her studied, almost performance art, stage show comes to Larmer Tree, it’s special. Despite the disconnect that seems to exist between her and some of the audience - a regular issue at a festival like this - some bloody good songs (‘Prince Johnny’, ‘Birth In Reverse’) from her new album and a fantastic show, fronted by the always enigmatic Annie Clark, had us transfixed.
Saturday opened once again with some vocal harmonies, this time from lovely sister duo Lily & Madeleine whose two parts vocals could be heard drifting from the Garden Stage just after noon. Recovering from a heavy night has probably never felt as pleasant. Over on the Woods Stage The Barr Brothers brought a touch more Americana, this time of the soft, soothing kind. The midtempo, mid-afternoon fare is livened up by the appearance of the Red Arrows overhead. Much needed levity is brought to the weekend by the double Welsh hit of Sweet Baboo and his melodious off-kilter pop and observations on the minutae and varagies of life and Cate Le Bon’s kooky freeform take on pop. There’s definitely something in the Welsh waters at the moment as proven by Gruff Rhys brilliantly funny, shambolic, musically perfect Powerpoint journey through the strange concept album of American Interiors and its story of John Evans. Brought to life by a puppet. Obviously.
Prior to that early evening fun was soulful belters St Paul & The Broken Bones on the Woods Stage. From Alabama to Wiltshire, with frontman Paul Janeway looking like Alan Carr (from a distance anyway) and singing like Sam Cooke, and judging by the dancing that swept the field they were the party band of the weekend. Over in the Tipi Tent Samantha Crain put on a masterful show of anecdotes (‘Devils In Boston’ would have been ‘Devils In New York’ but for an issue with syllables) and cracking Americana, showcased by her tribute to Jason Molina, ‘For The Miner’. Following her with Marissa Nadler was certainly a contrast and the ethereal warbler (thanks to Rich for that) was taking the evening down a too serious road to stay for long.
Despite the temptation to watch The Flaming Lips put on a bigger show than the rest of the acts at the festival together, the draw of the majestical John Grant was too great, and he didn’t disappoint. With a spot on mix of the old (‘Marz’, the beautiful ‘Where Dreams Come To Die’, a funked up ‘Chicken Bones’) and the new (the synth/piano battle of ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’, the electronic whirrs and beeps of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’), Grant is one of the best songwriters around today. Whether it’s the crowd waving their arms along to the chorus of ‘GMF’ (“I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet”) or standing in quiet awe listening to the magnificence of ‘Glaciers’, it’s an hour that fits the festival perfectly.
The final day is a bit of a slow starter as it’s 2pm before anything exciting appeared on a stage with Benjamin Booker and his loud take on blues rock erring more heavily on rock, though the crowd in the Big Top lap up the guitar heavy set. The New Orleans native is only beaten in the guitaring stakes by the unexpected pleasure of Tides Of Man playing a mid-afternoon slot of melodic maths rock in the Tipi Tent. As the sun finally made an appearance on Sunday, the contrasting folk pop of Lucius and raucous rock of Deer Tick are excellent soundtracks to a bit of lying around in the sun with a beer in hand, and both end up being highlights of the day. Tune-yards on the other hand are a little disappointing. As danceable as expected but it’s all a little too perfect now, not helped by the apathy of the hopelessly middle class crowd.
Most of the rest of the Sunday is taken up by returning acts with Yo La Tengo playing the hits, Tinariwen entrancing the Garden Stage, and The Felice Brothers whipping up a frenzy of Americana in a packed tent, with the rabble rousing singalong of ‘Whiskey In My Whisky’ the highlight. The Rails' best efforts gained them some new fans and you can see the “next big thing” in British folk have a real chance of being something special; they’re tight musically, clearly have a budget behind them (as the duo’s full band attested) and already have some really good folk songs (‘Bonnie Portmore’ and ‘Jealous Sailor’ are clear examples).
The best of Sunday though is saved for another act making his first appearance at the festival. Sat on a stool with a drummer and bass man Andrew Combs is an unassuming presence. The very definition of Americana, the Nashville singer’s smooth voice, subtle harmonies, and some excellent country-cum-roots songs bring the Tipi Tent to noise levels of that of a library. The thrall that tunes like country ballad ‘Too Stoned To Cry’ and rocking ‘Devil Took My Woman’ had the audience in bodes well for his upcoming album, due in February 2015. That the best act of the day harked back to the beginnings of the festival was fitting with End Of The Road celebrating its tenth edition next year.