End of the Road hit its fifth anniversary this year. I first visited Larmer Tree Gardens in North Dorset for the second festival in 2007. Returning three years later, it all looked reassuringly familiar. And that’s because End of the Road got it all – stages, line-up, amenities, art and surprises - right from the start.
Themes for this year’s festival seemed to involve harmoniums and banjos. And Canadians – lots of Canadians – but this was a good thing. However my End of the Road started – after an early morning departure from Manchester and a “that’ll do” approach to tent-pitching – with a trio of Americans.
The Daredevil Christopher Wright kicked off the Friday programme on the Big Top Stage with the eponymous song from their debut album “In Deference To A Broken Back”. From this quiet start – just harmonies, acoustic guitar and the gentlest of drumming – they moved through whimsical reflection (‘The East Coast’) to the jangly clatter of ‘A Conversation About Cancer’ with several new songs along the way plus winning brownie points by telling us that on this their first UK trip they had already tucked into fish and chips with mushy peas.
The album is an unsung gem from this year’s releases and the trio captured the spirit and variety if not the subtlety of it live but were not well served by the booming sound in the Big Top (more of this later).
A quick check-in with the hobo blues of Charlie Parr on the Garden stage (good) and then the opening two songs from New Zealand’s The Ruby Suns (not so good), led me to the Tipi Tent. Here I caught the end of the set from Olivia Chaney.
Lovely lilting folk from a trio performing on keyboard/harmonium, cello and violin. My immediate thought – “classically trained” – was confirmed by the fact that one of the songs of her five track CD being sold is a cover of Monteverdi’s ‘Oblivion Soave’. Classy in all senses.
Next up on the same stage was Allo Darlin’. The first thing the band did was tell us the tent rules: “no sitting down - you have to stand up”. A smart move that got the afternoon crowd on their feet, instantly closer to the low riser stage and more engaged. The band’s debut full-length released earlier this year on Fortuna Pop is another gem – bitter-sweet tales of romance, infatuation and disappointment set to swooning indie-pop with catchy melodies and singalong choruses.
As well as five songs from that record the band also debuted a song which they had never all played together before called ‘Darren’ dedicated to “well, you know who it’s about” (Darren Hayman watched on from the side of the stage) and a solo number from Elizabeth called ‘Tallulah’ about listening to the Go-Betweens. This combination of music fan affection and allusion with such glorious songs make Allo Darlin’ a near-perfect package. A real highlight of the festival under the belt within the first couple of hours of being here.
Next I caught the end of Elliott Brood on the Big Top Stage. The besuited Canadian three-piece played foot-stomping folk with joyous rasping vocals, a thumping backbeat and infectious bonhomie.
They enthusiastically called on the crowd to help them with claps and cheers which were enthusiastically returned. The feel-good atmosphere and crowd appreciation was palpable. I didn’t hang about to see but I suspect they shifted plenty of copies of their latest album (Canadian release only currently).
Instead I caught the first two songs from Trembling Bells on The Local stage. In a larger tent than has previously hosted The Local, this half-size circus tent lacked the relaxed intimacy of the smaller one. It’s unfair to judge on the first two songs alone but I’m still to hear Trembling Bells recreate the magical allure of the records live.
Lavinia Blackwell’s psychedelic swirl dress with medieval drooping sleeves and built-in chocker is worthy of mention in its own right though. Put the brightly coloured circus tent to shame.
Next on The Big Top stage was Woodpigeon. Here Edinburgh’s eagleowl (plus the drummer from Meursault) provided the restrained orchestral backing to Mark Hamilton’s songs of loss and love including of course ‘Woodpigeon vs Eagleowl’ (“about how my bird is better than your bird”).
Mark Hamilton is a prolific songwriter so as well as songs from the Woodpigeon albums were new songs about First Nation myths inspired by a visit to Waterton National Park, another about climbing Arthur’s Seat to gain his manhood (“I broke my foot”) and a Withered Hand cover ‘No Cigarettes’ (“a song about dependency, self-hatred and – eventually – love”). Eagleowl were a fine stand-in for the normal band and with the witty and poignant storytelling in both word and song this was a great afternoon treat that managed to dodge Big Top sound problems neatly.
Then to the Garden Stage for more songs about disaster and emotional damage from The Mountain Goats. Songwriter and band leader John Darnielle, suited and bespectacled and continually checking the set-list in his jacket pocket after each song, looked more thoughtful novelist or trendy academic than rock star. But whilst singing with a devilish glint in his eyes and leering smiles, he appeared more like a cold-hearted salesman luring the unsuspecting in.
I clearly belong to the school of thought that says at 6pm on the first day of a three day festival what you want is bitterness, angst and despondency. And The Mountain Goats delivered this in spades but with a winning, wry humour. The crowd singalong for the spectacularly cynical ‘No Children’ (“and I hope you die / I hope we both die”) was - somehow – totally life-affirming. The only disappointment was this was over so quickly.
Time-out to re-stock and re-fuel meant I missed all but the final two songs from Wolf Parade. I’ve never really given time to the Montreal band’s cerebral indie-rock but this brief encounter and the audience response makes me think I should try again.
Then back to the Big Top. Here Edwyn Collins delivered a career-spanning set: starting with the title track from his new album ‘Losing Sleep’ and delving back to solo tracks from earlier records and several Orange Juice songs too. It was surprising to hear how many of his songs prior to his 2006 double brain haemorrhage reference physical infirmity and illness: ‘ Make Me Feel Again’, ‘Dying Day’ etc.
The five-piece band (included The Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook on drums) seemed a bit nervy for the first couple of songs but by time we hit ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘Falling and Laughing’ the set was more about the audience celebrating that Edwyn Collins is still with us and writing songs and not about the proficiency of the band. The three or so new songs suggest the reports of how good the new album is (out next week), are to be believed.
The New Pornographers (more Canadians) were the headliners for the Big Top Stage tonight. This was my second encounter with the band this week having seen them in Manchester on Wednesday. This was a very similar if not identical set but finally songs from the latest album “Together” are starting to click for me.
On record the Dan Bejar-penned songs give a diversity in tone and style. Without these live the set appeared a bit samey and wasn’t served well by the sound again – Kathryn Calder’s glorious vocals were at times obscured in the mix. However unlike Wednesday it was great to actually be able to watch all six members of the band at work including some impressive eight-feet-in-the-air drumstick twirls from Kurt Dahle.
Then it was over to the Tipi Tent for the first of the weekend’s late-night surprise sets. A rumour was circulating the tent that one of them was going to be Belle and Sebastian which felt unlikely (“they’re a bit up-themselves these days aren’t they?”) but you never knew the strange powers of End of the Road.
Instead New York’s Freelance Whales took to the stage. Performing a largely acoustic and hushed set (“like when we used to busk”) on banjo, harmonium (again) and mandolin these six songs or so were pleasantly diverting rather than exceptional.
I didn’t know who the next surprise band was until after they finished playing. It turned out to be Plants And Animals which was a huge surprise in itself. I had assumed that Plants And Animals peddled a gentle, rustic variation on the Animal Collective sound. Instead the Canadian (of course) trio’s set involved extended blues ragas, crunching indie-rock and intense riffing.
Some songs noodled on a bit too much for my liking but when they kept them taut and brutal I was more inclined to them. Plants And Animals said that they “weren’t expecting” to be playing this late-night set so soon after their earlier appearance in The Local. Interesting. Maybe Stuart Murdoch et al did cancel at the last minute then??
All this, Pieminister and no rain either. A first day that didn’t disappoint.
THE EAST COAST
The Daredevil Christopher Wright
In Deference To A Broken Back [BUY]