Sunday at Larmer Tree Gardens was another sluggish and grey start but by midday the skies were blue and the sun was shining. The plan for day three was unformed – let’s see where the mood takes us – with no particular expectations or must-sees. Of course, End of the Road would end up surprising us.
First up were The Minnikins in the Tipi Tent. Brother and Sister duo Gabe and Ruth were joined by pedal steel player Chris Hillman (“Hey we’ve got one of The Byrds in our band! It never stops being funny does it Chris?”) to play a soothing selection of country and blue-grass numbers – more trad. than alt. but played with affection and charm. Ruth told us they are recording a concept album about the history of their family and its journey from Scotland to Nova Scotia several generations ago. On this outing it’s a record well worth looking out for.
Next it was Smoke Fairies on the Garden Stage. My knowledge of the Sussex duo was limited to “folky” but having missed them at Green Man in August I was keen to see them here. And here they were supported by a three piece band (drums, bass and violin).
The initial appearance of the pair – youthful, pale, willowy and hesitant – was almost at odds with their music. And with their witty, deadpan introductions and chat ( “Sorry to be playing such gloomy songs in the sunshine [pause] This one’s called ‘Frozen Heart’”). The music mixed trad. folk harmonies with brooding alt–folk rumble - as though the Unthank sisters had been shorn of regional accent and reference and had spent a fortnight in a darkened room listening to Bonnie Prince Billy’s “I See A Darkness”. I found it utterly entrancing and the purchase of debut album “Through Low Light And Trees “ followed soon after at the Rough Trade stall.
Then to the Big Top for Kath Bloom who towards the end of her set told us she “works with children”. Again my initial reaction was she looked more like the strange, scatty mad woman who lives by herself at the end of the street and scares the children not tends them. Now she is undoubtedly scatty, re-starting songs after forgetting words, distractedly rummaging through her harmonica belt, but she was also charming, endearing and her eccentric folk warble and tender songs were deeply moving.
For the second half of the set she was joined by Brad and Jessica from This Frontier Needs Heroes which I felt diminished the impact of her songs. But not for everyone: as I left the woman behind us was in floods of tears.
In The Local there was a competition with the first prize of “shouting abuse at Steven Adams”. Faithful festival partner Mr P won this (I say ‘won’ but it was a game of chance) and so got to take to the stage to introduce “the band who blew Flaming Lips off the stage at Green Man”. Three weeks on from seeing The Singing Adams all was still in order: smart lyrics, catchy indie-rock strum, and sarcasm: “Thanks for coming to see us... despite what it said in the programme”.
As well as the songs listed here the band returned for an encore of 'Injured Party'. The band are “working on an album” – I can’t wait to hear it.
Brief visits to The Antlers and Django Django then led to see Ben Ottewell in the Tipi Tent.
This was not what I was planning especially being totally unfamiliar with his band Gomez. However he had a secret weapon. Just one or two songs into his set, seated alone on stage playing acoustic guitar he was joined by his kids: dressed in capes, blond, twins and two and a half years old by my reckoning. I think this was a spontaneous stage invasion rather than planned but the unself-conscious dance moves of the kids were a great foil to the more grown-up songs of Dad.
Then caught the last two songs from The Felice Brothers from the back of the Garden Stage arena. I was surprised by the relative youthfulness of said brothers – I imagined a grizzled fraternity of forty somethings. More of The Felice Brothers later.
Hotly tipped new bands can often disappoint. Over at the Big Top Stage Yuck didn’t.
The Anglo-American-Japanese four-piece channel 25 years of American guitar music into a familiar but fresh formula mixing jangle and shoegaze, noise and melody, not unlike a youthful, laid-back Dinosaur Jr. Will be eagerly looking forward to future releases from the band despite the appalling name.
Then to the Garden Stage with brief calls in to see Ólöf Arnalds and Mountain Man en route. The first thing to observe about The Low Anthem was that Ben Knox Miller appeared to be completely over last night’s whisky-drinking excesses. The second and more important thing was what a magical and enchanting performance this was.
As dusk set and the stars came out and bats flew over the stage, this was a beautiful setting for the quiet reflection of ‘To Ohio’, ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin’ and ‘Ticket Taker’ – the latter (“I thought it was a song about chaos and the apocalypse”) was the closest I got to ‘weepy’ this weekend. The set also included several new songs from the forthcoming album including ‘Smart Flesh’ which was written backstage at EOTR twelve months earlier. It was heart-wrenching to leave ten minutes early but we wanted to make sure we beat the rush for Deer Tick over in the Tipi Tent.
Opening with ‘Choir of Angels’, Deer Tick got about two or maybe three songs into their set when the power went (again). Undeterred and in darkness the band played a acoustic number with Mountain Man on harmonies then continued playing as they went walkabout through the crowd.
Eventually returning to the stage they played a medley of songs, all unplugged, including a snatch of The Replacements 'Can't Hardly Wait' and even a crowd singalong to ‘Silent Night’. Somehow the band had managed to turn potential disaster into one of those special moments you cannot replicate anywhere else (but I still think the power should be pulled when they play Manchester later this month. Just in case).
I know some but not many Adam Green songs – mainly from "Friends of Mine". However lack of familiarity with the – count ‘em – six album back catalogue was irrelevant. Against my expectations this turned out to be great fun – good-natured showmanship in a straw boater, madcap verbal gymnastics and uncoordinated jerky dancing all in front of a devoted following with frequent forays into the crowd. Throughout he came up smiling and continued to race across the wide stage (not a single photo I took came out in focus).
Potty-mouthed and nonsensical he may be but during ‘In The Prince’s Bed’ there was a definitive shiver of emotion to be felt. For the end of the set he donned a silver, woman’s slip thrown on stage to turn ‘Dance With Me’ into a Bowie-esque glam-stomp before returning for an impassioned ‘Jessica Simpson’. If you told me before the weekend that this would be one of the songs I would go home singing I would not have believed you.
As End of the Road started to wind down it was time for a walk through the enchanted woods with Wilco playing in the background. No secret sets now just happy festival goers in the piano room or drunkenly playing table tennis.
This was the second time in three weeks that I have seen Caitlin Rose “playing stages too big for us” as she and her band have stood in for others. At Green Man it was for a delayed Mountain Man; here it was for a cancelled Steve Mason. Not a like-for-like for replacement this time then.
However her easy-going brand of country – three-piece as at Green Man but here expanded to four players with the addition of pedal steel – was delightfully mellow and engaging. Called back to the stage by an enthusiastic crowd, Caitlin, now up against the clock, finished with an acoustic version of ‘Shotgun Wedding’ and a two minute Dylan cover.
So the main acts were over but there was still the secret sets. However the first of these was clearly no longer secret with the Tipi Tent packed out with devoted (and a few drunken) Felice Brothers fans. I guess they must have announced this from the stage earlier. Despite the crush I still managed to get fairly close to the front - and what impressed was not the relative youthfulness but the scariness of The Felice Brothers.
White vested and heavy-lidded singer Ian looked more like a backwoods serial killer than a musician. At the end of the set when he was told they could only play one more song, with his snarling and vehement reaction he looked as though he could literally murder someone. Others like the bearded and bear-sized brother Jimmy were more jovial but there was still moments of intimidating danger - when Jimmy heaved his accordion high up into the air or when the fiddle-player smashed (and I mean SMASHED) the cymbals from a running jump with his washboard.
Joined at points by Deer Tick, the Felice Brothers played a ragged songs of booze and bad luck, guilt and redemption with fiery passion and arms-in-the-air devotion from their fans which ended in a stage invasion during ‘Glory Glory Hallelujah’. It had very little to do with God but praise be. I’m not sure why I have never listened to The Felice Brothers before but I couldn’t have had a better live introduction.
The final and closing act for End of the Road 2010 had also been announced. Mark Hamilton way back on Friday in the Big Top had said that Woodpigeon and Eagleowl would play an all covers set. They opened with two quieter and not too surprising numbers - The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Set Free’ and Herman Dune’s ‘Not on Top’ - before entering less obvious territory.
Sneaking a glance at the set-list beforehand I knew some of what was coming but Violent Femme’s ‘Blister in the Sun’ and R Kelly’s ‘Igntion’ were not only unexpected but joyously faithful. Well as faithful as you get as a pale Scotsman called Malcolm playing an ukulele whilst singing ‘Ignition’ could be. This was hilarious and exhilarating stuff. Given both bands are quiet natured souls it might not have been able to match the intensity of The Felice Brothers but it was a winning combination of fun, surprises and celebration and a perfect finale.
End of the Road is undoubtedly a special festival. Clearly the music programming is at the heart of this. But I made choices to miss some bands (Yo La Tengo, Horse Feathers, Cate Le Bon) which I would kill to see on any other occasion – but I am not left feeling regretful or cheated. It takes a special kind of event to do that.
Next year’s End of The Road Festival is 2-4 September (“with Thursday opening” – this year this was Meursault, Willy Mason, Darren Hayman and Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan). Early bird tickets have already sold out.