The End Of The Road Festival – September 2/3/4 2011

Located in Larmer Tree Gardens roughly midway between Shaftesbury and Salisbury and just inside Dorset, the End Of The Road Festival is a mid-sized event with a crowd of probably around 30 or 40 thousand, and is  now in its sixth year, and until about two months ago was a complete unknown to yours truly. A well kept secret is now out, and a charming thing it is too.

The weather in the week before had seen grey skies and plummeting temperatures, so I was more than pleasantly surprised to awake to find Thursday morning warm and sunny – a perfect early September day in fact. With my fellow campers, Russ and Derrick we arrive after a three hour trip on a sunny and warm afternoon, pitch the tents, an act which fellow tentees Russ and Derrick did in about ten minutes, me in about twenty after some cursing, as I’m a bit rusty in matters tent pole related.

Thursday evening was spent on a food and beer search. I have to say things on the catering front have improved no end since the last time I went to a three day festival, the grub on offer was all wonderful and covered every sort of cuisine. Humungous chicken kebabs with loads of salad, really funky veggie curries, a choice of three or five dishes on one platter, real pizzas, all day breakfasts with black pudding no less, homemade burgers & chips, North African delights, falafels, burritos, etc etc, and not a soggy noodle in sight! As for the beer, it was a bit in short supply on Thursday night as everything was still getting up and running, but there were several real ales on offer throughout the festival proper, Goddards Ale of Wight, Shepherd Neame Late Red, Milk Street Funky Monkey, Wellbeck Henrietta being staples of mine while there.

There were three main stages, a smaller stage under canvas, an outdoor comedy stage, a disco area in a forest, and we even had access to the gardens which were an idyllic retreat from the crowds when required.

Friday morning sees the sun blazing down as the trailer for a scorching day, good job I packed the axle grease. The festival was sponsored by Rough Trade and roughly a third of the acts were from that stable. The first act seen was the Secret Sisters on the idyllic Garden Stage, who eased us gently into the scene with some down home country, including covers of George Jones and Patsy Cline tunes. Not my normal musical entreé but it worked well in the sunny garden setting. After ambling across to the main stage aka Woods Stage, we encountered Californian act The Growlers who made a good fist of acid blues reminiscent of The Doors and pre-weird Beefheart. Next up was Best Coast, saccharine pop delivered with an American slouch. On record this lot remind you of every girl fronted Yankee pop combo you can think of. going as far back as the Shangri-Las. It didn’t hold my attention I’m afraid, so I wandered over to the Big Top Stage, which as its name suggests was a marquee and proved to be the home of the noisier acts of the festival. upon arriving I was confronted, and that is the right word, by the remarkable noise of Drum Eyes, wherein a kind of collision between post-rock, Fuck Buttons and Krautrock was underway, a truly fabulous racket. Apparently they feature a chap called DJ Scotch Egg, so there!

An enticing prospect was the alluringly named Cambodian Space Project in the Tipi Tent Stage, who it turned out were little more than an Australian bar band with a penchant for 60s acid rock fronted by an angelically tonsilled Cambodian girl who it seems the band had rescued from a life of poverty. Her no doubt moving lyrics were sung in her lilting native tongue over the 60s garage band stylings of the band. A worthy if somewhat disappointing combination

After a brief rest back at Hotel Tentpole it’s back to the fray and Health in the Big Top, who made an amateurish fist of noisecore that was a bit humourless and all over the shop. Lykke Li back on the Woods Stage proved just how diverse and interesting the sprawling Scandinavian music scene is with her (their?) percussive goth-pop.

At this point in the proceedings I went my own way from Russ & Dek who stayed on at the Woods Stage to watch Beirut, but there was no way I was going to miss an appearance by King Grouch and his latest bunch of slaves, otherwise known as The Fall. Everything changes and yet always remains the same with this band. On they saunter and launch into a typical Fall riff for a few minutes, and as expected on shambles Mark E Smith, who launches into one of his impenetrable rants. Stern faced and not speaking to the crowd, Smith led his miserable charges through chunks of the latest album, and mucked about with the settings of his guitarists’ amplifiers, a trait that must be a nightmare for the players and the guy behind the mixing desk. His wife on primitive synth squiggles played the entire gig with a bag slung across her shoulders and looked for every inch as if she had just been shopping at Tescos. At the end, Smith exits first and unseen orders his charges off the stage leaving just the drummer. The poor sod had the temerity to stop playing before Smith was ready and he was ordered back to his stool for a cursory final drum roll. He did not look best pleased.

By the end the audience was about half the size of that which started watching the set, leaving only the real aficionados behind. That’s the thing with this band, you love ‘em or hate ‘em, there ain’t no “they’re ok” with this lot. You might think from what I’m saying that I thought it was rubbish, and it was, which is also why it was marvellous! A bloke next to me, obviously of the same vintage as moi, asked me if “…that was the same Mark E Smith from the 70s wasn’t it?” “Certainly was” sez I “He ain’t changed much has he? A bit fatter maybe” and that just about sums up The Fall.

New band discovered - Drum Eyes
Highlight - The Fall
Eats – Full English breakfast, Chicken kebab with tons of salad, and later some chips.
Drink – Sensible
Weather – Scorchio (sunburned leg to prove it)

Saturday early morning, it was breezy and cloudy, but dry. After yesterday’s heat and the discovery of a patch of sunburn on one of my legs a welcome relief indeed. After breakfast we took a quick stroll in the surrounding countryside, something you are rarely free to do at other festivals.

The music starts, as Friday, at the Garden Stage with Beth Jeans Houghton a diminutive charming Geordie folk singer, another perfect start. Wandering over to the Big Top for the catchily named Allo Darlin’ who after overcoming initial nerves in front of probably the biggest sea of faces they had ever played for, triumphed with their charmingly twee indie pop to an appreciative large crowd.

Next up, still in the Big Top were the highly atmospheric Timber Timbre from Canada, whose Tindersticks-like soundscapes built on layered guitars, violin, cello, autoharp all through sundry effects pedals were highly charged and evocative. A previously unknown quantity to me, these deserve further investigation.

A late lunch with a simply delicious pizza was followed by Bob Log III on the Woods Stage. Russ knew a bit about this guy and the premise of black country blues sung by a white guy hiding under a glittering helmet turned out to be…Son of Seasick Steve. The novelty wore off fairly quickly, a quick snooze back at Tentpole Manors was called for. Back to the Woods Stage for Gruff Rhys who continue the tradition of pastoral Welsh psychedelia with aplomb.

Then it’s back over to the Big Top for the Nuggets style Texas acid rock of The Black Angels. Loud, sprawling and necessary. My headliners of choice were the masters, if not instigators, of quiet-LOUD-quieter-LOUDER post-rockisms, Glaswegians Mogwai. I’ve never warmed to their albums, as I find their music predictable and dull, but live the dynamics come over far better and they proved worthy headliners. The penultimate number actually had a guest vocalist and it was upbeat too! Wonders will never cease.

New band discovered - Timber Timbre
Highlight - The Black Angels
Eats – Breakfast sausage bap, Classic pizza with rocket, and later a very tasty multi-dish veggie curry.
Drink – Eight pints of various decent real ales.
Weather – Mainly cloudy, but dry.

I was woken at about sunrise (about 6am) by the sound of rain hammering down on the tent, but it was over fairly quickly. By the time we crawled out of tents it was a windy day, some sunshine. I was soon to feel the effects of last night’s curry, and despite what you may have heard about festival loos, these were ok. Just as well really!

Again the Garden Stage was the starting point, with Lightning Dust offering up their intriguing gothic folk. Apparently they are the sister project of “Zeppelin-esque rockers Black Mountain” who may well be worth investigating.

Next up in the Big Top were the compelling Lanterns On The Lake who build songs around dream-like sequences of lush instrumentation, all shoegazey and ethereal, and very nice indeed.

Willie Mason next on the Woods Stage, and old-time country rock is the dish. Following this were the Tuareg sounds of Tinariwen, a name I find difficult to say without tripping over my tongue for some reason, whose Malian desert blues fitted the occasion perfectly. After some grub, we return to the Woods Stage for Laura Marling, a woman wise beyond her tender years if her songwriting is anything to go by. I love her songs, but she struggled to project them over such a large space, which was a pity.

Following Russ & Derrick’s recommendation I went with them to the Garden Stage for Josh T Pearson but unfortunately the heavens opened not five minutes into his set, so I hightailed it the Big Top to avoid the storm, where I caught the retro-indie of Americans Wild Nothing who dispense a heavily New Order and early Cure influenced sound with ease. I found it a bit too regressive, but the audience seemed to enjoy it. Poking my head out into the grey yonder, the rain had slowed to a trickle so I sauntered over to the Woods Stage where Midlake were midway (hurrhurr) through their set. At the end of last year I bought their critically lauded The Courage Of Others album on spec and was somewhat disappointed by it, for although it has some fine songs it comes across as one-paced, and lacks any light and shade. It is remarkable that it takes four guitars, keyboards, bass and drums to produce this, and live although better it still seems one dimensional.

The rain got heavier while Midlake were on, so, it’s back to the Big Top for Brakes, a highly entertaining band from Stroud of all places. They got the place dancing and jumping with their infectious punky-pop, interspersed with some pointed humorous digs made at American foreign policy, and environmental campaigners. Funniest was the singer’s line “I hear (Dick) Cheney’s got a book out. We’ve written this song in tribute”….1-2-3-4 CHENEYISACUNT (to extra fast syncopated guitar). Maybe you had to be there, but it made us laugh!

Not fancying standing in the rain to watch the warblings of harpist Joanna Newsom who closed the festival, I returned to the tent for an early night ready for an early start on the homeward journey on Monday morning.

New band discovered - Lanterns On The Lake
Highlight - Brakes
Eats – Breakfast bacon roll, maple and banana pancake, large chunk of homemade carrot cake.
Drink – Hardly at all.
Weather – Alternate sunshine and cloudy, rain later.

The End Of The Road Festival is a charming festival with an eclectic and varied bill, set in idyllic surroundings with a laid-back vibe. Well worth it!

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