End of the Road Festival – live review

End of the Road Festival
Larmer Tree Gradens, Dorset
31 August – 2 September 2012 

Live review

We bring you a round up of End of the Road – featuring LTW favourite Patti Smith, Grandaddy and a raft of other musical delights. 

This boutique festival draws a crowd of bearded men in plaid, dragging wives who’d rather be at Latitude behind them, to watch worthy bearded men in plaid sing rootsy music.

Despite this the festival has a pleasant atmosphere and in the festival’s second arena, the Garden Stage one of the most beautiful festival settings.

The festival gets off to a slow start, because the opening day has been programmed by the Bella Union label. Ominously hailed in the festival brochure by sneering Old Grey Whistle Test presenter Bob Harris, Bella Union are celebrating 15 years of existence by taking over Friday at the End of the Road.

Sadly, most of their best acts are elsewhere, and we’re left with a series of ho-hum inoffensive acts that have released quite good albums but don’t really cut it live.

A pleasant early evening exception is Beach Boys’ collaborator Van Dyke Parks. Who sits at his piano and performs awkward old-timey tunes delivered with charm. These twisted golden era of Hollywood style songs recall the Byrds’ Citizen Kane late-period style, and make for a lovely accompaniment to a walk through the Gardens.

The day’s standout artist, John Grant begins with a speech, saying he’s broken off his recording to be here because he loves Bella Union and End of The Road. He wears a big wooly hat and jumper picked up whilst in Iceland recording his new album.

He opens with new songs from that album. These are excellent additions to his repertoire. In a rich classically sonorous voice he intones, he strikes the right balance between humour and beauty – “I am the greatest motherfucker you are ever gonna to meet”¦I should have practised my scales; I shouldn’t be attracted to males”.

He’s backed by piano for first two songs (the aforequoted Mutherfucker and “I Hate this Town”), but adds a violin for third.”¨”¨There’s an engaging contrast here. John is a big bearded chap in wooly hat and woollen jumper, he genial, even humourous between songs. But the result is songs that are tender, melancholic mini-epics. There’s real beauty here.

“Sigourney Weaver” from 2010’s Queen of Denmark begins “material I’m more comfortable with”. This and on “Where Dreams Go To Die” John showcases his generous widescreen voice. A beautiful captivating performance.

Midlake join at end, but their aimless strumming breaks the spell, and we’re back in checked-shirt country.

Low Anthem play well executed Americana with Dylanesque vocals. Their sound, characterised by pump organ is on the verge of an epiphany that never comes. Several songs where the band highlight tight evocative harmony vocals (Charlie Darwin for example), are ruined by a talkative crowd.

They are an easy band to admire, their control and execution is superb, but they’re not a band it’s easy to give yourself to. The result is an uneasy relationship where the band and audience never quite commit. It’s often enjoyable, occasionally beautiful (“to them ghosts”) but rarely fulfilling.It could be the band want to evoke a yearning nostalgia in their audience. If so they succeed, but I don’t want to feel that.

Day 2 begins in the Big Top, with two thrilling bands that blow the opening days retro cobwebs away.

Firstly there’s Creature with the Atom Brain who are either Belgians or from space. Their dense space rock kicks the day splendidly. This is great stuff, there’s fabulous dark vocals, but the guitar is the star first Indian raga rock, then surf twang then rockist soloing by turns. An invigorating and exciting prelude to the marvellous Islet.

The Cardiff band begin with a dramatic opening attention grabbing opener and don’t let up. “Lion’s Share” is a rhythmic organ heavy rejig of Sunshine of Your Love as Krautrock Hare Krishna mantra. Then it gets weird.

The band are a disparate bunch one sari clad, one in odd socks and hightops. They seem thrown together on Government restart programme, where a group of non-musicians have been locked in a room for months with a toybox of percussive devices. They switch roles throughout, three take vocals, all drum – up to three at once at times.

Odd socks guy, escapes from the stage with a tambourine and disappears into the audience. ”¨”¨Later a friend dismissed them as “arch” and that is a fair observation. But it is a criticism the band are aware of introducing “the last song” one member acknowledges that is description that’s not “fooling anybody”.

This is a band with so many ideas, that not all work – how could they? But when one does there’s a new thrilling deviation along in a moment. Are they Britain’s most exciting young band?

The Garden Stage is the setting for a performance of stately beauty by Dark Dark Dark. The lead singer performs at an electric piano backed by bass drums, accordion and banjo. In places Ӭharmony vocals from the accordionist & the banjo player are pitched right to add texture and colour.

The songs and performance are emotive, evocative and impassioned. But the band struggle to transmit this feeling to the audience.”¨”¨When singer stands up leaving accordionist to play keys vocals are more powerful and stronger.”¨She’s looks nervous, though, and there’s little interaction with the crowd from any of the band.

I recognise their music is melancholic, but I still wish they look as if they enjoyed it more.”¨”¨ The set ends with “Daydreaming” an indisputable modern classic.

Later on Tindersticks mine similar territory but with greater effect. It’s slightly disconcerting at first that lead singer Stuart Staples looks like former Isle of Man Chief Minister Tony Brown. But he is a compelling performer, seemingly caught in the moment.

The set didn’t draw on the band’s better known numbers but the performance didn’t suffer as a result. A particular highlight was the spoken word song, “Chocolate”, performed by keyboardist, David Boulter. Like many of Tindersticks songs it seems simple at first, but grows into something complex and marvellous.

I glance around the stage each member is a top notch pro at height of game. Terry Edwards on Sax and Earl Harvin on drums stand out. This isn’t flashy instrumentalism just classic controlled musicianship.

The evening ended with two elder statesmen Robyn Hitchcock and Mark Lanegan playing contrasting but professional sets. ”¨”¨Robyn the genial, dapper purveyor of psychedelic pop is joined by Abigail Washburn on banjo, and backing singers Something Beginning with L. It’s a good natured and entertaining half hour spent in his company.

Mark Lanegan is altogether different, he has one of the classic rock growls. The standout moment being a menacingly louche “Sleep with Me”.

An early final day high spot was Richard Buckner, a singer of warm intelligent travelogues in a rich enveloping voice.

Woods‘s clattery beauty is an afternoon treat. They are the first act, including headliners Grizzly Bear and Beach House to justify a slot on a big outdoor stage. Ironically it is called the Woods Stage.”¨”¨ Their sound is part bluegrass, part shoegaze – bluegaze? Shoegrass? But with a Beatleseque pop sensibility where feedbacky freakouts take it up a notch.

Patti Smith seems surprised people are here. A strangely unassuming and gracious figure – I was expecting a tyro. Opening with “Dancing Barefoot” she waves to crowd – we wave back. Her voice powerful and beautiful, in particular on “Free Money””¨”¨.

For me the best bit of the set was when long term guitarist Lenny Kaye takes lead vocals for a Nuggets medley. This was a fun interlude in a generally serious set, it was delivered with gusto and a genuine love for this music.

“Because the Night” was met with a generous singalong response from the audience. As is her wont Patti delivered a speech in support of Pussy Riot before launching into a heartfelt “People have The Power”. “Gloria” was glorious. This should have ended the set, but Patti eeked out the ending for another ten minutes of stadium style histrionics. I suppose she’s one of those artists where greatness goes hand in hand with indulgence.

Alabama Shakes, played a surprise set in the tent, like there early one on the main stage, it was surprisingly drab for a band supposedly riding a crest of the wave. I ducked out and went to see the brilliant Gravenhurst on the festival’s smallest stage.

Their fragile songs of loss and tenderness were amongst the best songs on show at this festival overburdened with songwriters steeped in technique but with nothing to say. Their delicate, and beautiful opener contained the weekends most emotive line “only a stone’s throw from all the violence you buried years ago.”

The return of Granddaddy brought the festival to a gorgeous conclusion. The layoff seems to have done no harm, and this was a tuneful, harmonic, emotional show.

The crowd sang along throughout and this felt like an homecoming. I was surprised by the breadth of their back catalogue, because even with an hour and half set many of my favourites “Ged” and “For the Dishwasher” for a start for omitted.

Overall a blissful close to a pleasant festival.

All words by Declan IOM. You can read more from Declan on LTW here.

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