Located in quintessential England on the bucolic Wiltshire/ Dorset border, End of the Road with its Garden Stage is as pretty a festival as you’ll find. The organizers usually pull together a great bill, and this year’s line-up has some top-notch quality. A relatively small festival, there are nonetheless 4 stages running throughout its 3-day duration, meaning it is only really possible to see a small proportion of the acts on offer. Here are some personal highlights from Friday, which starts off very gently indeed and slowly builds to a searing intensity. Saturday and Sunday will follow in separate posts.
What music journalists call Americana is strongly represented at End of the Road. They may not be groundbreaking, but the acoustic guitar-backed, wholesome old-time Southern harmonies purveyed by T Bone Burnett protÃÂ©gÃÂ©es The Secret Sisters could have been made for lounging around on English grass on a slightly boozy, sunny lunchtime.
Caitlin Rose cranks things up (perhaps by one notch) with her full-band electric, down home and slightly less wholesome country music. A few people even stand up, but the afternoon still starts to slide by in an unchallenging haze of pedal steel, real ale and a faint whiff of spliff.
Lo-fi powerpop outfit Best Coast shake things up (a bit), their sweet melodic Californian fuzz perfectly suiting the West Country sunshine. Clever, well executed, and easily the least wholesome thing so far.
Those who have dismissed Alec Ounsworth’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! as nothing more than the over-hyped sum of their obvious influences have reached wrong-headed conclusions. Who isn’t influenced by Dylan or Talking Heads? Clap your Hands are a truly special, idiosyncratic band and they break the pastoral slumber hanging over the festival site, really hitting their stride mid-set with the insistent, captivating indie-dance groove of “Satan Said Dance”, as well as delivering a “Details of the War” only slightly less ramshackle than the recorded version, but still just as affecting. For an act whose charm relies in part on a certain tumbledown fragility, it all comes together surprisingly well in a big field, with the band managing to sound simultaneously rickety and professionally well-drilled. The joker in the set is a cover of “Add It Up”, accompanied by no less than the Violent Femmes’ own Gordon Gano, wielding a fiddle.
The mood gets much, much smoother but also much more intense with Joan As Policewoman. The only thing more surprising than Joan’s intensity is how hard Joan rocks, as she slips effortlessly back and forth from keyboard to guitar. Joan delivers a great show, but pretty and enclosed as the Garden Stage is, you can’t help but feel this material is really made for darker and more intimate venues.
And it’s as darkness descends that things get really serious. The Walkmen are among the greatest of all music acts, any genre and any era. I have been banging on about this for a few years now, but my ravings have been met so consistently with dismissive politeness I had started to doubt my own sanity. I did see Guy Garvey on the telly earlier this summer banging on about The Walkmen being the best band for a generation, which means either I was right all along, or Guy is mad as well. I’m sure you’ll have your own opinion.
A certain amount of creative tension is apparently at work in The Walkmen camp. Singer Hamilton Leithauser tells us he managed to drive the van through a hedge on the way to the show, but there is something more than a little road rage at play. More than once, Paul Maroon deliberately cuts straight across Leithauser in the middle of talking to the audience, drowning him out with guitar. Whatever nonsense is going on, none of it prevents The Walkmen from delivering their customary mindblowing set, by turns powerful and subtle, with Maroon’s inventive and seemingly endlessly varied guitar work, Leithauser’s superlative no-holds-barred indie-croon, and Matt Bauer’s spellbinding drumming (which would probably make a decent show just on its own).
I can’t decide whether they are at their best when using sheer force (“In the New Year”) or being gently persuasive (“Canadian Girl”). The fact that their music sounds equally astounding and at home in a big field as it does in a small church compounds the mystery as to why they are not among the biggest acts on the planet.
Beirut arrive with some very small guitars (ukuleles, probably) and some truly massive brass instruments the size of a man (tubas, perhaps), showcasing material from their new album The Rip Tide. Zach Condon’s first album Gulag Orchestar was a brilliant melodic stomp around Central and Eastern Europe of old, and these familiar songs sound amazing tonight, the band’s flawless execution revealing a weight and longevity to the work, making it all the more incredible and improbable that they were originally written and recorded an American teenager. Via France (second album The Flying Club Cup), Condon seems to be moving toward his homeland with his new record, which on tonight’s evidence is a simpler, more stripped-down affair. Condon is in fine voice, and his band in fine form, and I found them a pleasure to watch.
My views are by no means universally shared, and I hear mutterings of discontent that people are not being grabbed by the set.
The Walkmen might be the best, but perhaps not the most interesting group on tonight’s bill, as they are followed onto the Garden Stage by The Fall. It’s all a bit like watching a bad accident: uncomfortable yet fascinating. With the band already well into the first of many mesmeric grooves, Mark E Smith walks imperiously onto the stage, his presence so commanding it is impossible to take your eyes off him. He’s a walking paradox. He’s angry, he’s gentle, he’s forgotten the words, and he can’t find the right piece of paper.
He’s thoughtful, he’s raging, he’s incisive and right, all in the space of a single tune. When he approaches the edge of the stage, its the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt in the photographers’ pit (possibly because the last time I came across him was in a pub where he started a brawl). Is he drunk? Impossible to tell. Is he in charge? Very much so, not only of the audience, but also of the music, constantly twiddling the knobs of his bandmates’ equipment and occasionally barking orders at them. And as well as being the orchestrator, he’s the random, unpredictable element fronting an otherwise precise musical machine which always hits the right note. One minute it seems to be a madman shouting at random (“I AM NOT FROM BURY, MAN!”) over a tight but unrelated rhythmic soundtrack, but the next it all seems to click together, you suddenly understand, and the whole thing is an unqualified triumph. Not for the faint hearted, not like anything else, but you can’t help feel it is all unquestionably true. I’m no die-hard fan of The Fall, but all the same I hope we don’t see the back of Smith for a very long time.