This year, my friend Jon G and I decided that we should try a second festival after Latitude. We chose End of the Road, which, as its name suggests, is one of the last big festivals of the season (Bestival, in the Isle of Wight, is next weekend). It’s in its 11th year (just like Latitude) and always has a good looking line up, with indie, Americana and rock’n’roll in all its forms at its core. The fact that Rough Trade records and Uncut magazine are closely associated with it tells you where it is coming from. There’s a strong comedy line up too, and all sorts of other entertainments, of course.
The festival is situated in and just outside Larmer Tree Gardens, on the Wiltshire/Dorset border. The nearest biggish town is Shaftesbury and it’s about 15-20 south west of Salisbury. The gardens were created in the late 19th century by General Augustus Lane Fox, who inherited the Rushmore Estate in the Cranbourne Chase – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – on the condition that he changed his name to Pitt Rivers. The Larmer Tree was an ancient elm, where, amongst other things, King John used to meet while hunting.
The gardens themselves are lovely, full of typically 19th century follies, and I’m rather surprised they agreed to locate a modern music festival there. But they did, and one of the main stages is bang in the middle of the gardens. The main areas are on grassland outside the manicured areas, but the whole setting is picturesque – at least until 11,000 people descend on it!
So there’s about a third of the number of people who go to Latitude, but the vibe is familiar. It’s friendly, maybe a touch more alternative and a bit older, as the school kids are going back this week. Plenty of students though, and quite a lot of families. So Jon and I fitted in well and didn’t even feel that old!
One of the nice touches is that there are a couple of excellent acts performing on the Thursday evening. I’ll describe who this year below.
When I was looking at the line up beforehand, there were plenty of familiar names – Joanna Newsom, Bat for Lashes, Teenage Fanclub, Scritti Politi, Animal Collective, Cat Power, Thee Oh Sees, to name a few – but even more unknowns than Latitude. But I suspected that a few would soon become favourites, and I was so right.
I thought about doing a top ten, but when I started listing who they might be, I quickly got to twenty. So I may as well do the narrative. But I do want to highlight four acts briefly. These were the four where I felt genuinely moved by what I was seeing and listening to. It got me thinking afterwards, what triggers that reaction? And I think the answer lies in the things that I love most about the live experience. And what are they? Well, one is the sheer excitement of a great rock’n’roll band – when the riffs get going at full, awesome volume. That’s probably the best feeling of all. Then there is the sound of beauty – that beautiful melancholy that I have written about many times. And then there is the pure celebration of a band, a sound, you already love. An affirmation. Thee Oh Sees and The Blind Shake gave me that first feeling; a duo called Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker had me experiencing the second; and for the third, Teenage Fanclub had me singing along with joy in the last official show of the festival. I’ll come back to all of them.
But let’s start at the beginning. This may take a while…
We got to the site at about 4 o’clock and set up the new mega-tent which Jon and I had bought, the previous one having finally given up the ghost at Latitude. It looked rather large for two people – but you could stand up in all of it! And then, after some food, it was time for the entertainment.
It started with the excellent Teleman, on the Woods Stage, which is the main stage. It’s on the edge of some woods rather than in them. And it was close to the campsite – you could hear the sound checks in the morning. Teleman are real favourites of Marc Riley on BBC 6 Music, and it’s clear why. This is indie at its best. Sharp beats and rhythms, some good distorted guitar workouts, good tunes (important, that!). Jon and I saw them at the Koko in Camden (the old Camden Palace, he sighs) earlier this year. They were at Latitude too, though I missed them there. A really good band, who should become bigger.
Then we had The Shins, on a rare visit to the UK. They are a great band, led by James Mercer. Their key album, for me, is “Chutes Too Narrow”, which came out in 2003. It’s pop, indie, Americana, Beach Boys rolled into one. So many brilliant melodies and then off-kilter moments, like the acapella bit in “Saint Simon”. I’m glad to say they played “Saint Simon” and many other favourites. “Chutes Too Narrow” formed the core. So I was happy.
After that we went up to the food and drink area and enjoyed a couple more beers. End of the Road is well known for its real ales, and I can say the reputation is entirely justified! Hoppy IPAs – British and American – are the order of the day, and that is OK with me.
We started Friday early with one of the talks in the Garden Library – an open air but roofed area surrounded by tress. Rather serene. The talk featured Brix Smith, who was in The Fall and married Mark.E.Smith, The Fall’s main man. That all ended badly, but she then got together with violinist Nigel Kennedy and had fun meeting the rich and famous. That didn’t last and she went through difficult times. But she is back now, with a new band, The Extricated – a dig at the Fall’s album, “Extricate”, which she contributed to, before leaving the band. She spoke about a lot of this engagingly, though not really about Mark.E.Smith. Sounded like an interesting book.
Our first band of the day was Amber Arcades on the Garden Stage. The band features Dutch singer Annelotte de Graaf on dreamy vocals and guitars. I really liked their sound. It’s hard not to lapse into clichés here, but there was a European-ness to the melodies: familiar, but infectious. There was a wooziness to it that conjured up My Bloody Valentine a bit. Maybe even Nico-era Velvet Underground. Or maybe The Delays (remember them?). Definitely one I shall research further.
We then caught a bit of Slow Down Molasses on the Woods Stage. Earnest Americana, didn’t really do it for me. We moved on to Lail Arad in the Tipi tent, which apparently has been extended from previous years. She sang quirky songs about London life. Good, but something I thought you might get in a cabaret or comedy arena. Not really for me, but our neighbours on the campsite loved her, we heard the next day.
My next big thing was Dilly Dally, in the Big Top stage. This is a pretty large tent, not quite as big as the 6 Music tent at Latitude (or Reading, which uses the same tent). The great thing about the tents is that bands can use a light show during the daylight hours. And of course, you don’t get wet when it is raining! Dilly Dally are a band from Toronto who you’d have to call grunge. Two women to the fore – a theme of End of the Road this year. They hit all my Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana buttons. We are entering a 90s revival era and Dilly Dally fit perfectly into it. The first of many bands who knew how to rock!
I then caught the second half of Eleanor Friedburger’s set on the Garden Stage. She was half of Fiery Furnaces. She was folkier than I expected, but that may reflect where she is now living, near the Catskill Mountains, which are quite a long way from New York City. Another to explore further.
We then went back to the Woods Stage for some serious country music, courtesy of Margo Price. Her new album has been released by the label owned by Jack White of the White Stripes. She was excellent, and hit all the country buttons. The first song we saw was called “Desperately Depressed” – do you need to know more? I really liked her – her voice was almost as good as Lindi Ortega’s and in that Dolly Parton mode. (And why isn’t Lindi at any of our festivals by the way?)
Next was Blue House in the Tipi Tent. I really liked them. They were fairly lo-fi, but with some good chugging guitars, some distorted excursions, and, importantly, some catchy melodies. They are Ursula Russell and James Howard and band. I got a bit of Talking Heads – and Teleman, and inevitably some Velvet Underground. James has a good sense of humour too, as he introduced the songs. And they did an excellent version of Bowie’s “The Man who Sold the World” in a similar style to Kurt Cobain, on his MTV Unplugged album. Another band to look out for.
One I knew quite well, though I haven’t heard their last album, was Field Music. We saw them back at the Garden Stage. They play sharp, jagged, funky rhythms that for me, inevitably recall Talking Heads and especially XTC. It’s a sound a few north east bands have adopted and Field Music are the best. The sound, like most things over the weekend, was excellent. The main men in the band are Peter and David Brewis. They both play guitars and drums, and share the vocal duties. Quite unusual but it works. They were playing with quite a lot of other people’s equipment, as their van had broken down on the A34, but you wouldn’t have known.
Over to the Woods Stage, afterwards, for Savages. The easy description of them would be modern Goth. I quite like them – I have a couple of albums. Don’t listen to them much – they are a bit overwhelming all at once. Jon and I got there when the set had started and stayed quite far back. At first it seemed good but no more. Goth to the fore. Getting a decent reaction though. But then it upped a gear. The songs got faster, and singer Jehnny Beth really started to work the crowd. There was serious moshing and she did some amazing crowd surfing, even managing to stand on people’s hands/shoulders for quite a while (though not long enough for me to get my act together and take a photo!). From then on it was captivating and high energy. They were all dressed in black and there were only white lights. It all made sense. A no compromise image and performance, culminating with a song called “Fuckers”. For all the people who’d had a bad year/week/day, Camille said. One of the festival highlights, and an unexpected one.
I then popped in to the Big Top to see the second half of Shura’s performance. I’d seen her support Chvrches at the Albert Hall. There her music was quite dreamy electro. It seemed quite different here. More uptempo and dance-orientated. Quite a rare feature at End of the Road, where the guitar prevails. A packed tent and good reception – I expect most of the younger people at the festival were at this. My guess is that she is destined to be pretty big, so watch out for her.
Last act of Friday for me was Cat Power. A bit of the blast from the past – I really enjoyed her album “The Greatest” from 2006, which included the wonderful song “Lived in Bars”. She didn’t play that. What she did play was a set of sultry torch songs. Her voice was superb. The band were slick. It was a bit one-paced, but it went down well. A nice one for the Garden Stage I guess. So civilised – until Sunday…
We thought that it was going to rain a lot on Saturday, and it sure did! Until about nine in the evening. So the headliners got away with it, but not many of the others on the outdoor stages. But, you know, it didn’t detract from the proceedings very much at all. And it was probably the best day overall – of three top days.
First up was Younghusbands, billed in the blurb as following in the footsteps of Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. And I could see why – more the melodies than the guitar distortions. So a lighter version of those two, which actually took them into Teenage Fanclub territory at some points. This is a good thing! An excellent band, worth looking out for.
Next was Laura Gibson on the Woods Stage. She was described as a kind of sensitive folkie from New York. And that was true, but there was a bit more to her. She had a full band and played electric as much as acoustic guitar. The songs were rooted in folk, but had an urban feel. Her voice had that modern twang or warble – neither are quite the right word, but think Ellie Gould, or George Ezra, or Ben Howard. I really liked her songs and definitely will be looking up her music.
So, two good bands to start – and then it got even better! Over at the Garden Stage it was Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. Josienne on vocals and Ben on acoustic guitar. The songs were essentially English folk – from trad to covers of artists like Nick Drake and Sandy Denny. Josienne had the most strikingly beautiful voice. As she sang Ben played gentle, weaving guitar. Wonderful stuff from start to finish. I will admit to a tear in my eye about their music – I just loved it. It goes with those artists like The Staves, Daisy Vaughan and Emily Barker, who I adore, and listen to more than anything else. Josienne was also very funny as she introduced the songs, making light of the dark tones of most of them. Maybe all of them. Duende. The discovery of the festival for me.
And it kept being great! The Big Moon in the Big Top were terrific. An all-girl band, playing grunge/punk. Some top notch riffing and catchy choruses. Yes, the Breeders come to mind, but this was fresh and today. They covered a Madonna song, but I still haven’t worked out what it was. They had a nice ending too. All the posties – who were delivering letters from one festival goer to another, not quite sure how – stood behind them leaping about. A band who know how to enjoy themselves – see later.
By the time I came out of the tent the rain had started. I met Jon back at the Garden Stage, some way through Meilyr Jones’s set. He sang grandiose ballads with Morrissey-style lyrics, and it was hard to engage with them in the rain at first. But by the end I was enjoying them. Think Scott Walker, updated.
We stayed on at the Garden Stage for Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts. Our campsite neighbours had strongly recommended them. And it was obvious why. Jeffrey writes what you might call observational songs, laced with humour. But while I might sometimes baulk at this (as I did a bit with Leil Arad) I absolutely didn’t with Jeff. I loved the observations, with their New York slant, and really liked the way he played guitar. He had an acoustic with spray piant all over it, plugged in to the effects pedals. So he could do just about anything with it – and did! Towards the end we got what can only be described as a Hendrix workout. He and his excellent band would probably have an affinity here in the UK with people like The Streets and Kate Tempest. They don’t have the same sound, but they have the same attitude.
And he had a song about how much he loves English food – and it wasn’t ironic, not really. So big up to the man!
Still in the rain, it was over to Lost Natives on the Woods Stage. They are a good band, a cross between Americana and Coldplay. So it should work well on the big stage. Strangely, I prefer it on record, when it isn’t quite so overblown. It went down really well with the crowd, but I didn’t really get into it.
Then we moved out of the rain into the Big Top for Cat’s Eyes. They featured Faris Badwan, main man with the Horrors, in a duo with Rachel Zeffira, singer and multi-instrumentalist. I didn’t really know what to expect, but thought it would be interesting if Faris Badwan was involved. And it was. I’d call it dreamy French-style pop/cinema music with the occasional burst of rock. There was a four-woman choir too. They looked like schoolgirls to me, but probably weren’t. It was interesting, but not that engaging for me – and I had M.Ward to go to. Jon stayed to the end.
So, yeah, next was M.Ward on the Garden Stage. Still raining! A real quality show. What would you call it? Americana, yes; the sound of Paul Simon, yes; the quality of melodies and playing of Steely Dan, yes. Josh Rouse’s “Nashville” was a link for me. There were rock’n’roll instrumentals, sad songs, quirky songs. I’ve never bought any of his albums before, but I think I will have to now.
Jon and I split for the last show of the evening. He stayed at the Garden Stage for Ezra Furman, and he and many other people we talked to on Sunday agreed it was an amazing performance. But I wanted to see Bat for Lashes on the Woods Stage. Natasha Khan and her band. Her latest album, “The Bride” has a rather morbid theme – the groom dies on the way to the wedding – and it formed a big part of the show. But the songs are beautiful. It’s impossible for me not to compare her with Kate Bush. And she’s not the only headliner I’ll do that with. She has a vision which could just be described as quirky, but which I think is bigger than that. Just like Kate. Natasha wore a wedding dress and veil for the show. Pretty weird, but fitting for the new album. She took the veil off towards the end. She sang some of her signature tunes from earlier albums too. For me the highlight was “Laura”, which was really beautiful, echoing through the night air. One of the moments of the festival for me.
There was a nice, personal moment near the end, Natasha brought on two friends, and the man proposed to the woman. She accepted of course. Natasha jumped up and down with glee. In her wedding dress. Bizarre, but heart-warming. The crowd loved it. I read a Daily Telegraph piece which was sniffy about it. Get real mate, this was genuine friendship in action. I hate such casual cynicism, which is sadly so prevalent in the media.
End of the Road has a number of surprise shows late on. Mostly they are bands in the Tipi tent who have been on somewhere else before. But Jon and I got in to one on the Big Top after we met up again. It was Wild Beasts. The tent was packed – not because of the rain, because that stopped around 9 o’clock. We watched a bit – took us a bit of time to work out who it was. We even thought for a moment that the singer was Ricky Gervais! We didn’t stay long. Instead we headed over to the disco area, next to the Gardens. It was badged as a Bat for Lashes miserable disco, featuring The Cure, Bowie, etc. Which sounded good! Eventually Natasha Khan turned up and hit the decks. Which was a great touch. It was all conventional 70s and 80s stuff though. Jon left earlier than me, but I eventually went to the Tipi tent to see what was going on there. And I caught The Big Moon again! Love them. Stayed till the end at then retired to bed about 1.30am. There was another band on, but Latitude told me this year that unless it’s amazing I need to make something like 1.00am the limit. It’s my age, you know!
Sunday was drier, I’m glad to say, though it started to drizzle in the evening. We began the day with another talk, this time from the journalist Barney Hoskyns, who was talking about his book “Small Town Talk”, a study of the music that came out of Woodstock – not just the festival, but the place. Starting with Bob Dylan and The Band and moving right through to the modern day. It was an enjoyable discussion. Hoskyns seems to have been able to talk to most people – if they are still alive – and had some interesting anecdotes. I’ll read this one when it comes out in paperback.
First band we saw was The Leaf Library, on the Woods Stage. The band were one of two “application bands” at the festival. Each year the festival organisers invite bands to apply to play, sending in examples of their music. A good initiative, that. The Leaf Library got through. I liked their sound, which was a kind of dreamy pop that ventured into leftfield electro territory, with some saxophone incursions at times. The singer sat at a keyboard, so they lacked a bit of stage presence, even though there were seven of them. Stereolab came to mind and even Roxy Music when the sax got going. They should be pretty successful.
Over to the Big Top, we went to see Feels, another punk/grunge band. They were late, due to problems getting over from the continent. We went off for a beer at the nearby Bear Tavern – a very fine tavern. Interestingly, they were still accommodated in the schedule – I suspect Latitude may have been more ruthless. And I’m glad they were, because they were good. Sonic Youth were no doubt an influence and the noise verged on metal at times. Three of the band were women. A real theme of the festival. The closer – I’ve no idea what it was called – was awesome. And they heralded more awesome sounds in the Big Top…
Yes, The Blind Shake were next. Simon Taffe, one of the founders of the festival, mentioned them in his welcome note in the festival guide: they will blow the damn roof off. And, metaphorically, they did. Three guys in black, playing sharp, hard, hugely energetic riffs. They were amazing from the opening bars. For some reason I couldn’t help but think of Dr Feelgood – not because the sound was similar, but because the attitude, the style and the rock’n’roll essence of it was like watching a couple of Wilkos who’d decided to turn up the volume and put more distortion through the amps. But the spirit was the same. A celebration of rock’n’roll. Truly inspiring. See them if you can in the future.
After Feels and The Blind Shake, Bill Ryder-Jones on the Garden stage felt a bit light, but he was good. And he played some excellent guitar. He’s an ex-member of The Coral, and he has collaborated with the Arctic Monkeys. You could hear something of the latter in his sound, but it was more that melodic late 80s/90s Mersey sound personified by The La’s and the less well-known Shack. Some of which flowed through to the Stones Roses and even Oasis. Guitars jangled in a Byrds style. I really liked the two songs he did solo, with just his electric guitar, too.
It was then back to the Woods Stage for some rock’n’roll in its purest sense – the sound of rockabilly and Elvis updated, with JD McPherson. He’s from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and used to be a school teacher. He looked like an unlikely rock’n’roller, with his neat hair and his demin jacket buttoned up. He had the cowboy boots though. And he and his band really knew how to conjure up that swinging sound. This was the only show I saw where loads of people were dancing. The rock’n’roll beat was so infectious and you just couldn’t help getting into the spirit. Pure fun, this one.
Pure fun was not how I’d describe the next thing we saw. Arrows of Love in the Tipi Tent. We’d started watching Broken Social Scene on the Woods Stage, but it felt like that was all going to be a bit overblown, and the blurb on Arrows of Love sounded good – thrashing, flailing and kinetic energy. And yeah, it had that. And four of the five band members had great, clichéd rock looks too, especially the bassist with the blue hair. They played an anarchic, rambling hardcore rock. There was something of the Stooges and punk in it – pretty basic but challenging and very visual. They could have been brilliant. But actually they became unlistenable – because of the singer. He is probably the creator of the band and the songwriter. But he was awful. His shriek drove me crazy – it was hurting my ear! And he seemed about ten years older than the rest of the band. I can hardly be judgemental about that, but it didn’t work in terms of the image the band could have conveyed. So on one level they were terrible, but on another brilliant. We left half way through because the sound really was hurting, and we wanted to see Thurston Moore, but I left with the feeling that it was a fascinating band with one huge flaw – its creator!
There was also an amusing moment which somehow summed it all up. The girl with the blue hair picked up a bottle of red wine and lit a cigarette while she sang one slow dirge. Classic images. One of the stewards wasn’t having it and came on stage and made her put out the cigarette. Which she did. Rock’n’roll, eh?
Thurston Moore on the Garden Stage was a bit dull, I’m afraid, and we only stayed for a couple of songs. Reminded me I only ever really liked my Sonic Youth in small doses. Jon and I split up for a bit. I got into King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard in the Big Top– only just, as five minutes later there was a massive queue outside. I know this because I left after five minutes! Not my thing. I wandered down to the Wood Stage for Divendra Banhart. On record, I like his stuff, but the bit I saw felt a bit lightweight. It was very well-received by a big crowd though.
So this was all a bit unsatisfactory, but it didn’t matter, because the very best show of the festival was about to happen! Yes, it was Thee Oh Sees on the Garden Stage. Funny it was on that stage, which had mostly been used for the more subtle sounds. No moshing possibilities on the nice lawn. Well, all that went out of the window with Thee Oh Sees. They are an LA band, led by John Dwyer, on vocals and machine gun guitar. Marc Riley has been championing them on his 6 Music show, which is why I had to go to see them. On record the sound is, like the blurb said, garage rock, and a bit psychedelic at times. John Dwyer sings in a rather reedy falsetto. But live, bloody hell! A totally awesome, high energy, punk rock rock’n’roll sound that just bulldozers everything in its way. helped by the fact the fact that they have two drummers, who play in amazing synch. It was exhilarating from start to finish. By this time the rain was coming down quite hard and you didn’t even notice. Of the shows I saw, only Savages had as much moshing. An inflatable blue shark was being tossed around. Relentless, pyrotechnic, a show that you totally immersed yourself in. If you ever get a chance to see them live, take it. It may be the best rock’n’roll show you have ever seen.
Oh my God, after that, we needed to come down, and Joanna Newsom, headlining the Woods Stage, did the trick. She of the lovely harp playing, the discursive songs, the quirky voice which reminds you of Kate Bush (again). And, you know, after a while, it all made sense, and became one of the examples of true beauty at the festival. She was a surprising headliner, really, but it worked – beautifully.
Just one thing left after Joanna, and that was Teenage Fanclub in the Big Top. I love this band – their album “Grand Prix” is up there amongst my all-time favourites. Wonderful melodies and jangling, soaring guitars. And they gave us what we wanted – a set laden with their favourites, including “Don’t Look Back”, “About You”, “Verismilitude” and “Sparky’s Dream” from “Grand Prix”. I just loved it. Sang along more than I’d done at anything else at the festival – there wasn’t much else I was so familiar with. After all the beers and the sheer adrenalin rush of Thee Oh Sees, and the beauty of Joanna Newsom’s sound, I felt incredibly moved by this show. A culmination, a celebration. It was such a wonderful way to end a fantastic festival.
Yeah, Jon and I have agreed we will be back! And maybe getting a few more along…