And so, as summer ends, it’s time for End of the Road. Jon and I went for the first time last year, and enjoyed it so much we had to do it again this year. Last year, some of my discoveries included Amber Arcades, Julian Jacklin, Whitney, Dilly Dally, The Big Moon, Blue House, Eleanor Friedberger, Laura Gibson, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, JD McPherson, The Blind Shake and Thee Oh Sees. Some of those have become some of my most listened-to music of the past year, especially Amber Arcades and Julia Jacklin. So, naturally I was hoping for similar discoveries this year. And I think I may have made a few…
Thursday 31 August
I’d got off to a bad start on the day before we drove down to Larmer Tree Gardens on the Wiltshire/Dorset border, when I’d slipped over dashing onto a Central Line train at Ealing Broadway and landing right on my back in the carriage. Ouch! It was a fairly empty train with a wet floor and I had a cup of tea in one hand. Both unusual. Neither would have happened with the normal crowded Piccadilly train in Northfields, but I was already late because that was out of order with a signal failure. Stupid of me to rush for that train. London life.
My sore back made standing for any length of time rather painful – and that is what you do a lot at festivals! Still, the combination of ibuprofen and alcohol staved off the pain sufficiently to get by. We were also lucky that Friday and Saturday were sunny and dry, which allowed plenty of opportunities to relax on the grass. We got there on Thursday afternoon, with a line up of five bands this year to look forward to. Just as we staggered towards the entrance with all our gear the heavens opened. A lot of people were unprepared and frantically started to find ways of protecting bedding and other items from the rain. Welcome to festival land!
Fortunately that was the only shower until Sunday – that is another story. We – or I should say Jon – pitched the tent and we went off to catch some music. Two venues were open – the main Woods Stage and the new band venue, the Tipi Tent, shared the duties. We missed the first band in the Tipi, Slowcoaches, who sounded lively from the campsite. But we got there for The Surfing Magazines, described in the programme as an indie supergroup. Only if you really know your indie! The bands involved were The Wave Pictures, Slow Club and Supermodel. Anyway, The Surfing Magazines were excellent. Sharp guitar rhythms, good melodies and some impressive guitar solos. I kept on thinking Little Feat, though they weren’t really like that. But a similar musical spirit maybe. The 60s and 70s were the bedrock of this sound. I’ll be checking out their recordings, for sure.
Moonlandingz, the Fat White Family spin off, were next. Jon loves them. I’m less taken, but they put on a good show on the Woods Stage and got the crowd going. Their beats remind me of the Glitter Band or the Sweet, though you wouldn’t call them glam. After that it was back to the Tipi, to see Brix and the Extricated. There’s a distinctive feature to this band: they have all played with The Fall – and been booted out by Mark.E.Smith, no doubt. Brix was married to him; last year we heard her give a talk about her book about the experience. The music was similar to that of the Fall – perhaps a bit punkier and fuller. It was entertaining; and there was a great moment at the end when they played my favourite Fall song, “Totally Wired”. Brilliant! First highlight of the festival for me.
And then it was the majestic Slowdive on the Woods Stage. The moon shone down on us, as Slowdive wove their magic: the rushing, soaring guitars, waves of glorious sound. They were perfect for a cool, crisp night in the middle of nowhere. They had a dazzling backdrop of lights too, which added to the entrancing effect of the music. I loved it! (Jon thinks it’s a bit dirge-like and went off to see Japanese noiseniks Bo Ningen in the Tipi – just to give you the balanced view.)
That was it for me on the first night. Go out on a high, rest the back a bit. That was fine, but I and everyone else soon realised that the benefit of the high pressure which brought us an evening and two good days of weather had a downside – it was bloody cold at night! First time I’ve ever worn a fleece to bed. The joys of camping at the end of an English summer.
Friday 1 September
A beautiful sunny day. Where else to start proceedings but the loveliest venue at End of the Road, the Garden Stage, in the heart of Larmer Tree Gardens?
First on was Aaron Lee Tasjan, a singer/guitarist from Nashville. His songs were engaging and rich in characters. He was a good racounteur too – told some funny and self-deprecating stories about his experiences as a “country rock” singer, and how he began, struggling to master all the chords in Beatles songs, and going to watch Ted Nugent, to see how guitar heroes played. He didn’t become a guitar hero, but he sings a good song. He got a great response from the crowd. One to look up, no doubt.
Then it was over to the Big Top to see our old friends (for the third time this year) Goat Girl. They got a big crowd in a sweltering tent – it isn’t ventilated in the same way as the BBC Music tent at Latitude. The band played a short sharp set – they still only seem to have half an hour’s worth. They were good, but didn’t seem to have quite the elan they had in the Sunrise Arena at Latitude. Maybe the size of the crowd was new to them. Maybe in time they will also project themselves as personalities a bit more – even alternative grungy indie bands are allowed to do that.
I caught a little bit of country rock duo Shovels and Rope on the Woods Stage, while I lay in the sun for a bit. Liked their sound – I’ve always been meaning to listen to a bit more of them. Back to the Big Top after that for All We Are. They were one of Jon’s highlights at Latitude. I missed them then, so wanted to see for myself this time. They’re a Liverpool three piece (the drummer, who also sings, is Irish) and have that Merseyside pop sensibility alongside the indie guitars and some punching bass and drums. They are attuned to today’s sounds but still have time for wall of noise guitar solos, which I liked. Jon reckons they could make the step up to the big time, like the 1975. He could be right.
Back to the Garden stage to catch the second half of old folkie, Michael Chapman. He’s a bit more than that – his slide guitar fused the blues with English folk. His gruff voice came from a similar place to the great John Martyn. Marc Riley is a fan and he’s one I really should more about already. In the late summer sunshine it was rather soothing; but I’d like to see him again and take it in a bit more. Stayed at the Garden for the next act, Rylie Walker. He’d been in the Observer’s rather extensive list of best albums of 2016, and I’d checked it out on Spotify. Liked it – brought Nick Drake to mind I thought at the time. Wasn’t listening closely enough. Live, Ryley and band, who are from Chicago, played in a tight circle with real intensity, weren’t so much folk as free form jazz rock, with some searing guitar work from Ryley and his other guitarist. Jeff Buckley came to mind too. This was a real revelation – the new sound that excited me most during the festival. And I wasn’t the only one – he got a very enthusiastic reception.
A familiar pleasure next, with Parquet Courts. A bit weird to watch them on the Woods Stage in the middle of the afternoon. They lost a bit of their intensity at a distance, and their singing was exposed a bit. But they rocked in the usual way, with razor sharp rhythms and a lot of attitude. Still enjoyed the duo of “Master of my Craft” and “Borrowed Time” and still regret that they don’t play “Stoned and Starving” live anymore. “Instant Disassembly” makes up for it a bit. And it was the first moshing of the festival that I saw, so they got a bit of reaction in the sunshine.
I went back to the tent for a bit of a rest after that, which meant, unfortunately, I missed Omni in the Big Top; but I had to do a bit of pacing this year. I then had a very good Goan fish curry before going back to the Garden Stage to see Jens Lekman. This was a bit spur-of-the-moment. I’d never heard of him and just read the blurb while I was having a rest. He sounded like an interesting observer of life. And indeed he was. But his music – even the melancholy ones, of which there plenty – was completely joyous. A superb singer, a great band, lovely harmonies, and melodies which took you back to those guilty pleasures from the 70s and 80s – Andrew Gold, George Michael (his voice had similarities), even Abba. But laced with trenchant observation about the details of life. It was brilliant and the crowd, as darkness fell, absolutely loved it. It was very danceable and had some great singalong moments. There was a beautifully sad song called “Black Cab”, which is one of his early numbers. The harmonies were heart wrenching. If Rylie Walker was a revelation, so was Jens Lekman. The peak moment for audience participation was when he sang what he said was his favourite song as a 14 year old: “The End of the Road” by Boyz II Men. Corny as hell, but wonderful. He has guested twice before at End of the Road, in 2007 and 2013, and said he’d never quite dared to play it before. He did tonight and it was a triumph. Totally uplifting.
Hard to get a decent photo of the whole band once it got dark, so this was the best I could manage.
Last show of the night was at the Garden Stage again. Jon joined me for this one. Lucinda Williams, one of the great – and angry – country singers, with a strong strand of bluesy rock flowing through many of her songs. Some of her ballads are the saddest things I’ve ever heard – her song “Ventura” was my No1 sad song in my Duende top ten a while back (still getting a few blog hits for that one). Other wonderful heartbreakers include “Over Time” and “Lonely Girls”. I’m less bothered about the rocky and angry stuff, although “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” and “Drunken Angel” are both great. The former is probably her best seller – naturally she didn’t play it tonight! She had a good band, but together they had a predilection for something not far off southern boogie. Nothing wrong with that, but some of it was a bit uninspiring. I was very conscious too, that having got Jon along, he wasn’t looking too impressed. He stuck it out though! Yeah, so a bit disappointing for me, but I have a very particular take on Lucinda Williams’ music, and I guess that’s not where she’s at right now.
And that was it for Friday. We were both pretty pooped and went back to the tent for a large glass of Jack Daniels – the perfect nightcap!
Saturday 2 September
Another sunny day and another start at the Garden Stage. Another American folk/country singer to start the day. This time John Moreland. He didn’t look like your archetypal Americana singer – no plaid shirts here! Shaven head, shades, large black beard, rather daunting-looking tattoos, dressed in black. A big man. But the way he played his guitar was with passion and sensitivity; and his songs were wistful reflections on the struggles of ordinary life. Yes, it didn’t take long to think of Bruce Springsteen in his folky moments. It’s a long tradition, stretching back to Woody Guthrie and the blues. Reading about John later, he started as a hardcore punk (which explains the look) and had his musical revelation listening to Steve Earle. He was a man of few words between songs, unlike Aaron Lee Tasjan the day before. It was all about the songs. Great stuff, and when I got home I listened to a couple of his recent albums. Really good. If you like Bruce, listen to this…
After that Jon and I bought a beer and strolled over to the Woods Stage for a bit of Irish folk. The band were called Lankum. They were good. They mixed traditional ballads and jigs with some of their own, modern songs, reflecting on things like the impact of the massive recession that hit Ireland as a result of the 2008 debt crisis. As a sucker for that celtic soul, they did the business for me.
Next, over to the Tipi, for Aussie band Lowtide. The programme made me think they might be a bit like Blue House, a discovery from last year. They were, but with added washes of guitar, almost in a Jesus and Mary Chain Style. They also were rather different because they were three quite young people with one guy who looked like someone’s Dad. Far be it from me and Jon to be judgemental about that, but it’s quite unusual. Their sound at the Tipi was a bit murky, but you could sense the potential in the music. And yes, since being back I’ve been listening to their 2016 eponymous album and excellent singles, “Julia/Spring” and “Alibi”. They are in the shoegaze mould, worthy successors to the likes of Slowdive.
Back to the Garden Stage for Moses Sumney. He made a fascinating sound, with accompanying guitarist/bassist (I couldn’t see which). Blimey, how do you describe it? A bit of Maxwell, a touch of Prince falsetto, some James Blake electronics. Jazzy to start, getting ever more spiritual as it progressed. I lay on the grass near the back, staring at the blue sky and fluffy clouds, dozing slightly, and having quite a surreal experience. I wouldn’t mind seeing him again – he has something special there. Future Mercury Music prize nominee, undoubtedly.
Then it was the amazing Duds at the Tipi. A Manchester band. Heard them a bit on Marc Riley. Like 80s post punk – Gang of Four perhaps – played at a hundred miles an hour. Hardly any song longer than two minutes. The philosophy of Wire. All dressed in industrial grey – a Devo thing going on there. Very percussive: drummer and percussionist, two choppy guitars, pounding bass. Absolutely brilliant. All over in twenty five minutes – probably played fifteen songs in that time. A highlight.
Another chance then to lie on the grass, this time at the Woods Stage. The Canadian band Alvvays were on. Great melodies, one or two punky riffs. Hints of Blondie, certainly. But as Jon suggested, they sounded a lot like Amber Arcades – or maybe it’s the other round, because Alvvays clearly had a big following already. An excellent band and another to check up on.
After that, well we had to go and see Let’s Eat Grandma in the Big Top. The two teenagers from Norwich playing a mix of prog, dance and general weirdness. Quite high up the bill and a large crowd. More scope for lights and a show. They have got slicker, but it’s still basically the same performance as we’ve seen a few times before, though there was at least one new song. Still no communication in between songs. And over in half an hour. Thought that was short-changing the audience a bit, given it was programmed for an hour. And they left out at least one of their best known songs, “Rapunzel”. It’s going to be interesting to see where they go from here. They certainly are distinctive, but can they sustain it?
Time for the show I was most looking forward to. Car Seat Headrest on the Garden Stage. I was not disappointed. They were awesome. I saw them in Manchester earlier in the year and loved it. This was similar, although it veered off the main flow of their latest album towards the end, and we didn’t get the likes of “Unforgiving Girl” and “Fill in the Blank” (unless I misheard). That was OK, because we’d had the two songs which were my absolute highlight of End of the Road this year: the grungy riffing of “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” and then the truly anthemic “Drunk Driver/ Killer Whale”. Just as in Manchester, everyone seemed to know the lyrics, especially the chorus. There were loads of inflatable whales being chucked around the front. I wonder whether the band were a bit bemused about that whenever it started. Only in England! I forgot I had a sore back for those two songs. Just brilliant.
We stayed at the Garden Stage for the closing show – Ty Segall. Father John Misty was on the Woods Stage and he would have been good, but I had to see the visceral rock’n’roll of Ty and his band. And blimey, did they rock! Bludgeoned you into submission with the fat riffs and wild solos. The moshing was everywhere. I started quite a way back and found myself retreating, to avoid wild dancing youngsters. Someone lost their trousers. A girl lost her phone probably. It was minor mayhem. Much as I loved it, I didn’t feel like being too close because of my back. For once, I thought, am I too old for this? Shall I just go and see Father John Misty? There will be melodies. But no, I said to myself. This is the spirit of rock’n’roll. I went and bought a pint of Beavertown Gamma Ray and returned to the fray. It was awesome really. The equivalent show to Thee Oh Sees last year. One to remember. A sledgehammer of a performance.
Jon was there too, but we’d ended up in different parts of the crowd. We met afterwards, and agreed, again, it was time to go back and enjoy some JD. The weather forecast for Sunday was relentless rain all day. With fog on Monday for the journey home! We thought about it. We’d had two and a half excellent days. We’d seen most of the bands we most wanted to see. Did we want to get drenched all day, or cram into the two tents that everyone would be heading for? Maybe not. We decided to skip the last day.
It meant we missed the Jesus and Mary Chain, Julia Jacklin, Girl Ray, Shame; and Japandroids in the late Big Top slot, filled by Teenage Fanclub last year. But we saw the first four at Latitude, and I’ll be seeing Julia Jacklin again in November. There will be interesting bands we missed out on – Deerhoof and Waxahatchee were two for me. But we were home by midday, and I could rest in my own bed! Yeah, it was good enough for this year.
Looking forward to next year, and I’ll try not to injure myself the day before…