Having never missed an End Of The Road, Clash’s Gemma Hampson takes a personal look at why it’s her favourite festival ever, the musical highlights and how they’re going to top it for next year’s 10th anniversary.
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It’s really hard to tear myself away from St Vincent, the headliner of End Of The Road’s Friday night, but I get a feeling that something amazing is about to happen.
On the Garden Stage, by far the best of the four stages at this 15,000-capacity festival in Dorset, crowds gather for the Gene Clark No Other Band – a tribute to the forgotten-gem solo record of The Byrds founder Gene Clark. I bought the album in preparation for this very moment, but still don’t know what to expect. How had I never heard it before?
The next hour, quite simply, proves why EOTR is the best festival in the world. These aren’t just my words – and I’m a veteran, having been to all nine of these wonderful weekends – but the words of frontman after frontman.
It was about three songs into the set that the magic happened, that the eyes welled up and the smile spread across my face. Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen takes to the stage: a man who always looks a little awkward, but I guess that’s the psych-folk way. Soulful Rhodes bursts into the title track, distorted like a classic Ray Charles song. Rossen’s voice is perfect and the band melts together to truly make this performance its own, lifted by brilliant gospel-like backing singers that remain true to the original record.
Rossen steals the show. On his second track ‘Some Misunderstanding’ his voice is smooth, a little dark even. It doesn’t sound like a cover. He tops the bill of an impressive line-up of folk’s finest. The first note from Robin Pecknold, who opens with ‘Life’s Greatest Fool’, makes you realise how much you’ve been missing Fleet Foxes, while The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser is gruff and moody, like a folky Mark Lanegan.
‘Silver Raven’ by Fairport Convention’s Iain Matthews is another highlight: heavy and classic, like David Crosby was on arranging duties. Beach House’s Victoria Legrand, who masterminded this collaboration, and had been hiding on backing vocals until now, finishes the set, her breathy, sultry tones jumping out of this male dominated line-up. It’s beyond wonderful.
The crowd is itching for more than what’s on this nine-track album – and what an end we get. All singers come together for a thrilling and beautiful version of ‘Eight Miles High’, thick with harmonies and individual styles. And this is what I mean: this band, these performers, this album, this song, it all epitomises the spirit of EOTR. There’s a love and support for this lovely festival. It’s not just about a lack of corporate sponsors or a great line-up, but a weekend built for people who really love music, by people who really love music.
A quiet love and appreciation for music rooted in folk can occasionally be EOTR’s downfall. A friend said there’s an ‘M&S flavour’ to the weekend – he’s dead to me now – because the crowd can be a little reserved. And perhaps Wayne Coyne is feeling this a little during The Flaming Lips’ Saturday night headline set – a decade of spectacular shows squished into one thrilling ride, featuring all the classics: ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’, ‘Yoshimi’, ‘Race For The Prize, ‘Do You Realize??’.
It ends with a brilliant version of ‘Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds’, watched by Sean Lennon from the wings – he’s here playing with The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger. The smoke, the lights, the podium, the baby, the giant maggoty butterflies and aliens and, of course, the crowd surfing ‘human hamster ball’ – it really is ‘the best’ of The Flaming Lips. And the outfits – oh the outfits - from cyber chicken to muscle body suit to dapper Dr Who. But still no massive reaction.
The Lips are great, and fun, but they feed off of their audience. The crowd loves it, but the reaction is quiet, in-the-zone-ness: big smiles and wows to close neighbours rather than screams and woops for all, band included, to hear. This trance-like adoration for the music works better on the Garden Stage for John Grant – a familiar stage for the bear-like Iceland-loving genius. I hear the leaving masses whispering that his set’s “amazing” and “the best thing they’d ever seen”. I was desperately sad to have missed it for Mr Coyne’s light and noise ego-gasm, enjoyable as it was. As is typical for EOTR, there is just too much good stuff to see.
The concoction of other headliners makes for a recipe of such pleasure. Stephen Maulkmus And The Jicks brought Pavement’s ’90s indie-rock to adoring fans, while British Sea Power – another set of EOTR veterans – mesmerise with their foresty rock. Wild Beasts fall a little to the reserved curse of the Woods, but White Denim fuzz in the tired faces of Sunday night’s Garden crowd. It’s loud and exciting, time signatures all over the place and percussion bashing your brain while jumping from rock to psych to jazz.
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Headliners aside, EOTR is a showcase for some the best new, established, weird, mellow, fuzzy and wondrous musical sights you’ll ever hear. Every year, I promise to leave space for woodland wandering and naps; but every time I can’t pull myself away from the packed to perfection schedule. Here are just a few of my personal highlights:
Tiny Ruins – Tipi
This new Bella Union signing from New Zealand is a gem on record, but live is truly spellbinding. The songs are sweet and thoughtful, the voice of Hollie Fullbrook as soft and airy as a worn clarinet. The tent is silent, listening to her stories, including a true tale about a man drifting out to sea. It’s one of those special moments.
Three Trapped Tigers – Big Top
A little mellower and a lot less-sweaty than the last time I saw them at this fest. The London trio’s proggy electro is loud, fuzzy and heavy, the percussion almost industrial at times, clattering over bubbling synths. Big riffs drop into jazzy fills before exploding again, like a synthy Soft Machine or new Deerhoof.
Gruff Rhys – Garden
The tales of ancestor John Evans on a journey to discover a tribe of Welsh Indians in North America are brought to life with a full band – unlike Gruff’s solo ventures on this recent tour. The crowd is in stitches at his chat and enthralled by his songs, taken from the albums ‘American Interior’, ‘Hotel Shampoo’ and ‘Candylion’. The musical storytelling, peppered with birdsong, included such gems as “John Evans was like David Bowie in the ’70s – always changing his identity”.
tUnE-yArDs – Woods
Merrill Garbus can do no wrong. Despite what happened for The Flaming Lips, she has everyone dancing with her raucous blend of ukulele, percussion and loop-led folky disco…what do you call it? ‘Water Fountain’, ‘Bizness’ and ‘Gansta’ were the highlights, but every track was incredible, each mental, loud, intricate and so fascinating to watch. The whole set was exhilarating.
Arc Iris – Garden and Tipi
Following my review for their debut LP, Arc Iris (pictured, main) definitely warranted two viewings – an early show and a secret late night set. Former The Low Anthem member and Nasa researcher Jocie Adams, wearing a gold cat suit, plunges her audience into an unknown territory of beautiful silky folk and crazy psychedelic musical theatre. It’s wonderful. Zachary Tenorio Miller on keys is like some kind of psychedelic superhero. You just have to see it to believe it. This might have been one of the best receptions I’ve ever heard for an early Garden Stage show.
PHOX – Garden
Wisconsin folkies Phox accept the challenge of opening the whole festival. They always say it’s tough going first on The X Factor and Strictly, but these guys lap it up. A crowd yearning for the music to begin gives a great reaction to this interesting Americana-tinged folk group. A brilliant start.
Alexis Taylor – Tipi
Slightly hidden away in the Tipi on Friday afternoon, Alexis plays a wonderful set of solo songs and Hot Chip classics. As a huge folk fan, working in the circles of James Yorkston and RM Hubbert, I wonder if he wanted to test the waters of EOTR for a future performance. His delicate voice mixes with pulses of electro-pop perfectly. See you next year for a Garden set, or late night slot.
Lily & Madeleine – Garden
These young sisters from Indiana are what First Aid Kit were when they first graced the Garden Stage many moons ago, and they’re headed in the same direction of greatness. The songs are simple and they know about three guitar and key chords between them – but they’re sweet and moving. Their voices blend effortlessly. It’s just really lovely stuff.
Horse Thief – Tipi
This Oklahoma indie psych-folk band is up against stiff competition schedule-wise, but ultimately pack the Tipi. They totally nail it, playing songs from their recent debut ‘Fear In Bliss’. Cameron Neal’s catchy melodies and distinctive voice makes them sound totally different to other bands of their ilk around at the moment, and the guitar, keys and drums totally blow away any festival-drowsiness, while the addition of basslines on the edge of jazz or funk make the songs extra excellent. Garden Stage next year, please.
Lau – Garden
This performance, for me, sums up why a day at EOTR is like no other. A band nestled between two acts I wanted to see, I remained on my blanket, only to be struck with absolutely awesome traditional folk from this Scottish three-piece. It was incredibly exciting. Stories and raucous folksiness from expert musicians wowed the whole Garden, especially for their excellent version of ‘Midnight Feast’. It was also the finest fiddle heard all weekend.
Cate Le Bon – Garden
Every time Cate Le Bon plays ‘Are You With Me Now’ from her recent ‘Mug Museum’ album, I get a shiver. It’s such a beautiful song – like Nico after a retreat in the Welsh valleys. Her voice is like caramel and fills the intimate Garden, accompanying the lo-fi indie folk pop of her band. She could play any stage and her performance would be amazing.
Sweet Baboo – Garden
There was a minor Welsh invasion at EOTR this year, with Cate, Sweet Baboo, Perfume Genius (by Turnstile association, anyway) and Gruff. Their styles may be different, but there’s a definite sound, maybe just the accent, that makes them part of one big happy family. That, and the chat. Even though Sweet Baboo makes it rain, his endearing conversation and charming songs are wonderful.
Daniel Rossen – Garden
Rossen delights fans by stepping in relatively last minute for a solo set, performing old Grizzly Bear numbers and songs from his Department Of Eagles oeuvre. Three guitars, a banjo and piano show off this guy’s incredible talent, while his voice, like a younger Paul Simon at times, is soothing and mesmerising. There is no ego here – just a real love for pushing melodies and exploring genres. This show is a real treat.
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When the live music takes a break, a woodland walk peppered with art installations or a wander through the kiddie creative areas prove lovely distractions. Evenings are filled with ’50s rockabilly dancing on the light-up dance floor of the Forest Disco with Richard Hawley, incredibly bad (read: amazing) cheese in the Silent Disco, or a simple sing-along by the campfire next to the cider bus – the potent nectar of which is the downfall of many an EOTR-er.
Three Trapped Tigers sum it up in their set by saying, “This festival keeps getting bigger and better without losing its soul.” It’s so true. You leave Dorset with a renewed love for past bands, a list full of news ones, live music life-moments and an aching for next year’s event to come around quickly. You wonder how they could ever top it next time, and already start thinking about who could possibly headline. It’ll be the 10th EOTR in 2015, so it will inevitably be the best thing that’s happened to music festivals ever. The anticipation is already killing me.
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