It would seem that every summer the onslaught of field-based music on offer to the public – be they music loving or not – continues to grow. From those that want to sample cutting edge, finger on the pulse new music, through to those that just want an excuse to throw up a tent and drink boxed cider, there’s something on offer for everyone. Be it major corporations like Ben & Jerry’s or O2 cashing in on the resurgence of festivalling (it’s probably a verb by now) or the established mega-fests of Glastonbury, V, Reading/Leeds or T in the Park, there’s pretty much a festival for everyone these days. There’s one thing that links these festivals though, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on until, one day, it was summed up to me in one simple sentence: “They’re festivals for people who don’t go to gigs.” Now, before the comments section of this article gets flamed beyond belief I’ll be quick to say that this is a broad generalisation, but having been to many of the festivals mentioned previously, it certainly holds a lot of weight.
While these household-name-headlined events are grabbing the column inches and TV coverage there are of course the smaller festivals hidden away for those that care to find them – the ‘boutique’ festivals as they have become known. They’re not “something for everyone” affairs with an 80s revival act, Calvin Harris, Kings of Leon and Girls Aloud over four stages, they’re small events, run by music lovers for music lovers. At the start of September, as the festival going world at large were breathing a collective sigh of despondence at the announcement of U2 for next year’s Glastonbury (£200+?), a small group of 7,000 people travelled to Larmer Tree Gardens in Dorest where, with a quiet and unassuming grace, the End Of The Road festival brought this year’s summer to a close. The End of the Road Festival is a festival for people who go to gigs.
“A few weeks before the first festival we’d barely sold enough tickets to pay for the toilets,” admits Simon Taffe, one half of the festival’s organising duo, in this year’s programme. Born of humble beginnings, 2010 sees EOTR celebrating its fifth year – all of which have been held in the idyllic surround of Larmer Tree Gardens. The site itself is as much to behold as the line up. The main Garden Stage is enclosed by laurel hedges and flanked by a number of impressive, small structures including the Singing Theatre, an 1895-built stage with an impressive painted backdrop. Venture further and you’ll find yourself in the low-hanging trees of the secret garden; draped with fairy lights and complete with many a hidden nook and snug the area comes to its own when the sun is down. While in the woods you might hear an impromptu performance from one of the many acts of the weekend at the piano – hidden away in a living room mock up. Venture further and you may well stumble across a ‘Disco 2000’-style light-up dance floor and Papier-mâché soundsystem. That’s not to mention the library tree (this year with a librarian to check out books to be returned next year), games area, healing retreat, workshops and cinema (curated by the always excellent folk at Little White Lies magazine). When you’re not marvelling at the peacocks, well, peacocking around the site you’ll find evidence of this year’s commissioned artists Sarah May, Emily Warren, Esther Hubert and Espergaerde.
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
As a distraction from all the odds and ends on offer over the weekend there is of course one of the most TLOBF friendly line-ups you’re likely to find all year. Opening its gates on a Thursday for the first time ever, there were a few surprises in store for those who ducked out of work early to battle with putting a tent up in the dark. Playing in the Tipi (this year upgraded to a more gig-friendly marqee off the Tipi proper) were Meursault, Willy Mason, Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, Allo Darlin’, and Darren Hayman. Due to some ‘putting a tent up in the dark’ troubles, this writer only managed to catch Hefner’s finest. Playing to a packed Tipi stage Hayman played a mostly acoustic set of material from Pram Town and his new record Essex Arms, with a few Hefner favourites thrown in for good measure, before being joined by his band and finally Allo Darlin’ for a rousing finish of ‘Big Fish’. Not bad for an unofficial first night of the festival.
As dawn broke on Friday and a field full of hangovers realised quite how badly you can put up a tent in the dark, everyone looked skyward to find the unexpected: sun shine. After a week long forecast of “heavy rain” or “heavy rain showers” this was quite the surprise. Time to start the weekend in earnest.
Over in the Tipi, those that were lucky enough to see them, would have started the weekend with a fun-sized kick in the face. Stagecoach’s set up is fairly standard: drums, bass, two guitars. But then they also have a guy – sweatband around the head, dirty white tee and sports shorts – on lead mandolin. Their set of Weezer meets Pavement pop-punk was full of an energy that was nothing but infectious. After a last-song invasion into the crowd I think they probably sold every last bit of merch they had.
The rest of the day was set up to accompany the day’s unexpected suntan lotion-demanding weather. The Ruby Suns’ sunshine calypso beats filled a busy Big Top but would have been much better suited to the main stage. The reverse could be said of Cate Le Bon, who’s intentionally awkward guitars, wild guitar solos and macabre undertones would have worked well in a more intimate and darker setting — not that the peacock and her kids (peachicks, apparently) that mingled in the crowd seemed to mind. The rich instrumentation and finger-on-pulse pop sensibilities of Freelance Whales brought the picnic-ers to their feet as they played through their debut Weathervanes in a set which although solid, left the band reasonably static. It was during a secret set at the Tipi in the early hours of the morning that the band really seemed to let go.
Cymbals Eat Guitars
Back in the Big Top, a crowd assembled for what promised to be one of the performances of the weekend. Cymbals Eat Guitars kept that promise by letting loose a powerful barrage of noise and emotion from the stage. Mixing up tracks from the widely acclaimed Why There Are Mountains with a healthy dose of new material, Jospeh D’Agostino would convulse wildly, gurn through lyrics and pour everything he had into each and every track as the sweat poured from any part of him that wasn’t clothed. In a contrast to this, D’Agostino is a frighteningly shy spokesperson for the band; a small break to fix sound problem was met with awkward smiles and guitar noodling. That aside, the band delivered a set which won’t be forgotten quickly.
Unsurprisingly packing out the Garden Stage as the sun set, Wolf Parade treated the crowd to what was later described to me at the bar as “proper fucking rock and roll, man.” After announcing “we’re Wolf Parade and we’re going to play as many songs as we can in an hour,” the band launched into ‘You are the runner and I am my father’s son’ – one of the few tracks present from Apologies To the Queen Mary. The rest of the set was a veritable Best Of from At Mount Zoomer and Expo 86, each and every track delivered with power, purpose and swagger. Proper fucking rock and roll, man.
Headlining the Garden Stage on the festival’s opening night were indie stalwarts Modest Mouse. With a seventeen year career behind them there was a lot of material to choose from and, unsurprisingly, it was the big hitters like ‘Dashboard’ and ‘Float On’ which got the biggest response from a crowd, which from where was standing, wasn’t all that intimately familiar with the band’s extensive back catalogue.
Closing the official proceedings of the day over in the Big Top were Canada’s purveyors of pop The New Pornographers. From the front to the back of the tent the band had people moving as they pleased fans and won over those unfamiliar with the band by steaming through a performance set to “party”. Although the band have a healthy five albums’ material to choose from, a generous airing of this year’s Together LP will have no doubt left many scribbling the band’s name onto a scrap of paper titled “Band to check out when I get home.”
With no more bands on the schedule the night was left for exploration, with secret sets in the woods and tipi, DJ sets in the tents and a woodland disco to explore…
Saturday. Bacon. Tea. Sausages. More tea. Garden Stage.
Replacing an unexpectedly absent Timber Timbre on a sun-soaked Garden Stage were Woodpigeon, who originally played on Friday. And with that, comes the opportunity to highlight a pertinent point out about End Of The Road: a large number of the bands stay all weekend. Woodpigeon played yesterday but are still about. Steven Adams (The Singing Adams / Broken Family Band) can been seen milling about all weekend – his set isn’t until the Sunday. The same can be said of all those in The Low Anthem, Allo Darlin’, Brakes and countless other bands. The bands camp with the punters. The bands are as much into this festival as every paying customer. When acts proclaim their love of End Of The Road from the stage it sounds nothing but humble and genuine. A case in point: in year four, British Sea Power were met with a “we’ll have to think about it” after asking the organisers if they could play a fourth consecutive year. The band all bought tickets to make sure they could still go if the festival sold out before they got the go-ahead on their appearance. Enough anecdotes though, back to the music….
Woodpigeon rocked out gently, backed by eagleowl, Mark Andrew Hamilton’s witty banter and introductory stories the perfect tonic for a garden full of hangovers. And if Woodpigeon were there to blow the cobwebs away, Phosphorescent were there to attack them with a vacuum cleaner. Matthew Houck and company hit the stage to perform songs almost entirely from their Here’s to Taking it Easy and To Willie (an album of Willie Nelson covers) records. Full of big harmonies, Crazy Horse-esque instrumentals and good old fashioned country rock and roll, in little under an hour the band proved themselves to be almost the perfect fit for EOTR. Closing with an extended version of ‘Los Angeles’ the band were joined by Deer Tick for yet more backing vocals. If the sudden increase in Phosphorescent tees around site is anything to go by this will be considered by many as the set of the weekend. With six albums to their name they could comfortably headline in future years.
Over in the Big Top, and back for year five of five, it’s the sons of EOTR: Brakes. Thomas White entered the stage draped in a leopard print cape followed by a staggering Eamon Hamilton who slurred “I fucking love this festival, it’s just, fucking, yeah,” at the crowd before the band launched into a set of favourites like ‘Jackson’, ‘Comma Comma Comma Full Stop’, ‘Pick Up The Phone’ and, of course, ‘All Night Disco Party’. If EOTR ever had an anthem it’s ‘All Night Disco Party’.
Meanwhile The Local stage (unsurprisingly curated by those at The Local) was over capacity as people crammed in and around the tent to see Catlin Rose. Having seen her now both pre and post album release it’s a little disappointing that her screeching, almost shouting delivery – which is absent on record – is still a part of the live show. This didn’t seem to bother the hundreds that flocked to see her though – prompting a rare festival encore.
As Yo La Tengo took to an undoubtedly packed main stage this writer, having seen the band headline that very stage but two years ago, took the opportunity to see Wintersleep play to an equally packed Tipi Stage. The band showcased material from their new record while hitting the crowd with old favourites like ‘Laser Beam’, ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Weighty Ghost’.
In a yet again packed-out-and-ready-to-party Big Top Caribou’s dance beats, big bass and dreamy vocals equalled the pulsing wave of the crowd in attendance. Most had come off the back of this year’s Swim LP and the band didn’t shy away from airing its biggest hitters. Once again the night is rounded off with some rug cutting… and for those that don’t like their beats there was always the legendary Jarvis Cocker & Richard Hawley DJ set in the Local. You bring the talc, they’ll bring the Northern Soul.
With ground spots in front of the Garden Stage at a premium, it’s the early risers who snap up the coveted space — like some sort of indie tourists, with blankets and boxed wine rather than towels and suntan lotion. With the sea of blankets, camping chairs and copies of the Observer littering the garden it’s quite easy to spend a fairly nomadic day at EOTR, wandering from stage to stage listening to as much as possible from the wealth of what’s on offer.
In the Tipi, the Minnikins old-timey country, complete with accordion and pedal steel, goes down nicely with those enjoying a late breakfast. A little out of place in the Big Top Derek T Booth and band (I counted nine) are hitting a small assembly with their dark and ominous orchestrations — think somewhere between Mercury Rev and Pink Floyd. No doubt one of the many brilliant acts that few people saw over the weekend. The north east’s Lanterns On The Lake were pulling in anyone who dared walk past the Tipi with their sweeping sound which, for the sake of brevity, is best summed up as The Album Leaf meets Sigur Ros. The band humbly tell the crowd this is the most people they’ve ever played to. You can imagine it won’t stay that way for long.
Those who stuck about in the Tipi will have been lucky enough to bare witness to Joe Pug, a reasonably unassuming man from Chicago who sidled on to the stage – just him, his guitar and an assortment of harmonicas – to blow away anyone who was there to watch him. To call him Dylanesque would be both an unfair and spot on comparison. While he doesn’t sound like Dylan, it’s his songwriting which draws the comparison. Focusing on both his grievance with the US government and also with his own family life, Pug delivered every word of his set with a power and conviction that I’ve not seen in a long time. The man clearly has some father issues which at times almost look like they’re going to bring him to tears. Without doubt an unexpected highlight.
Navigating the maze of sleeping bodies, wine boxes and blankets of the Garden Stage is well worth it when you’ve the opportunity to watch the Felice Brothers. With a nonchalant swagger the band ripped though a set of country-tinged rock n roll to get all those in attendance in the mood for a dance and some liberal “Ye haw!” action. For those in a more fuzz-pop mood, the Big Top was playing host to “the best new band in Britain right now” (Rich Thane, TLOBF). Yuck blew the lid of the tent with their pop-filled hooks and harmonies, delivered with a massive coating of thick and heavy distortion – Daniel statuesque at the microphone while the rest of the band swayed as appreciatively as the ever-growing audience. An appropriate follow up to Yuck were Scottish post-electro pioneers Errors. Perhaps playing a little early in the day to encourage any serious rug cutting, the band assaulted its audience with a torrent of bass, keys and guitars unmatched by any band of the weekend. With tracks from both long players and the EP finding room on the set list it would have been brilliant to see the band take the later stage time which worked so well for Caribou the previous evening.
The final band of the weekend, and arguably one of the biggest names the End Of The Road has had headline to date, were Wilco. With a full hour and a half at their disposal they were playing to a home crowd who lapped up every single note Tweedy and co. had to offer them. With Tweedy’s temperament being notoriously touch-and-go it was a delight to see him in good spirits and engaging in banter with those close enough the front to shout at him.
As the secret gigs, discos and plethora of other activities brought the fifth End Of The Road Festival to a close, all those in attendance knew that they’ve experienced a festival like few others. It’s easy to get carried away with the idea of festival spirit, man, but with so few people in attendance – and each of those there because they feel the line up has almost been hand-picked just for them – there are few summer events which compare. As office colleagues and friends all harp on about the amazing time they had watching the Killers, Ah Ha and Oasis at next year’s summer mega-fests, all those with End Of The Road tickets (the early bird allocation for the 2011 event sold out in nine hours!) know that they’re biding their time, patiently waiting for that last weekend of the summer, when the weather is always perfect, when all those music lovers congregate in a garden in Dorset for the festival which manages to feel bespoke for all 7,000 ticket holders.
Photography credits: Paul Bridgewater, Leah Pritchard and Jenny Mollergren.
After more photos from the weekend? Check out our “best of the rest” featuring The New Pornographers, Here We Go Magic, Willy Mason, Iron & Wine, Black Mountain and many many more.