“So you grow old and you die. They bury your bones in the ground. There the story ends… Or does it? What happens to those bones? What do those bones do in the daytime? What do those bones do in the night-time? And, more importantly, do those bones ever go on holiday?” It’s Sunday at the inaugural End of the Road festival, and issues of ponderment get ever more psychedelic.
Yesterday’s Swedish showcase provided a magical kind of sideshow in the Somerset countryside, and today it’s the invasion of the Americans. Old and new, naughty and nice, the upcoming fare is mouth-wateringly promising, with the likes of UK songwriting bastions Chris T-T, Jim Noir, James Yorkston and Richard Hawley thrown in merely for good luck.
And of course I’m From Barcelona, who are actually from Sweden. It’s twelve o’clock at the main stage, and two crowds have gathered, one to perform, the other to watch. I’m From Barcelona take to the stage like an indie field trip, twenty-nine alternatively-clad youths set to spray-paint the modern pop landscape in humble flourishes of yellow. They’re the talk of the festival, and their sound reflects their utterly sunny demeanour. Unaffraid of taking indie by the balls and marching it back into pop, the retinue purvey an insanely catchy, carefree sound that captivates the crowd like last night’s celebrations never even happened.
Up at the Big Top Stage, London’s Flipron play a show re-scheduled from Friday night, when they were otherwise engaged in Coventry. Crouched over a number of instruments, including a lap steel, ukulele, accordion and Hawaiian guitar, while his keyboardist floats on a lavishly ribboned equipment carrier, lead man Jesse Budd cuts a cartoonish figure. Blessed with the imagination of a philosopher-rake, he presides over his band’s horseplay with fittingly baroque and affecting humour, and the general effect is spectacularly funny and outlandish. The instrumental Skeletons on Holiday, which includes the introductory musing that opened this piece, is preceded by a fetching number called Youth Shall Never Beat Old Age In A Race, actually a song about morality and the meaning of life, and such edifying nuggets are sprayed liberally throughout a profound 40 minute set.
Mixing Hanna Barbera with Tim Burton, you’ll struggle to find a band as original and fascinating as Flipron, but with a tap dancer in place of a drummer and two too-cool-for-Abba vocalists, Omaha’s Tilly and the Wall at least come close. Bounding onto the Big Top Stage with theatrical glee, they demand that the crowd interact, but as soon as the music starts, the stage is all theirs. These are pure pop songs that float you in the air, hooks and melodies galore, and as vocalists Neely Jenkins and Kianna Alarid interact and dancer Jamie W blazes a beguiling trail, time loses all meaning. The set is cut a little short when Derek Pressnall’s guitar plug ceases to function, forcing Neely and Alarid to accapella, show-style, but this is a band that have already won the day as the sun begins to set.
Earlier on the main stage, laudable Brighton songwriter Chris T-T rejoiced at having a festival that’s run by human beings and not beer companies, and another coo for the organisers was in attracting a super line-up of mature musical names that would lead into Ryan Adams‘ headline set. First up is Minnesota blues veteran Charlie Parr, who regales the Main Garden Stage crowd with some original tunes and dusty standards that have connoisseurs foaming at the mouth. Parr’s harmonica and guitar speak in a wealth of wisdom, and his set is a vintage blast that nobody really wants to come to an end.
Howe Gelb is a regular collaborator with the esteemed alt country retinue Calexico, and numbers a fan of no less a name than PJ Harvey. His set is a laid-back continuation of Parr’s soulful expertise, desert and whisky songs played with a fevered wisdom. Gelb though has a more jesting stage manner than Parr, and between his Tuscan soul nuggets sprinkles ongoing humorous opera references, ending the set with a sing-along number that “everyone should know”, a bizarre mixture of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire and The Beatles‘ Hey Jude, which no-one can quite comprehend enough to pipe up.
Richard Hawley is the veteran UK representative here, and his quick-fire humour is more gritty Sheffield pubs than laid-back surrealism. Hawley interacts brilliantly with a high-spirited crowd, and his music is the kind of stuff that you’d wish Elvis Costello would be doing now instead of pissing about with cabaret textures. For a gritty guy, Hawley’s music has a kind of swoon to die for, each song a perfectly spaced-out romantic rock waltz.
It’s a stroll via the Somerset Cider Bus up to the Bimble Inn at the other end of the field, and a terrific surprise comes in the form of a set of pastoral exotica from two solo artists named Philip Henry and Tobias Ben Jacob, who’ve got together for a night of between-acts fun. Earlier on in the weekend at the Bimble venue, a drunken, bearded man hit his head on the arch supports, only to shrug it off with a forward cartwheel into a Russian jig, and back again into the sitting position via another cartwheel. This man is here tonight in white, shirt-open Elvis garb and sunglasses, and is just one example of a number of like-spirited characters who see little appeal in going anywhere other than this enchanted den.
Indeed, it’s a fine and friendly little place attracting some of the most beautiful, outlandishly-clothed peace-loving cats in existence, and tonight they sway to Philip Henry and Tobias Ben Jacob in beatific bliss. Jacob is like someone who in another life did nothing but ride a bike through French countryside under the direction of Francois Truffaut, his partner Henry someone who’s never listened to anything dated after the time Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar. Henry’s resounding, inspired harmonica and general acoustics plays off Jacob’s quaint pastoral imagery as the crowd sit captivated, until that is a rickety Jewish dance song throws them into a celebratory jiving craze. This is a defining moment of a terrifically alternative festival, and the fact it hypnotically delays our pilgrimage back to the Main Stages to witness the final acts is was probably written in the stars.
Agter all, there’s enough time to catch Ryan Adams in the next hundred years, but here he is tonight, rocking the boat with a superb bunch of session musicians including the regal steel guitarist John Graboff, who recently appeared on Letterman helping out Willie Nelson. Adams is a good-time musician who’s paved a golden path through his love of alt country and conventional rockn’roll, yet in the profound light of earlier acts Parr and Gelb, the suspicion that he’s not too much more than a globetrotting superstar fashion accessory remains pertinent. For a Sunday night festival headliner though he’s pretty original, his infamous fan banter (they barrack each other mercilessly throughout the set) fully in tune with the weekend’s superbly alternative spirit.
On the way up to the Big Top to catch James Yorkston we stroll past man of the people Richard Hawley at the cider bus, fulfilling his earlier promise to try out the “hot and spicy”. It was near the bus this afternoon that two light blue and green, enormous parrots flapped by and reminded me of the festival’s enchanting originality, and this is something, along with the consistently fantastic music, that everyone here will take back with them into their working lives. Yorkston closes the Big Top with an understated set of old-school and sensual folk yarns that are a perfect compliment to Adams’ good time Garden Stage bluster.
As the live music comes to an end, the party is of course ongoing at the Bimble Inn, and it’s with the characters there that we end the weekend, dancing like nature’s children. The modern world is built to be laughed at by events like this. End of the Road, god bless you.