If I knew they were selling earth in the herbal shop, I wouldn’t have attempted to pitch my tent on pure concrete earlier. Summer is still in the ground then, if not the air as the End of the Road festival celebrates its debut year.
A fetching, medieval joker-type coat (think Woody Allen in the skit from Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask) further establishes the happy-travelling presence, and the Glastonbury Green Fields crowd sit around the Play Area where a retinue of drummers and bongoists set the tempo for the irresistibly laid-back weekend ahead.
First impressions of the Larmer Tree Gardens are pretty grand, and though its relatively level landscape somewhat restricts the panoramic Somerset views, the peacocks that show the way to the epic Main Garden Stage are just the touch of exotic you need on a cool autumn afternoon. The temperature here is a few notches below “hot”, but with the later inaugural day line-up featuring the likes of Hush the Many, Magic Car, Kathryn Williams and Micah P Hinson, it promises to be as sultry a musical setting as you’ll find.
The Main Garden Stage is a baroque affair, resplendent with a classical renaissance mural painted onto a huge arch-backed monument on which kids and merry-makers dance while the peacocks escort their young around our feet, and if you’re like me, it’s fascinating to later observe how the music blends and plays with the ‘cocks manic conversation, the demon bass in particular inducing their cat-like yelps.
Our irridescently feathered friends are in for the strangest weekend of their lives, and Nottingham quartet Magic Car, featuring a cast of players somewhat refreshingly over the age of thirty, start it all off with veteran grace. With the confidence peculiar to a bona fide finished article, the Car’s sprawling, pastoral country is matched to passionate singing and some steel guitar that is worth the admission price alone, immense credit having to go the way of their “steelist” for filling out an early evening sound to die for, leaving us pedal-steelers wondering, yet again, why this is not an instrument used on every record, ever. Fantastic.
London ensemble Hush The Many are an altogether younger band who specialise in beautifully spaced-out and lyrical melodies, excelling in the creation of cut-knife tension within their music, which albeit from the offset here lacks a female vocal presence to accompany the gentle poetry of main man Nima.
They still have enough to hold us in anticipation though while their music strives, so when the beautiful brunette bassist pipes up with a solo vocal number as the lights go down, there’s tangible magic in the air. Alexandra Brown’s voice is really something to behold, having the tinge of a hitherto undiscovered country legend, all dusty and teary and starkly emotional, evoking Ooberman’s indie queen Sophia Churney in the way it emerges from the depths of the soul and here lifts the increasingly accomplished avant-folk fare to terrific heights.
The bongo drummers in the Play Area had earlier set the tempo for an adventurous sip or two of the “hot and spicy” liquid being brewed outside the Somerset Cider Bus. But even this and the fact that, back at the Garden Stage, I try so, so hard, I simply can’t get into Ed Harcourt‘s set as much as I’d like.
Where the aforementioned Magic Car and Hush the Many excelled in all the lush intricacies that portray indie folk in its finest colours, lifting our standards skywards, Harcourt’s skewed brand of folk rock tends to populate more of a typically singer/songwriter space, providing heavy insider thrills to his enraptured fans, but leaving others somewhat on the outside. Revolution in the Heart is however a song that suggests all is not lost, though the overriding impression is of an artist who polarises opinion with some aplomb.
Apparently, Harcourt is not a man who likes a playful burp when the bright lights are on, but Kathryn Williams is the type of gal to let it rip and fuck it all. And what musical poise for such a creature! Williams’ set of whimsical melancholy over at the Big Top Stage is illumined by some genuinely innovative violin-bow guitar play and a voice that has a substantial kind of serenity and sheer good-naturedness to make her a cherished performer on the indie folk scene. Her affectionate playing mirrors all that was great about the fare before.
Micah P Hinson is one of the superb selection of burgeoning heroes chosen to headline at the new festival, so with a rock’n'roll reputation cemented by doing time for prescription forgery and a stunning couple of albums from which to pick, the anticipation is huge. A change of tempo is in store, and no one seems to know quite what to expect.
Now a couple of things about Hinson: His baseball cap makes him look kind of wannabe wayward, when in fact he’s a dyed-in-the-wool alt rebel capable of being a modern-day Cash, and his tendency early on in this set to let his cutting edge soul descend into formulaic plodding is thus a cardinal sin. Comic skits keep us amused for a while, Hinson introducing various players who don’t touch their instruments till three songs later, but there’s undoubtedly something missing, or obscuring, his live musical message.
Perhaps because Hinson doesn’t avail himself of country finery (there’s no Magic Car-like pedal steel or mandolin to be found here) his music is far easier enslaved by out and out grit, which is only part of his sum effect. Yet perpetually reeling inside the early numbers are stories that you feel Hinson really has to get out in a more serious manner.
Staying true to their promise of longer sets for the later artists, the organisers have given Hinson a whole hour and a half to play material from his acclaimed two LPs and upcoming new release, and thankfully as his performance faade begins to wane, we get a glimpse of the thrillingly big-hearted troubadour within. The last quarter of Hinson’s set is indeed the kind of poignant and husky country-soul revolution we’ve been waiting for, and as it finishes to rapturous applause and some visceral growling, a formidable reputation is salvaged from the flames.
Hinson’s fire-trail to stardom leaves an unmistakeable mark, but as the first day of End of the Road reclines into night, all that’s left now is music and parties. With an opening day line-up that surprised and beguiled, it’s all gone off with a terrifically auspicious bang.