Then a lovely bus journey takes us through rolling hills and picturesque countryside into the Larmer Tree Gardens venue proper. And rain is falling. So before surveying the grounds properly, it’s straight into the gigantic Big Top tent, where End Of The Road staples The Young Republic are gunned up and ready to go.
The Republic’s lead man Julian Saporiti has the mop-top looks, the talent and the fire in his belly. He leads a bassist, drummer, pedal steel player and violinist like a rock ‘n’ roll conductor from the front, waving his arms and offering broad expressions as the songs pound and pulse down a blessed country trail. Cowboys and Indians dance, the ghost of Chuck Berry bows low to Johnny Cash, and we’re left breathlessly wanting more.
The rain seems to have stopped outside, so it’s a quick walk around to sample the festival site. The Kubb (Norwegian Viking game) court is already drawn out and awaiting its grand opening and the many food stalls teem with hungry customers. Following the trail around the front of the Big Top, past the art gallery and the Somerset Cider Bus, which emanates a sweet apple smell, down the peacock trail, the Garden Stage basks in luxury. If the sun came out, it’d be like some idea of Heaven.
A Hawk And A Hacksaw are picking away at their instruments and adding to the exotic flavour of the festival tenfold here. There’s only three of the band today, but this does mean we can see what proficient players the lead members are. Violinist Heather Trost in particular, whose lines ebb and sway with magnificent gusto. The Eastern European folk trickles out of the trio naturally and with a certain sense of wonder that sings deep into the soul, lead-Hacksaw Jeremy Barnes’s louche moustache adding heaps to the sense of authenticity all the while. Barnes’s extraordinary pilgrimage to the East continues to bear lush fruits.
A walk past the Comedy Arena through the Larmer Tree Gardens park where peacocks and children play takes us to the Bimble Inn for the first time. It’s a charming haven, a big teepee tent decorated in sparkling red fairy lights, and on stage is a lady who’s been causing quite a stir in the Welsh language scene of late. Cate Le Bon has a quiet onstage demeanour, but out of it comes brave and passionate music. Celtic fairy tales glow pristine and beautiful in Le Bone’s hands, downbeat melodies flowing like silk, an intricate atmosphere prevails. The sheer, hallowed tenderness of her set is something to behold.
Seeing Le Bone is one of those experiences that leaves you walking around in a happy daze for a while; which is what we did. The End Of The Road bongo drummers now provide a dizzy soundtrack to some animation that’s being shown in the nearby cinema tent, the book stall sits displaying its wares of immaculate rebel literature, a Bhangra dancing class is in full flow at the Doing Tent, and the Duke Of Uke shop is bouncing to a high-pitched jamming session.
But our tent still hasn’t been put up properly, so it’s back there where we eventually locate it in the mass of new arrivals to attach the innards and the missing pegs. But it seems to have been the costliest time-out in history; we emerge back out into the festival site with everybody raving about Dirty Three‘s set at the Garden Stage. You can’t win them all, but we hang our heads in shame for missing it.
A big crowd has gathered at the Bimble Inn meanwhile for Devon Sproule, and it comes to a complete hush as she starts playing her wistful rolling tunes. Sproule is quite a character, treating us to gritty, humorous stories of her upbringing in a hippy commune. But when she plays her music demands attention. Songs move from gentle country waves to swaying, dancing folk, with a lyricism of an earthy, sensual quality, and for half an hour a teepee tent in the Dorset countryside becomes the most romantic of Southern saloons.
Darkness has fallen. Next we indulge in an enchanted journey past the subtly lit, heavily-guarded Larmer Tree Gardens fountains, around through woods lit by a fairy lights trail that takes us past an impromptu piano concert with a few merry people singing along, before we duck under some foliage and chance upon a booming disco dancefloor where you can choose your own tune at a wooden jukebox that hovers in the corner.
Conor Oberst can be heard gearing up with his Mystic Valley Band on the Garden Stage though, so we make our way back through the colourful trail just in time for the opening numbers. They have a certain, somewhat surprising, rock ‘n’ roll charm. Oberst’s troops are decked out in matching retro ’50s black jackets that lend them a cartoon edge, and play wonderfully informed, festive stuff, before leaving their leader in the limelight for trademark solo songs that take us right into their gleaming hearts. We get a fantastic mixture of convoluted, impassioned nuggets from the Nebraskan troubadour, his band flitting on- and off-stage all the while as he goes, now and then joining in.
Day 1 of End Of The Road runs deep into the night with a sultry mix of ’60s pop at the Bimble Inn, some crazier antics from DJ Carpet Byrne and Juniper Bottleburst at the Big Top, and some disco dancing deep in the enchanted woods, before it’s back to the tent with a head full of exotic dreams.