Day 2 of End of the Road 2008. We’ve pitched the tent unbeknown in the family camping area and wake to the sound of a chorus of babies that resembles the opening segment of the Dante Sonata.
It’s okay though, as a day of music shines fantastically out at us from the open programme that lies on the floor, covered in a scurrying selection of spiders.
Like Revenge Of Shinobi, who hammer away at their instruments like demons in the inviting shade of the Bimble Inn, whipping up an atmospheric white noise you could hang your sun-visor on, before the call of Screaming Tea Party resounds from afar at the Big Top, announcing the start of a trio of bands billed as the Stolen Recordings showcase.
Screaming Tea Party are a fearsome sight at first, the lead singer pounding away on his bass in a black gas mask while his partner wields guitar whilst sporting a scarf wrapped up to his eyes. It’s like death metal has arrived in Postman Pat’s Greendale, until the noise slips into melodies and the melodies into lines of blindingly affecting, pidgin-English poetry. Screaming Tea Party’s set is like watching someone juggle grenades, but when the grenades hit the floor we don’t get the explosions of hostile noise as expected, but rather fragile melodies that open up magically to a playground of the soul. It’s a stunning half an hour set that leaves us drooling.
No need to go anywhere else for now, even though the sun is inviting us back outside. The second band of the Stolen Showcase, Let’s Wrestle, emerge soon after STP at the Big Top and ply a more earthly sound that nibbles our ears with sheer outsider indie smartness, rather than biting off our heads with intergalactic brilliance. Guitar, bass and drums interact with boyish glee, and it’s a little like ’80s outcasts Television Personalities playing songs written by Pete And The Pirates, or maybe Dave Shrigley, the comic book artist that Let’s Wrestle are named after. In other words, cuttingly brilliant, ramshackle, lyrical, savvy indie for the purest virgin hearts.
We’re on quite a high in the Big Top, and, next up, Stolen’s flagship band Pete And The Pirates manage to take it up another notch again. The Reading quintet are stylishly colour co-ordinated, and their music leaps about in similar fashion, pushing and pulling in a million directions and taking myriad hearts along the way. The Pirates are possibly what The Strokes would be if they were conceived on the back of poetic fanzine passion and lost loves, rather than glossy mag sex dreams and empty conquests, and the crowd is enthralled by the dual attack of swirling melodies and Pete’s winsome lyricism, so much so in fact that no-one bats an eyelid when a blonde model vodka shots seller floats through with a tray.
Soon after, Alessi provides a wonderful surprise over at The Local, her music emerging like an imaginative, wonderfully-shaded childhood dream, and listening to the last 10 minutes of her set is like being shot by an army of cupids.
Over to the Garden Stage now, where Wisconsin troubadour Bon Iver is a revelation of a more tangible quiet, his lonesome, brooding songs floating out from the picturesque stage like nectar. It’s a sound of stark solitude that has a massive crowd transfixed, twanging guitars soothing all the while with a sensitive touch, and afterwards Justin Vernon seems genuinely moved by the mass acclaim.
Darkness has fallen over Larmer Tree Gardens and Low provide moods to match the hazy sky and the shaded moon that appears on the horizon. Leading man Alan Sparhawk plays the curmudgeon with comic effect at first, giving an early monologue in which he asks if we’ve all had a good day, before telling us he’s had a really bad one, because someone he loves told him she hates him. The songs are stark, dreamy, and beautifully enhanced by one of the great voices of modern folk in Sparhawk’s partner Mimi Parker, dripping with sentiment and melody, but there’s always the sense with Low that a car-crash is about to happen. It’s a sense that no doubt feeds the dubious, noir-ish beauty of their music.
But when Sparhawk leads it into increasing waves of pure noise, we begin to sense something might really be amiss. He disappears deeper and deeper into a guitar fury, before at the end amazingly spinning around like a discus thrower and hurling his axe blindly into the teeming festival crowd. It’s only by luck that nobody was injured. While we wouldn’t want to offer a moral judgement, whether this was born of Sparhawk’s genuine torment or an impulse towards rock excess, it doesn’t impress at all.
It’s a wander round the woods next to prepare for what promises to be a rather more uplifting experience. When Jonathan Donahue emerges from behind his keyboardist, FX man, lead guitarist and bassist, swigging from a bottle of red wine, smiling ecstatically and waving to the audience, it’s hard not to feel the magic in the air.
Donahue conducts Mercury Rev‘s dramatic opening like a wizard, firmly entrenched in his planet. Operettas written by the rock Hermann Hesse are the order of the evening. Funny Bird bursts out dramatic, symphonic and poised, like a lost Holst treasure, Donahue spouting the lyrics with a touch of quasi-convincing mysticism. He stands on one leg and makes strange shapes as the music dictates, living every second of these beautiful opuses and striving to ride them off into the night like a hero in a child’s adventure tale.It’s electric, the band pulsing around him all the while, each member similarly enchanted by their wonderful sounds, and when Goddess On A Hiway is played as an encore, the whole Garden Stage field erupts. Mercury Rev provide a performance we’ll treasure for a long time.
Two Gallants have the last say on the night at the Big Top, delighting a huge late-night crowd with their earnest, indie folk, before, absolutely satiated by a great day of music, it’s back to the tent to dream of Donahue’s enchanted valleys.