Well, last year’s End of the Road in sunny Salisbury was pretty fantastic, so with a bag packed with food, drink, memories and warm stuff (just in case), I set off to this year’s event with a skip in the step. The roads are calm and the car park easy to navigate, and before we know it we’re walking the track up to the festival site eager to embark on some canvas engineering.
A little heavy work is usually fine by me to begin a festival, setting you up for the weekend of luxury ahead I think, but I’m weary of kicking pegs into concrete with my shoe… What’s under this End of the Road grass? Have they got something buried under there? Maybe it’s the rotting corpse of a mainstream festival, which is a soothing thought no doubt as we struggle and strive.
The tents finally go up, blood pressure providing a neat counterpoint, and it’s on with the business ahead. We’ve set up in the top corner of the festival, so it’s quite a walk up to the Somerset Cider Bus, yet that’s the only place to really christen my second EoR.
A hot and spicy cider is sampled to counter the weather, and a quick walk around the Larmer Tree Gardens further invigorates. There’s the renaissance mural painted onto the strange large concrete arch; the Garden Stage is parked there in the same place as last year where the peacocks roam, and here’s one now actually, trickling along with its offspring in tow and cheekily winking at us to the sounds of Stephanie Dosen’s glossy folk.
Dosen’s sounds float in an ethereal manner as the peacocks tap their feet, and if only the sun came out it’d be nigh on perfect. There’s another peacock sitting on a shed to welcome us as we explore the site further, walking down through a gravelled alley past chairs carved from wood on which sit a family of Paddington-style giant teddy bears, and an ample kids area that makes me wish I was a ten years old. And here’s The Local, the famous London venue that’s packed up and come to the country for the weekend, a droning guitar and some affectionate vocals welcoming us in to its hub.
For twenty minutes or so Actress Hands serenade us with some quite romantic indie rock and self-deprecating between-song banter, and they seem like generally ace guys, creating such a welcoming atmosphere, affectionate and genial. Everyone wills them on in their quest to shoot Queens of the Stone Age melodies through Weezer‘s magic Pop gun, and they accomplish it with a broad kind of shimmer and smile.
Last year the small Bimble Inn tent was like a gift from Mars via Stockholm or New York, nocturnal wonder simmering as fancy-dressed regulars with unlikely athletic abilities prowled. First impressions this year are that it has a little more of a wild-west edge about it, and wow, there he is, our friend who regaled us with the most unlikely bit of athleticism I’ve ever seen last year, when he reacted to banging his head on the wooden arches with a fantastic Russian jig and front summersault into a seated position before falling back into an inebriated stupor… What a guy. The place is buzzing with tales of a Viking Moses set that we’d just missed, and I make a mental note to return very soon and possibly stay here for the whole weekend.
Ane Brun is due on next at the Bimble, and it’s a name that rings a bell, so the Swedish lounge next door provides a quick stop for some Swedish meatballs and a pear cider before her set starts, and we’re transported to a sultry acoustic world of cut-glass poetic sentiments. Brun has a voice coated in velvet, pulling a golden thread through her songs, romantic, graceful and poignant. Two backing singers stand at her side for an alternate 60s pop dooh-whopping effect, and the songs wrap around me like silk, reminding of the joys ahead on Sunday and in particular Jens Lekman, which is such a tremendous thing.
I leave before the last song, trickling out in a happy daze to make my way back across the grass. A game of Kubb (a cross between baseball and skittles, honed into a fine, if boring, art by the Vikings) is going on happily in the distance and a giant fire is being prepared for the night, the Thai restaurant sits there with no little allure, and in a reading room opposite I see someone feeding vinyl in a record player. But I’m determined to keep going in a straight line, and it gets easier as sounds begin to drift from the Big Top tent.
I’ve got one Scout Niblett single, and some reliable friends have ardently recommended her, but any preconceptions are blown away by her opening songs. The first two numbers are blindingly good, their perfect melodic structure sitting so well with her dyed-in-the-wool outsider air, creating a real poetic tension, and the huge crowd stands enthralled. It’s a genuinely humbling experience, and Niblett goes on to slay us with some extraordinary tempo changes and some of the greatest, most seductive rock growling I’ve ever heard. Cutting a diminutive figure on stage, effortless and natural, there’s a quiet suggestion of Kurt Cobain to Niblett, and, brilliantly, it comes with a starry-eyed wonder that points to far more poetic constellations.
The sky has cleared to Niblett’s sultry outpourings, and I head down to the Garden Stage with a friend’s words about Jim White ringing in my ears. I’d planned to get down there earlier for the hard drinking cult southern American legend, but the three songs I do catch are more than enough to get the impression that he’s an extraordinary figure. Tales of hard times and hard drinking are sung with a truly redemptive Country air, some superb lines emerging from the bottom of his whisky glass with wit and wisdom. White is wistful, emotional and funny, and I think everyone gets a bit emotional when he leaves us with some final words about his happiness, his love for his son, and his recovery from a suicide attempt.
A quick shortcut through a gate stage right and I’m back in the woods heading towards The Local. The name “Smoke Fairies” has jumped out of the line-up and danced before my eyes, and here they are now, looking angelic but giving birth to some low-down fairytale folk songs that take me right in. “Reckless Blamire” and “Dirty Davies”, as they call themselves with chic griminess, delight in taking ancient folk sounds and making them their own sparkly toys, their voices merging in a husky crawl that snakes around their dusty guitar play, mysterious and evocative.
Dark has long fallen, and the lights that wrap around the trees light the pathways with exotic allure. The songs of Midlake creep around the Garden Stage and threaten to leap out of their restraints in fiery flames. Singer Tim Smith is alternating between instruments with noble versatility, singing his labyrinthine tunes with those haunted choirboy vocals that suggest fairytale lands beyond. Spectre sounds stalk the night air, calm and earnest against all the odds, and I hang around for a few numbers, and a few numbers more, before making my way again through the trail of lights to the underground.
The night is becoming a series of shuttle journeys between the Garden Stage and The Local in the trees, which is buzzing with tales of a reggae set from Natty that we’d just missed, so it’s backwards again to get a good spot for Yo La Tengo at the Garden Stage. The luxurious arena is heaving, beautifully-lit and buzzing in anticipation, but the New Jersey retinue are a contrary bunch, and I love the fact that, by way of introduction, they hit the gathered masses with three of their avant-twee pop numbers back to back. It’s obviously about to ascend, or descend, depending on your liking, into a subtle post rock rage, but I guess Yo La Tengo will be doing this with the same kind of nous in the year 3000, so it’s off again into the night.
I’d missed Viking Moses earlier, and it’s great to have the opportunity to catch them again on the same day. The Local tent is packed to the rafters, but I work my way in under the arches and reel to the opening songs, sung with a stunning, show-stopping indie grace by Ceylan Delikanli. Moses gyrate around her like a seven-person beast of visionary folk allure, and afterwards Delikanli recedes into handclapping duties, Brendon Massei taking over from the left to lead his variegated troupe through a set of mysterious indie-folk that sets the soul on fire. Massei himself has an amazing, apocalyptic voice, and he shares the rest of the vocal duties with another female member who sings along with a brilliant, effortless kind of soul. Drinks have possibly been taken, and the two cavort in brilliantly unhinged style, writhing round the stage together and blasting out tracks that leave us dancing and drooling in equal measure.
It’s getting on a bit now, and David Broughton is quickly announced as the last act on. He’s graciously allowed the previous band to cut into his set, but the twenty minutes he leaves us with are innovative and grand, his choirboy voice along with guitar and percussion rhythms being fed into an echo machine that helps him create beatific crescendos. Broughton is a remarkable act, calmly marching out of the tent after putting his bits and pieces into the echo machine and coming back again to put more in, and a piece where he sings grand madrigal lines into a mobile phone is not only profound but very, very funny. It’s a nice high point to end the day on, and with stars shimmering in the clear sky, tomorrow seems like one heavenly promise.