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End of the Road 2011: Day 2 Roundup

 
By on Monday, 19th September 2011 at 2:00 pm
 

The sunshine liked Friday at End of the Road so much it showed up for the Saturday too. Geordie songstress Beth Jeans Houghton doesn’t really need the sun, having instead an impressively large band, but at least it helps remind everyone that they’re not back in rainy Newcastle. Superb recent release ‘Dodecahedrons’ makes a welcome appearance with its glockenspiel and airy, Kate Bush-inspired vocal present and correct. Epic Danes Treefight for Sunlight take their ’70s soft rock influences to the logical conclusion: rather than being simply influenced by Kate Bush, they go one better and perform a cover of ‘Wuthering Heights’, with an astonishing note-perfect falsetto vocal from their male singer. Like a magic trick in slow motion, it seems so simple when performed before your very eyes, but the senses still reel from the magnificence of it all. The song of the weekend, no question.

One of the attractions of End of the Road is the compact site – no more than a few dozen steps from the main stage and you’re in a surprisingly full Big Top tent, sampling the Anglostralian delights of merry poppers Allo Darlin’. Her voice an exact cross between Beth Orton and Louise Wener, banjo-wielding frontwoman Elizabeth Morris’s naive, wide-eyed charms hold the audience in enthusiastic rapture. The songs need to be careful to avoid Kate Nash banality, but mostly fulfill the brief of jolly, domestic tales of a girl’s love and adventure. If the reception here is anything to go by, we’ll be hearing a lot more from Allo Darlin’.

A sandwich and a sit down sees Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Mangan and his string and horn backing band take the main stage. A modernist folkster in the Damien Rice vein, familiarity might lead to a greater appreciation of the material. Some impressive scratchy string action from the cellist, though. A premiere gig is a rare treat; Sam Genders admits to being more than a bit nervous on the occasion of Diagrams’ first live performance. He needn’t have worried. It’s difficult to imagine a more endearing, joyful and musically rewarding 45 minutes. Diagrams’ eclectic, back-of-the-cupboard sound is truly uplifting, and Genders’ understated command of his band and the audience shows a maturity and experience that he would undoubtedly modestly deny. From funky little riffs, a mixture of electric and acoustic drums, parping horns, and the noisy breakdown in ‘Hill’ which had the audience whooping in approval, there’s never a dull moment – what we all secretly wanted Tunng to be all along. By the time the famously cheapskate but wondrously effective audience-inflated balloon shower kicks off at the end of the set, it’s mission accomplished for Genders. And he got to drink his years-old emergency vodka.

There’s something to be said for the experienced frontman of a well-regarded band using downtime to put together his own desert-island backing group and slowly letting the world know he exists in his own right. Gruff Rhys has been quietly doing this for years, and on today’s evidence he’s got it down to a fine art. A masterclass of mature guitar pop, there’s classic after classic here, including the brilliantly catchy and uplifting ‘Ni Yw Y Byd’, its six key changes and unbelievably catchy melody getting everyone singing along. Ah yes, there’s loads of Welsh language stuff, but when they’re such powerful earworms as these, suddenly we’re all fluent in the dialects of the valleys.

ATP-endorsed Wooden Shjips come with a nailed-on buzz from the sub-zero areas of the blogosphere, and with frontman Ripley Johnson’s impressively-coiffed facial hair demanding so much attention, how can the music compete? Kicking off EOTR’s shoegaze strand, the Shjips manage to make that dullest of genres listenable, and at moments actually exciting. Yes, there’s just one chord for minutes on end a lot of the time, as the songs meander towards some sort of meaningful conclusion, but the arrangements do have lovely touches of ambience, noise, and backwards guitar that hold the interest and, I admit, sound really cool in a head-nodding, stoner kind of way, man. But we’re only into early evening, and too much off this will have everyone drifting off into a trance. For aficionados only.

At the other end of the populist scale, a band heading straight for the mainstream are Wild Beasts (pictured at top), whose cerebral, off-kilter, arty rock seems to be making an impression on everyone except the Mercury Prize judges. The acres of dimming, firelit sky framing the stage serves only to enhance the emotional impact of this masterful performance. Accessible yet intelligent, with multiple vocalists delivering catchy yet complex melodies, a season of festival performances have honed these Cumbrians’ set to a sharp, effective distillate of virtues. The Coldplay you’re allowed to like.

It would seem churlish to ask for any further excellence tonight, but next up are Leeds’s Spectrals, looking for all the world on day release from sixth-form college, almost stealing the “band of the day” prize from their more experienced peers. Quite how Louis Jones has had the time to ingest ’50s hula bop, ’60s Spectoresque epic pop, ’70s prog-psych, and 90s baggy, let alone learn how to meld it together in a set which would be impressive coming from someone twice his age, is quite beyond me. Some of the sounds here are simply glorious, exemplified by ‘I Ran with Love But I Couldn’t Keep Up’, with its langourous tone and regretful lyrics – truly a modern classic.

So it’s with light hearts and a spring in the step that we head to headliners Okkervil River. But only moments into their bong-eared desecration of ‘Sloop John B’, it’s apparent that something’s not quite right. Whether it’s the material not really being strong enough, or Will Sheff’s try-hard handclaps and incongruous shape throwing, something doesn’t quite ring true. Clearly aiming for a slice of Arcade Fire’s demographic, someone should whisper in their ear, bombast doth not a good song make. And goodness knows, one Arcade Fire is enough for any lifetime. A slight disappointment, but quickly forgotten with the discovery of the forest disco, logically enough housed in a wooden shjip, suspended within the boughs. Playing a selection of vintage rock, soul, and funk, for those who have the energy, and can avoid a poke in the eye from wayward tree branches, there’s no better way to spend the small hours of a September Saturday.

 

End of the Road 2011: Day 1 Roundup

 
By on Wednesday, 14th September 2011 at 2:00 pm
 

Whether deliberate or not, every day at a festival seems to take on a theme of its own, and somehow this phenomenon seemed more pronounced at End of the Road Festival this year at Larmer Tree Gardens on the border between North Dorset and Wiltshire. Friday was ladies’ day, no doubt about it, with some old codgers thrown in for good measure; not a young man in sight. Against all September odds, Friday morning brought blazing sunshine: the only appropriate response was a trip to the Garden Stage. With its gently sloping natural auditorium, vegetation-tasselled stage, meandering peacocks, and an original 19th century Romantic ‘acoustic stage’ adjacent to the modern replacement, it’s strong contender for the most beautiful stage on the festival circuit.

There could be no act more appropriate for a sit down on some warm grass than the Secret Sisters, equipped as they are with so much Georgian bonhomie that you can almost taste the apple pie. Their love for all things Hank, expressed in old-time country harmonies and slow-burning ballads, sets the tone for the next few hours: laid-back, sultry Americana, and a few new, original pieces which hint at plenty of burgeoning songwriting ability. Caitlin Rose continues the Americana theme with her songwriterly country songs, a bit like a Nashville KT Tunstall. Equipped with a smooth, precise backing band, as the set develops Rose’s diva-ish tendencies become more apparent, digging deep into emotional strands and at moments coming across as a guitar-wielding Dolly replacement.

The girls continue showing how its done with dreamy Californian beach-beaters Best Coast a perfect complement to the cloud-free sky. Somewhat more grunged-up than on record, the essence of their sound remains the dreamy vocals of of Bethany Cosentino; if they don’t deliberately set out to sound as if they’re trapped in a ’50s Venice beachfront diner jukebox, then it’s an amazing coincidence. A quick jaunt back to the wonderful Garden Stage for arguably the highlight of the day, tUnE-yArDs. Essentially the solo project of Connecticutian Merrill Garbus, the set revolves around the live recording and layering of looped samples. But this is as far away from the usual singer-songwriter rhythm guitar/solo guitar loop pedal usage as it’s possible to be. Equipped with nothing more than a floor tom, electrified ukelele and extraordinary voice, the songs start with such random yelps and thumps that the listener’s ear can barely credit that anything resembling conventional music will coalesce. But slowly, like the emergence of a baby platypus from its egg, melodies and rhythms that are not only recognisable, but utterly beautiful and compelling, emerge. A masterclass of microtones and almost infinitely small beat fragments, which perhaps explains the strong African flavour of tracks like ‘Bizness’, there’s plenty to keep both the brain and the feet active throughout the set. Garbus is a quite unique voice in modern music, and hopefully she has a long and fruitful career ahead of her.

Some light relief comes in the form of Joan as Police Woman. Somewhat more conventional in terms of arrangement and song structure, with sumptuous organ tone and soulful material, this is a gentle bump to earth after the craziness that has gone before. Possibly too gentle – this would work as a chill-out set but lacks a certain punch to keep the early-evening momentum going. The pause is shortlived, however; Lykke Li (pictured at top) takes the main stage just as a peachy sunset stretches itself over the Dorset sky. Flouncing around the stage clad in a floor-length black leather dressing gown, the Swedish gothic pixie literally turns day into night. With an epic, drum-led sound, and couplets like “I’m your prostitute / you’re gonna get some”, there’s little time to breathe between one climactic coda and the next. By the time ‘Rich Kids Blues’ turns the stage blood-red, the band are pounding drums with all their might, the air thick with drama. The hours of darkness have rarely been more appropriately introduced.

After such a broad spectrum of female excellence, it would be quite reasonable to wonder what else could there possibly be to add? The answer – the grungy, soulful, sexy She Keeps Bees. At times reminiscent of a slower, female-fronted Nirvana; at others the obvious leftfield-rock-chick comparisons are overwhelming. The music is simple, the focus on singer and guitarist Jessica Larrabee, with a brace of guys for guitar and drum embellishment. The owner of a soul voice of enviable depth, the contrast with the pounding drums and lowest-of-lo-fi guitar is captivating. A brave, perfect a capella ‘Bones Are Tired’, knocked off as the guitarist changes a broken string, holds the tent in silent appreciation. A brilliant climax to a superb run of female performers.

At last, a man! He is Gordon Gano, latterly playing with the Ryans, but formerly of seminal 1980s alt-rockers Violent Femmes, and something of a legend in rarefied circles. His new material is still in the garage-rock vein, although leaning more towards Athens rather than Seattle: the songs taking their time and revealing their beauty carefully and deliberately. The modest crowd betrays the fact that Gano is hardly a household name – until he plays ‘Blister in the Sun’, that is. Track one of Violent Femmes’ debut album is one of those rare songs that is immediately familiar and loveable, but hardly anyone knows what it’s called or who it’s by. Gano is clearly fully aware of its power; he closes the set with a version that’s deliberately drawn out for countless choruses. As people pour into the tent for the very last bit of the last song, Gano gets to play just a few bars to the packed crowd he deserves.

Most of the people who should really have been watching Gordon Gano and the Ryans are taking their place for the Fall; Peel-lemmings meeting their fate. A comprehensive assessment of the Fall’s career to date from the evidence of one performance simply isn’t possible or even fair, so won’t be attempted here. On a simply objective level however, tonight’s gig borders on the unlistenable. Mark E. Smith’s utterly incoherent ramblings add nothing to the conventional rock backdrop produced by whichever band he’s managed to cobble together this week. The tension is barely lifted when his wife Eleni Poulou takes lead vocal for whole songs at a time. Either heavily inebriated or the victim of a massive stroke, only the most passionate of fans would know whether his slurred lyrics hold any great insight, and only then purely from memory. Pedigree doth not guarantee relevance, and with John Lydon doing the naughty old frontman thing with far more coherence, clarity, wit, and musical aplomb, on this evidence it’s hard to see the relevance of The Fall.

As the crowd disperses, there are rumours of nightly forest discos, of secret performances and other curious goings-on. But after nearly 12 hours of music, and a quick sit down to White Denim’s jazzy, hazy rock, it’s clear that sleep is the only option. After all, tomorrow will bring a brand new theme all of its own.

 
 
 

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