Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Mercury Rev, The Mountain Goats, Bon Iver, Shearwater - End of the Road Festival 2008

Owain Paciuszko 12/09/2008

After Green Man I had the festival itch, I needed to go to one more before the year was done and thanks to my sister I saw the line-up for the End of the Road festival almost as soon as this thought entered my head. With the press list full and my budget minimal I took the route of stewarding, sending a childishly scribbled note asking - nay begging - 'I am happy to work on any day, but it would be really nice if I could see The Mountain Goats on Sunday. It would also be really nice if I could see Conor Oberst, Shearwater and Jeffrey Lewis, but that's okay if I can't, as long as I can see The Mountain Goats, please and thankyou!'

Amazingly my work rota for the festival allowed me Friday and Sunday evening off, whilst I would be working 10.30pm to 3am on Saturday I would be able to catch most of the band's into that evening and - if lucky - be posted near enough to a stage to hear.

I arrived at Salisbury on Thursday afternoon, to pitch up in the steward's camping and attend the briefing (this being my first time stewarding I wanted the whole, er, skinny? Is that what the 'kids' say these days?). I had no way of getting from Salisbury station to the festival site 18 miles away apart from a map printed from Google so I'd know the roads to walk. Upon ambling out onto the station I instantly headed toward another person lugging a festival-shaped collection of luggage, and not only were they also another traveller lacking transport but they attended the same University of me - in fact our time there probably overlapped! We then turned around and saw another festival-bound pilgrim who had the foresight to book a cab and was more than happy to let us share; she also lived just down the road from where the first traveller was from, so, we were all oddly connected. Petit monde!

I was working from noon till 5.30pm on Friday and was fortunately posted by the Garden Stage with a friendly German called Ines, and we got to eavesdrop on Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (a band who will never be as good as their name), Kelley Stoltz who surprised me by being male and The Acorn, who I think I couldn't hear because I swapped position to be on another gate by the cider bus (excellent warm cider, even better to be drinking on the job).

After work I scurried back to my trustworthy tent, grabbed some food (I was uber prepared on the meals front) and then hurried back into the beautiful festival site to mooch about and see who I could see. I caught the end of Lonely Ghosts set, they sounded a bit more shambolic with a full band than their recent, excellent gig at '10 Feet Tall'. I probably should have realised (considering I finished work at 5.30pm and they were scheduled for 4 - 4.40pm) that things were running late at the Bimble Inn. Still, I hung around waiting for Cate Le Bon and when Clare and the Reasons came out I was confused and so wandered off having a brief listen to Micah P. Hinson who didn't make too much of an impression on me.

I saw some of Dirty Three who were entertaining, funny and created some nice scruffy instrumental gutter-jazz. I bumped into an old University friend and we saw By The Fireside and then One Little Plane under the yellowy canvas of The Local tent. I was a little dizzy from cider and I'm quite sure I enjoyed both bands, I have a foggy memory of One Little Plane from Green Man, but can't really continue to elaborate upon what they actually sounded like!

We headed over to the Garden Stage to catch Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band. Oberst was on odd form and the laidback, sparse tracks of his new solo self-titled album were odd choices to really open the festival (from a headliner point of view), and Oberst's attitude was a bit strange that evening as well. I still enjoyed the set, but it left a lot of people I spoke to quite dissapointed and it was nowhere near as good as when I saw Bright Eyes on the I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning tour. Still, I shuffled my way through the crowd toward the front, eventually being discoverd by Ines and her friend Zsuzsa. We ended the evening dancing at the Cider Bus which played fantastic funk tunes until about 3am, with the entire bus, staff and huge crowd around it literally bouncing with joy.

I had all of Saturday to play with and made sure I was up-and-at-'em for the first band on, thanks mainly to getting free coffee in the steward's tent and Lidl's brioche!

Sheffield's Electric Tape Recorder played their fourth gig together in the Big Top Tent and, despite being a little convential in some regards - sniffs of The Zutons and The Frattelis - they were actually a really nice, fun listen though I think they should de-re-name the track they stopped calling 'Jeremy Irons'. I headed for the Garden Stage and heard a bit of Absentee, who seem familiar to me for some reason that I cannot place, but haven't lodged themselves in my memory. Watched the Bowerbirds, who were on fine form though didn't seem quite as overwhelmed with joy as they were at Green Man (maybe the month of touring inbetween had been a tad draining?!). I bumped into my sister and her boyfriend and we took a journey around the gardens.

One of the best things about the End of the Road compared to Green Man (the two festivals share a similar laidback and family attitude I feel) is the location, whilst Green Man is surrounded by beautiful scenery (take a bow 'sugar loaf' mountain) the End of the Road is in beautiful scenery and they make the most of it; decorating the paths and woods of Larmer Tree Gardens with lights, papier mache art, a book tree and a hidden away piano where I caught a very talented and anonymous man playing some beautiful, sparse ballads.

From our seat by the book tree we could hear Devon Sproule who, I personally, thought sounded very cheesy and awful. I dashed off to catch Cardiff's own Threatmantics, who I had missed at Green Man, and they put on a neat, scuzzy set as they move towards unleashing their new single. I hung around in the Bimble Inn enticed by the name of the next act.

There were some technical difficulties, the microphone's kept delivering their own choruses of feedback and Thingumajig*saw (a Scandinavian twosome) were getting a touch frustrated. So, the lead singer asked the sound guys to turn off the PA entirely. I was a little concerned we were about to see a 'scene' as the singer announced that they usually play without microphones anyway, and the first song was sung a little too quietly. But as the set went on the charm, humour and supreme talent of this act really emerged. Including a sweet Daniel Johnston cover and a really funny cover of Alice Cooper's 'I Love the Dead' - amongst their own theatrical and atmospheric songs - this group were the real surprise of the festival for me, drawing so much out of their (really) stripped down banjo and musical saw/flute/melodica pairing.

Afterwards I foolishly left the Bimble because I couldn't get back in when Seabear were on, I could hear 'Hands Remember', but the audience was literally crammed in like sardines and spilling out of every opening! I gave up trying and went over to the Garden Stage.

Bon Iver had been recommended to me by a few people and I was unsure what to expect, I hadn't listened to a thing he had done and - when he started - I was expecting a case of the Jack Johnsons. Fortunately here was another surprise, his set was charming, he seemed genuinely overwhelmed by the reaction he was getting, and really gave a lot back to the audience; engaging them and coaxing an excellent bit of sing-a-long during the two part 'Wolves'. The sun was shining, it was an almost picture-postcard-perfect festival moment.

I had some dinner and continued to amble around, popping briefly into the cinema tent to watch some of 'Garbage Warrior' (a very inspirational and interesting film), grabbed some dinner and caught a bit of Sun Kil Moon; a lot of people seemed to enjoy them a lot more than I did, I think it's because I dipped in and out too quickly.

I watched Low on the Garden Stage, they were fine, though there was something off about their attitude, or, at least, the lead singer's attitude which came to the fore when he announced he was having the worst day of the year and everyone he loves told him they hate him today. How this warranted his final display where he faux-Hendrixed the guitar with his tongue, yanked out the amp lead, span in a circle and propelled his electric guitar into the audience at full speed - thankfully not injuring anyone, but it was a genuinely scary moment for a while there. Afterwards I had time to catch three songs from the highly theatrical Mercury Rev and I was so pleased that two of the three were from Deserter's Songs, one of my favourite albums, really glad I got to hear Holes live and they performed with exuberance and dreamlike grandeur; though most people seemed to be unhappy with the start of their set, I guess I was just chuffed to be seeing part of it before work.

I say 'work', but that evening I was posted on a fence by The Local tent and heard The Chap and the absolutely marvellous band Shearwater (check out their current album 'Rooks', it's fantastic), from where I was standing I could also 'see' them, the lights of the The Local turning their performance into shadow-puppet theatre on the canvas wall. I was re-stationed around half-twelve at the entrance to The Local where I danced away to Timothy Victor's Folk Orchestra who did an excellent and heart-warming cover of 'You Give A Little Love' from 'Bugsy Malone'.

Sunday was the finest day though, I caught a snippet of Sons of Noel and Adrian before heading into the Big Top to watch Congregation, they produced The Kills meets Patti Smith style swamp-blues and were a great way to wake up! I then started work and unfortunately missed out on The Wave Pictures (I could just about hear them, it sounded great), Kimya Dawson (seemed to be a really emotional experience for a lot of people!), Woodpigeon (I could just about hear them as well, quite pleasant) and Billy Childish.

Met up with Zsuzsa again and we bungled around hearing the surprisingly beautiful set by Richard Hawley over in the Garden Stage (we were having dinner over by the parrots near the pavilion), then dashing into the Big Top to see Jeffrey Lewis; and trying to find Ines, so for anybody watching Jeffrey Lewis who didn't understand why someone was shouting out "INES!!!" inbetween every song, that is why! Jeffrey Lewis was great, his set was beseiged by a few technical hitches, but he covered for it well, having his brother Jack belt out 'The Day Neil Young Died'. His set's highlights were the unfinished detective movie and a foot-stomping version of 'Do They Owe Us A Living?' where The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle provided vocals on the chorus, whipping the crowd up into a fervour of bellowed 'Of course they fucking do!'.

The Mountain Goats were on next, one strum in and John Darnielle broke a string, this prompted the already playing drummer into an entertaining five minute improvised drum solo, soon accompanied by Peter Hughes on bass. Bounding back on stage they played a near-perfect set for a huge Goats fan like me; including 'Dance Music' and 'This Year' but climaxing with a song Darnielle always intended to be an English drinking song, encouraging us all to sing along. And the audience came alive with a bellowed and oddly uplifting version of 'No Children', I have never felt more cathartic than I did shouting out 'I hope you die, I hope we all die!' with Darnielle and a couple of hundred others.

Caught the end of Calexico at the Garden Stage, and it was a fine way to loosen up a bit and dance around to his Spanish-flavoured folk-pop. It was also nice to see one of the papier mache heads wandering joyfully through the crowd!

Afterwards myself, Ines, Zsuzsa and a chap whose name has slipped my memory (sorry!) tried to remain in the gardens as long as possible, despite security's best efforts. We found a back gate and found the creators of the papier mache heads who allowed us to wear them for a few photos before we re-entered the secret garden and had a nice, if short-lived, stroll.

The weekend came to a glorious end and, for me, was the absolute highlight of my year so far. I am already looking forward to the same again in 2009!