Bear Driver, Shearwater, Okkervil River, Brakes, Explosions In The Sky - End of the Road Festival 2009
Owain Paciuszko 14/09/2009
After last year's superb weather (a bit rainy on the Saturday but it made lovely rainbows), excellent line-up (The Mountain Goats, Jeffrey Lewis, Mercury Rev) and all the wonderful people I met whilst stewarding, this year's End of the Road festival (the fourth) had a lot to live up to.
Once again I was stewarding with the glum notion of a couple of unsociable shifts on the Saturday and Sunday, this was tempered by being placed in the Main Stage/Secret Garden area; so I'd hopefully be able to hear some bands. Another sore point was that this time around stewards weren't given free programms, and as I'd been relatively unprepared (my presence at the festival was not guaranteed until late in the day) I had no band schedule, so had to keep stealing glances until I finally blagged a programme on the last day. Saying that though, the line-up this year was solid but didn't really hold many 'essentials', which is no bad thing, the quality and care taken by the organisers - and their damn fine taste - means that this is one of the perfect festivals to amble around and discover musical gems that may have passed you by. Indeed, that's what I planned to do.
I'll skip over my arrival on Wednesday afternoon and a Thursday of doing nothing (save reading The Time Machine, and sneaking into the secret gardens with some friends - old and newly acquired - to enjoy the beautiful scenery and decorations before the relative masses arrived) and jump straight into the festival itself:
Friday 11th September.
I was working an afternoony shift around the main stage area, with the first band coming on at 2.30pm I wasn't really able to fully appreciate Mumford & Sons due to being stationed in the children's adventure playground. However Loney Dear I got to have a good gander at, despite a few awkward audience exchanges - lost in translation muchly - their music kept them buoyant and in good favour. Emil Svanängen's quirky, emotive compositions were given a rich, joyful life by his live band and fortunately Emil is lyrically very eloquent.
Over at the Local stage I caught a couple of songs by Spokes who created an instrumental sound that sashayed from growling post-rock assaults to twinkling orchestral sounding loveliness, but anticipating more of the same with tonight's main stage headliners I ducked out early. Back on the main were the magnificent Shearwater, whose record Rooks was one of the best albums of last year, and they performed a variety of tracks old and new absolutely perfectly. The Mummers cancelled their performance for reasons unknown, but their replacement Euros Childs put a huge smile on my face; scatty and suffering many technical hitches and tangles he pulled it all together with self-deprecating humour and the wry, catchy, wonky pop with Tet-a-tet and Horse Riding being particular standouts.
Brooklyn six-piece Dirty Projectors delivered a good set impressing both those who turned up specifically and others waiting around for final main stage act of the evening; Explosions in the Sky who - though forumlaic (it builds up and up and up and up and up and up and... up... and... ends) - were a fittingly noisy, bombastic and climatic act to bring the first night to an end. Instead of scrabbling between the remaining stages to find another act I ended up dancing on the woodland disco until kicking out time at 2am.
Saturday 12th September.
Opening things at the main stage were Ivor Novello nominees The Leisure Soceity, who with their ear for wondrous, folk-tinged melodies and memorable lyrics deserve higher billing and mass sing-a-longs at future festivals. They were followed by Darren Hayman who - after a well-received Hefner-centric set last year - was a little saggy, lyrics still spiked with wit but the tunes themselves not lingering longer than a note can sustain.
Under the big blue cover of the Big Top alt-country outfit Motel Motel were a good - if fuzzy in my memory - Americana act. Trotting over to the Skandinavian wig-wam Tipi Tent the simple charms of Brooklyn's This Frontier Needs Heroes was just the kind of warm, honest and charming pill before I gave The Boy Least Likely To a second chance; unfortunately - as at last year's Swn - the catchy, joyous spring in the step of their songs was smeared in faux rock posturing and a slew of noise. Preparing for my next stewarding shift I heard - from a distance - their cover of George Michaels' Faith (which I believe was originally done for a CD free with Q magazine), but too little too late.
Whilst working I eavesdropped on a few acts, most prominent of which was the beautiful voice of Alela Diane who tours with her Dad on guitar; this personal touch extended to the simple but emotive arrangements of her songs, it's just a shame that I had to wander off and do 'stewardy' things intermittently.
Once I'd clocked off though it was straight back into the fray; The Horrors had pulled out due to illness and some schedule re-shuffling had pushed Efterklang up the bill and boy did they fill their new space admirably. Their set of wild, imaginative, beautiful and beguiling songs absolutely knocked my socks off and the audience was so hugely appreciative that the band seemed genuinely humbled.
I went for a wander - bypassing Fleet Foxes warbling away on the main stage - and found some members of The Low Anthem at the secret garden piano playing some out-of-tune ditties. Returning back to the Big Top the impressively bearded and witty Josh T. Pearson was also waiting for the main stage headliners to finish up so he could begin, fortunately he had a good line in banter and ironically suggested that what the festival needed was 'a haircut'. I don't think I stuck around for any of his songs though! Instead I caught a bit of The Travelling Band in the Local and whilst their sixties pop-rock sound made them deserved winners of the Glastonbury New Talent contest, but by this point the side-effects of walking around a festival site all day doing those aforementioned 'stewardy' things began to take its toll and I wombled back to my tent for a somewhat early night.
Sunday 13th September.
The final day of the festival was mine to play with (the night unfortunately was a 8.45pm to 2am shift); all weekend I'd been recommending the band Bear Driver to everyone I spoke to as I reviewed their EP earlier in the year and absolutely loved it. Their first thing set in the Tipi Tent was a touch ramshackle, but endearingly so, they played with energy and ideas that pitched their sound somewhere between Pavement Jr. and the spine-tingling arrangments of Owen Pallett. I wasn't sure if my recommendation had been roundly ignored, but couldn't help but feel a degree of surreal pride, as people came up to me throughout the day and said they too enjoyed the band. Hopefully they'll be invited back and in a few years I could see them taking a decent slot on one of the two main stages.
At the main stage I think I heard the very beginning of Bob Lind, and though his name was bandied about later as a weekend highlight I unfortunately don't have much recollection. Instead I scurried quickly to the Big Top to catch a recommendation by a fellow steward; The Tallest Man on Earth is an incredible performer and lyricist but I was suffering from singer-songwriter fatigue (there was a strange glut of American singer-songwriters this year). Fortunately Treecreeper, comprising brothers Will and Greg Burns (and band), were on hand in the Tipi to provide blues-rock that belied their smalltown English upbringing.
Sometime during this point I was at the secret piano stage when The Leisure Society played an absolutely fantastic impromptu set where they did a superb folk version of Gary Numan's Cars. Back on the main stage Bob Log III seemed very out of time and place exposed to the bright sunshine and laidback crowd, dressed in skin-tight gold shimmering onesie and a helmet the manic blues-rock he played (very well) seemed much more suited to a nocturnal setting and a dingier venue; he reminded me of MC Honky and had a very funny line in between song natter, but this early in the afternoon felt rather one note.
There was another 'secret' gig at the piano (advertised by a hand-written sheet of A4 taped nearby), where Okkervil River played as much as they could squeeze in between the main stage noise; ranging from the delicate to the stage-shaking, foot-stomping it was an excellent performance (making up for me missing them play plugged-in) and Will Sheff returned for a solo rendition of The President's Dead.
With a slight vague sense of name recognition I caught The Pack AD at the Local and was very impressed by their dirty, energetic rock; this Canadian two-piece gradually wooed and wowed the crowd with incessantly catchy guitar riffs, awesome drumming and singer Becky Black's phenomenal vocals. Probably dizzy from their exellence I'm not really sure what happened to me for a couple of hours, but I know at some point I found myself back at the secret piano where the 89 year old blues musician T Model Ford was telling stories of his youth and chain gang days, holding the crowd enraptured as if part of the world's largest Werther's Originals commercial. Standing where I was it was hard to hear, but the level of awe and interest in the crowd was palpable and hearing him play one last song before picking up his walking stick, flirting cheekily with the audience and leaving to rapturious applause was a unique treat.
Performing at the festival for the fourth year running Brakes (aka brakesbrakesbrakes for any American readers) had their performance down a tee, opening with the stupendous Hi How Are You? and sending the crowd into suitably manic, frenzy with tracks such as Porcupine or Pineapple they were a brilliantly rowdy, post-punk spark igniting Sunday evening as the sun set. Afterwards The Dodos were intriguing - and the drummer particularly impressed - but I had to scoot off for my final shift and didn't really get to see how their set evolved.
I was stationed near the main stage for the start of my shift, but down a dark path to the side guarded a generally ignored gate. Initially standing in the near pitch black garden corner I felt like an extra in some sort of 80's slasher movie, this wasn't helped by the nearby warming up of - I presume - a member of The Hold Steady which sounded like a particularly odd soundtrack for my Dorset-set Friday (Sunday) the 13th. What I could hear of them when they took to the main stage sounded pretty good, balanced somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and REM, they climaxed with quite an inspiring message of it never being too late to go out and start a rock band.
After some confusion over the end of my shift (which generally involved mooching around the gardens after - almost - everyone had left) it was getting quite late and the Tipi Tent was impenetrable and the DJs in the Big Top unappealing, so I drew my End of the Road 2009 to a close.
Though lacking any of the instant 'I have to see that!' appeal of last year's festival, this year succeeded by continuing to be one of the friendliest, most laidback and pleasant musical events of the year, blessed by even brighter sunshine than the relatively rain-free weekend 365 days ago. Fingers crossed for 2010.
Photograph by J Ella Smith.