Without a shadow of a doubt it’s the nicest festival in the UK today (Barry Stilwell’s Tapestry runs it close) and despite some serious hiccups over the last couple of years I’ve now been to four in a row. First attracted by the Howe Gelb-curated Friday night in 2007 and then rewarded with a classic Giant Sand performance on the Sunday it’s continued to be a source of surprise, delight and reward.
The Larmer Tree Gardens with their lawns and hedges, peacocks, sylvan grottoes, and illuminated trees create an enchanting setting and the easy-going atmospheres on the camp sites and in the late bars make for a relaxing ambience. It’s a part of the country that seems a world away from the craziness, and the vistas on the approach are magnificent. Add to that the strong likelihood of unexpectedly running into old friends, and End Of The Road truly seems the ultimate hour for magic.
The site now opens on the Thursday afternoon and estimates suggest almost half the punters arrived that day. Consequently for many to get into The Tipi Tent and see Mark Lanegan & Isobel Campbell proved impossible. Having left West London just after the rush hour we arrived at the site early Friday afternoon but despite our best intentions failed to see either CW Stoneking or Charlie Parr. Thus my first must-see became The Trembling Bells, but after a ramble across the site bumping into various Wolf People and Rockingbirds the first port of call was the circus tent and a bit of Elliott Brood. A couple of fairly raucous songs from the Canadian string band, ‘Write It All Down For You’ and ‘Oh Alberta’ made a good start to the afternoon before Lavinia Blackwall and company called from The Local.
In what’s been a vintage year for new releases right across the spectrum I do think Abandoned Love is my favourite record of the year, and the Bells do seem very capable of becoming the key band, the Fairports if you will, of this generation of folk-imbued musos. I’m yet to see the Bells absolutely bring off live what they achieve on disc but that doesn’t mean their shows aren’t always impressive. Today is no exception sounding at times beautiful and other times almost ear-aching as the PA couldn’t cope with a perhaps over- expressive bass sound. They begin with the gorgeous ‘Just As The Rainbow’ and in no time Lavinia’s wondrous voice is soaring. There’s another intriguing song in ‘All My Favourite Mistakes’, very guitar heavy in an impressive vintage Clapton-like style, and at least two from Abandoned Love; the glorious ‘Adieu England’ and ‘Love’s Made An Outlaw Of My Heart’ both of which show them to be as natural magpies as the composer of the original ‘Abandoned Love’.
Next I’m anxious to see again those Wolf People, who in a different way conjure and alchemize the sounds and excitements of 1969. My original thought on first seeing them was of Blodwyn Pig minus the sax, and like the Bells they’re imbued with the spirits of those times but again without sense of pastiche. Their Steeples album, due next month, is as thrilling as Abandoned Love as guitars intertwine and they conjure strange and dark ambiences. Today they excite, first with older tunes like ‘Cotton Strands’ and ‘Caratacus’, and then a trio from the new record; ‘Silbury Sands’, ‘Castle Keep’ and ‘One By One From Dorney Reach’.
The reason there have been Rockingbirds wandering around is that Sean Read and Andy Hackett are playing in Edwyn Collins’ all-star band. Mid-evening they along with Paul Cook, Barrie Cadogan from Little Barrie, and Carwyn Ellis of The Keys and Colorama gather on the Big Top stage, and like a soul revue they begin playing before Edwyn appears. This is the first time I’ve seen him since his stroke and given the toll it took this is an extraordinary and triumphant performance. As he appears it’s immediately clear how much he’s suffered physically but the words and the singing voice remain, and he delivers a great mixture of the old; ‘Rip It Up’, ‘Don’t Shilly Shally’ and A Girl Like You’; along with songs from his new Losing Sleep record including the title track, ‘What Is My Role’, and the Alex Kapanos co-write ‘Do It Again’.
Following Edwyn’s show it’s time for a wander and my first view of the Garden Stage. Modest Mouse are finishing up and we make our way into the woods and wonder yet again at the lights and the little spontaneous gatherings, and poke around in the library.
Saturday morning brings two cooked breakfasts and some idling with old friends in the camper van enclosure before a ramble back to the Garden to see Phosphorescent. Now that the alt.country phenomena with its assorted out-riders and bandwagon-jumpers seems to have run its course it is better possible to sort the wheat from the chaff, though in certain quarters there remains a damaging tendency to over-hype anybody who turns up referencing Neil Young. We have left the people who were there before it started; Gelb, Prophet, Escovado, Griffin, Langford; plus the few genuinely important people who did come up through it. It’s now possible to reassess, but also to appreciate newcomers on their own merits and without prescribed reference points.
Thus Phosphorescent: not really newcomers as they’ve been around for half a decade at least, and are led by Matthew Houck who a good decade ago was playing small London clubs as Fillup Shack, but impressive enough to transcend genre. I had been less than enamoured by the idea of them, guilt by association probably, and it was only really when I heard ‘Los Angeles’ that I was convinced. The Wednesday before EOTR I’d been to see them at The Scala but the show had been disfigured by poor sound mixing; songs completely wrecked by over-loud drums; though it was right enough by the conclusion for an epic version of said ‘Los Angeles’. I was expecting better in the Garden and I was not disappointed. Two songs from their Willie Nelson collection; ‘Reasons To Quit’ with super rolling piano and ‘It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way’; proved that it’s not a question of ignoring country but just to make something of it more than padding. ‘Los Angeles’ was superb again, and they concluded with ‘Mermaid Parade’, now an equal favourite.
I’d been recommended Citay by Tim Perry at The Windmill only days before, and just as well. Their performance in the Tipi Tent was one of my highlights, though it began a process that continued for much of the rest of the festival of trying to see two or three bands playing at the same time. Citay are from San Francisco, described lazily as Grateful Dead-like, certainly accomplished practitioners of multi-guitared psychedelia; we’ll see more of them. Soon returning after a brief excursion to see a few tunes from an out-of-sorts Voice Of Seven Thunders I found a massively full tent for Wilderness Of Manitoba. Their Fleet Foxes-like harmonies were exciting and vivid but the crush sent me off catch The Unthanks essaying Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’.
Saturday evening was marked by the dual clash of Caitlin Rose and Heidi Spencer, and Black Mountain and Yo La Tengo. I was highly dubious of Caitlin Rose when all the praise started flying around; another young female singer from Nashville seemed the last thing we needed. But listening to her songs on My Space was enough to prove that she’s something rather special. Very young, very precocious, and very talented, with a handful of exceptionally fine songs, like ‘Sinful Wishing Well’ and ‘Shanghai Cigarettes’, and more to come. She reminds me of Laura Cantrell and is likely the best female country-influenced singer to emerge since Laura. Accompanied by her equally youthful bass and lead players, and augmented by David Fricke-lookalike Spencer Cullum from The Deadstring Brothers on pedal steel she went down a treat. I had intended nipping off from The Local to the adjacent Tipi Tent to catch the second half of Heidi Spencer but getting there around 9.00 there was no sign and a completely different band setting up; the only time on the weekend when the schedule appeared to go haywire.
Black Mountain are a band I know purely by reputation, but understanding them to be steeped in early 70s heavy guitar music and feeling the need to cleanse palate I thought a taste of them was in order. In fact I got sucked in and stayed for the whole set. I loved the look of them, dark and greasy and bored, and loved all the buttons they pushed, all the way from Deep Purple to the grungy end of the SST contingent. Like Citay another treat to explore further. Thus Yo La Tengo drew the short straw and I just caught their concluding 20 minute jam and the short encore. A little ramble took us to The Tipi Tent where The Low Anthem and friends, dressed as pirates, were having a little Rolling Thunder-y play around; my jumbled recollections at this point only extent as far as ‘I’ve Been All Around This World’ and the general jolliness.
Sunday’s at EOTR have a slightly different atmosphere. There’s a steady trickle of people leaving from lunchtime onwards and by the evening the site tends to be somewhat depopulated. There’s also third-day-syndrome when the tiredness and the over-consumption is kicking in, and the measures against create in equal measure mania and lethargy. Thus it tends to be the bands who deliver exactly what’s expected who go down best. That had been the triple-whammy two years ago of Richard Hawley, Tindersticks, and Calexico, and was surely the case with The Felice Brothers and The Low Anthem this year. I had forgotten just how good The Felice Brothers are, having been much interested in The Duke And The King these last twelve months; this performance made you wonder how they’d ever thought to exist with two large personalities in one ensemble. An amazing sequence of songs from ‘White Limo’ ‘Marlboro Man’, ‘Fuck The News’ (“fuck the news, fuck the House Of Blues”), through Frankie’s Gun!’ ‘Greatest Show On Earth’, ‘St Stephen’s End’, and ‘Whiskey In My Whiskey’. It was moving and joyous, and while it may be heretical to suggest they channel The Band I’m going to do it anyway.
They were followed immediately by The Low Anthem, who now best encapsulate the spirit of EOTR. They combine a grounding in American folk music with a questing variety, a humour, and an intensity that never becomes over-cerebral and is never far from celebration even when it initially seems closer to downer. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin has become such a favourite that songs like ‘To Ohio’, ‘Charlie Darwin’, and ‘Ticket Taker’ are lapped up, as is the newer ‘Apothecary Love’, ‘Sally Where’d You Get Your Liquor From’ and the venerated ‘My God Damn House’. That was the second performance of the day for that latter song as former member Daniel Lefkowitz had played it in his solo set in the earlier afternoon.
Then came Wilco, who along with The Singing Adams, were my major disappointments of the day. I seem to have fallen out of love with Wilco over the last few years and I don’t understand why; it’s certainly not because they took an avant turn and got Nels Cline onboard which should have cleaved me back to them. Probably after the instant gratification of the two previous acts I didn’t have the patience. My initial response of ‘awful, awful’ was doubtless unfair but I couldn’t hit an empathy with them at all and left them to it after 25 minutes.
Steven Adams was a different matter. I’d always loved The Broken Family Band; their sense of mischief and assured off-colour witticisms, an element of tension that showed itself in curious exchanges, and the sense of not being quite of this crazy rock’n’roll thing and there being a shared understanding of that. On this afternoon it didn’t seem there and Steven gave an immediate hostage to fortune with his opening gambit; “you should have seen me in the old days”. That thought did return to mind during songs like ‘Spit In The Sea’. As with Wilco my problem I suspect, and really a case of discovering another way to someone whose talent can’t be in question.
And that was almost that except for Caitlin Rose who popped up again in a late night spot in The Big Top. This was now the fourth time I’d seen her in six days and familiarity did not whither her charms an iota, especially as after reprising her own material she left us with a divine reading of Dylan’s ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’.
That was my festival. I know looking down my print-out there were two, three, or more alternative festivals I could have been at, at the same time, in the same place. Bands I would have enjoyed as well, bands I would have discovered. But that’s the joy of this place, and the reason why ten days after they’d already sold a massive number of tickets for 2011. And why as the rain continues to fall relentlessly on the roofs of Kings Cross I think very warmly of that little space of green between Wiltshire and Dorset and look forward to being there next year.