This years End of the Road festival seems to have been designed around a peak (The Pixies), with a slow start to proceedings on the Thursday evening, and a gentle come down on the Sunday, but it was full of the usual joys and surprises, not to mention the agonising decisions over timetable clashes. Adopting a laissez-faire “can’t see ’em all” policy I decided early on to just go with the flow and see where I get taken. The size of the crowds seemed to have grown from last year, and even the Talking Heads stage this year was standing room only. After having got all signed in, and realising I’d missed the opening act, the wonderfully named Joe & The Shit Boys, I decided to wander in to the Tipi tent to check out Apollo Ghosts, a Canadian outfit who made me feel I was attending a happy-clappy clean cut worship session for disaffected youth. I was surprised they didn’t hand out tambourines. Anyway I left before they got the chance and wandered over to the Woods stage where BBC6 music favourites Khruangbin (“Crumb Bin”) were just setting up and sound checking, or at least that’s what I thought until about half an hour of nothing much happening, when I realised they were actually doing the gig. They had built an elaborate set with a small staircase at either end, and the bass player and guitarist walked up and down them in unison whilst playing a sort of bland yacht rock wallpaper music. As they continued to walk up and down the steps I decided to do some walking of my own…away. As I wandered down the path I couldn’t help but notice that the bass player only had one bass line which she seemed content to play on every song. Very odd.
Friday had a much better start (and end too) with Lichen, first up in Tipi. Lichen are a new band playing the songs of Michael Clark, who I saw playing at the Talking Heads stage last year. Michael is the son of Gavin Clark (Clayhill/Sunhouse) and his vocal bears the same distinctive subtle beauty, giving voice to fragile emotion whilst barely opening his mouth, occasionally shyly looking around him as if in surprise that anyone is actually there listening. The band compliment his songs with taut subtlety, especially the guitarist and violin player, who are very receptive to the gentle yet achingly haunting vocal. He introduced a new song which he described as the least rehearsed. Despite that, the song bodes well for all future releases as it was fabulous. This song, along with “Trails Of Ice” are tightly wound, and stepping deeper and deeper into a melancholic storm of repetition. At the end his band went off and he was left alone with his guitar and performed one of his dad’s songs “Hard Sun” from the Sunhouse album, and I for one felt tears pricking my eyelids. I wasn’t sure whether the day could get any better, yet it had only just started. Over to the Big Top to experience the topsy-turvy world of Keg, and it really couldn’t get much different as the 7-piece Brighton based, but Bridlington born, oddballs spilled their psychedelic slapstick sauce all over the stage, lead singer Albert holding court over an infectious combination of manic stabs and danceable noises. Think Devo jamming with the Magic Band. As Albert himself says ‘Bow down to our baroque styling, and gaze awestruck at the Behemoth power within our sonic nuggets’. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Kudos should go to the keyboard player for being able to pull off a vest with such aplomb! Over on The Woods stage English Teacher were just hitting their stride with an interesting take on indie, with angular twists of branches wrapped around a jerky flow of liquid drums. Their strange Wicker man style take on the modern world in songs like “Polyawkward” bode very well for the future, but for now they don’t quite pull it off. I expect they will though…watch this space. Mandy,Indiana (try saying it aloud for tongue twisting fun) weren’t what I expected at all. I expected experimental noise-niks a la My Bloody Valentine. What I got was nothing of the sort, unfortunately.
Melting in the heat we decided to relax and put our feet up in the shade of the Garden stage and bask in the not too challenging stylings of Nilufer Yanya, who sounds like a modern day Joan Armatrading and plays a pretty mean guitar to boot. She proved to be just the ticket for a sunny Friday teatime. Over to Tipi again for Bingo Fury, whose name doesn’t really do them justice. Atmospheric rolling drums and spidery no-New York guitar under the spoken monochromatic beat-noir tales of late night malaise from the baritone tones of Mr. Fury, sprinkled with trumpet punctuations, like a jazz Fall or a Tom Waits fever dream.
The Garden stage was getting very crowded for Porridge Radio so we sat in the woods to try to avoid the worst of the Slits wannabes, and watch drunk people taking photos of each other wearing papier-mâché heads that were hanging from the trees, courtesy of Gooey Stuey. Far more entertaining! We thought we’d get there early for Garden stage headliners Black Midi to get a good place before the crowds descended, though bizarrely there were more people for the Porridge debacle. However the place was pretty rammed, despite clashing with Fleet Foxes, and a voice-over announcing the band with an audience sing along of Nessun Dorma took the excitement to fever pitch before it all kicked off, and Christ did it kick off! One of the great things about Black Midi is their refusal to compromise or pander to any genre, instead opting to straddle the lines between multiple musical styles. They are not afraid to alienate, and wilfully and with great dexterity, provide us with huge slabs of “difficult” noise interspersed with “difficult” surreal Sinatra-esque-apades and This Heat style post punk prog, all delivered with dynamics and skill. I was amused to notice that as their set progressed the audience thinned out, no doubt escaping the barrage into a more pleasant world of Fleet Foxes niceness, harmony and order. For those that stayed there was no end of moshing and applause and they ended the night on a high it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any other band to reach.
Saturday started with more sun and it got so warm in the tents it was hard to stay in there for too long. I’m afraid that due to circumstances beyond my control I missed the Warrington Runcorn New Town Development Plan, who I have heard before and are excellent modular synth stuff that’s right up my street, and most unfortunately, Alabaster Deplume, who I am definitely going to see in the not too distant future. While researching music for this festival I came across the wonderful video for “Be Nice To People” on youtube, which is essential viewing. Wise, profound, beautiful and unsettling. I bumped into 3 members of the band Scaramanga Six (hint to the people who book for next year’s festival!), who had watched him and couldn’t recommend him highly enough. However I did get there in time for TV Priest who were quite an interesting band, despite the singer reminding me a little of comedian Tom Davis. The band are a strange mixture of U2 and The Fall, with songs that promise a lot, while fronted by a man who flits his fingers and accents his words with flourishes and stabs, as if trying to perform a shy mime. Interesting.
Starcrawler are a throwback of sorts, and one that reside in the sleazy LA scene that brought us such “delights” as Motley Crue, but there’s always room for a great example of the genre, armed with glam pop riffs and Royal Trux style Jack Daniels soaked croaks, Arrow De Wilde (yep that’s her name) and her cohorts deliver on all fronts, giving an all out performance with all the moves (and the clothes), ending the set by leaping off the stage and running off to who knows where, while guitarist Henri Cash attempted to mount the entire audience while still laying down his riffs. Very entertaining, but I’m afraid the award for entertainment has to go to Elliott Brett aka Lynks. Self styled best musician in the world (bold claim but I’m certainly not going to argue with his stage show, which is basically him and his two dancers (the Lynks Shower Gels) pumping the audience into paroxysms of delight with energetic dance routines and witty rhymes). He had the rather full Tipi tent (‘wedding gazebo’) bouncing up and down along to his infectious tunes including the highlight “BBB”, on which he was joined by Bristol based vocalist/producer Grove. He had the audience in the palm of his hand and directed them like a puppet master as he took them through some choice moves, the best of which was getting everyone to duck down and leap up in unison as the chorus kicked in. On one song he recited a simple Bechamel sauce recipe and made it damn filthy, and don’t get me started on “Eat Me Up”! After all that it was time to relax and soak in the nice warm bath of Kevin Morby. I didn’t really know what to expect from him, having never heard of him before, but what I got was quality songwriting delivered in a professional manner, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and it also meant I was missing out on Perfume Genius, who kind of reminded me of the compere in the song for Eurovision episode of Father Ted.
Back over to the Woods stage to stake my place for (the) Pixies. I picked a spot well back by the mixing desk thinking that I would be out of the crowd and would have a good sound, but I misjudged the sheer volume of people who descended and surrounded me. I don’t feel too comfortable in crowds and it was becoming uncomfortable, especially as the sound coming off the stage was muffled. The band went straight into a greatest hits selection and the crowd responded in that way that they do when they are in the presence of “legends” – cheering non-stop despite the lumpy sound. We decided to escape the worst of it and moved back up the hill where the sound suddenly became crystal clear and I could actually hear vocals and guitars. From there we couldn’t see the stage, which was ok as the band don’t display much action, and there was no attempt at engaging the audience with banter. It seemed to me they were just going through the motions. I think I would have preferred to see Frank Black solo. It was amusing watching people run towards the stage like waves when the band played a familiar song, and then ebb back when it was a less well known one! Still, everyone seemed happy enough.
Sunday started slowly, and despite the early efforts of Cobalt Chapel, never really picked itself up, and with the main two headliners being Bright Eyes and Aldous Harding, it was never going to end with a bang. Cobalt Chapel are the perfect soundtrack to an uneasy visit to a remote village from which you can never escape, and where the villagers are practising rather strange wiccan rituals involving maypole mayhem. The three female singers dressed in flowing garments, the girl on the right beaming manically, the girl on the left staring daggers, while Cecilia Fage (of Matt Berry & The Maypoles) in the middle swirls in white and intones about drowned villages and violent storms, while Jarrod Gosling (aka Varrod Goblink of I Monster and Regal Worm) coaxes ungodly sounds from his organ (oo-er!). They evoke an atmospheric misty landscape akin to that found in films such as “The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue”, ancient and mysterious, and full of creeping dread. Just my thing!
Ryley Walker is a guitarist and singer who bounded on to the Garden stage all nervous energy and babbling about egg and cress sandwiches, while he and his band played tight improvised music that seemed almost psychic in its delivery, flowing from avant-garde to dreamy Americana. It’s really hard to describe the places he and his band take you to. He is similar in that respect to ex Magic Band member Gary Lucas, who is eclectic in his alchemical mixtures, and technically gifted. The band play in an almost jazz style with Andrew Scott Young and Ryan Jewell providing fluid bass and drums along with the improvisational feel of the guitar, on which the vocals at times feel like a hook to hang their coats on. They even attempted an XTC cover “Knuckle Down” as a tribute, but they were best when meandering through the unique visions of this gifted individual.
Lucy Dacus was ok…pleasant Sunday evening stuff. Good solid tunes with a great band, but ultimately like the kind of thing you might find on a Guardian CD giveaway. Kurt Vile sounded like Lou Reed talking over some lift muzak, so the choice was made to hit the big top again for Scalping, who were great for the first 5 minutes, with techno vibes played live over a cool video, but as time went on I got bored. Given that the brilliant Yard Act were going to be playing the Big Top, and that they were going to be on late, and the crowds were going to descend, we decided to give it a miss. But for those that stayed, I’m sure it was probably great. I mean Yard Act review themselves really…who needs me!
End of the Road is unique in that it doesn’t follow the rules of most major festivals by booking the same acts as virtually every other festival, and tries to provide an eclectic mix (like “Later with Jools Holland”…when it was good!). There is always something to see, there is always something interesting going on, and nothing is too far away. If I have one criticism it’s that there are too many folk/country singer/songwriters at times, and I would prefer to hear more cutting edge alternative/experimental acts. But hey that’s just me and the crowds seemed to enjoy most aspects. Thanks to the organisers and staff for being on the ball.
Ali Blair took the photographs and didn’t she do well