The Flaming Lips, Woods and Traams provide Getintothis’ Paul Higham with just a portion of tasty End of the Road pie – so delightful, he’s got his 2015 early bird tickets already.
In recent times as the market has become increasingly congested and real wages have continued to decline, one has feared for the future of that summer staple: the outdoor music festival. As other events have struggled and several high profile events have been subject to last minute cancellations, End of the Road has continued to thrive. This year’s event proving no exception as the festival sold out yet again.
That End of the Road has survived the economic downturn owes much to its sense of identity and the subsequent loyal following it engenders. Much of its charm lies in its beautiful setting amidst the idyllic Larmer Tree Gardens with its forests and follies providing the perfect garden setting for the loveliest stage on the festival circuit. It is a credit to the organisers that the 2011 expansion and introduction of a larger and slightly soulless stage did not significantly undermine its core being. For it is a festival that gets the little details right. The campsite is spacious and well appointed, the choice of food stalls place strong emphasis on the local and the ethical and the ale is predominantly real and supplied by nearby small brewers. The forest art installations are ever-interesting and reveal a restless creativity firmly at the heart of the festival. Above all else one comes away with the sense that the organisers care far more about broadening the artistic and creative minds of the festival-goer.
All the above would matter not a jot if the music were not up to scratch. Even a cursory glance at this year’s line-up would assuage any fear that one might have. Sympathetic staging and a strongly curatorial eye reveal the same attention to detail displayed elsewhere. For a festival that started with a primary focus on Americana and backwoods folk music, that it has so broadened its musical palette while remaining true to its own identity is a not inconsiderable achievement. From show-stopping headliners like The Flaming Lips and their spectacularly wondrous psychedelic light show to the loud and propulsive surf-grunge of Wytches right through to quirky offbeat indie and traditional folksy Americana, End of the Road caters to a broad range of musical tastes.
As with any multi stage event though, tough decisions have to be made and even cherished artists have to occasionally be passed over in the quest for musical discovery. St Vincent, much of The Flaming Lips, Wild Beasts, and White Denim all fell victim to dreaded clashes. What we were able to see did not disappoint.
The pick of Friday (and maybe the entire weekend) was the rare performance by the Gene Clark No Other Band on the Garden Stage. A collective of genuine talents (Robin Pecknold, Daniel Rossen, Ian Matthew, Wye Oak, Beach House) assembled to worship most reverently at the altar of one of rock music’s classic albums. It felt like a special and unique occasion and they offered an astounding performance. Earlier Jocie Adams presented her Arc Iris project as a radical departure from her work in The Low Anthem. Musically the set offered an interesting and often challenging proggy take on folk music, which may not be for everyone but the set was well received in the early afternoon garden stage slot.
Liverpool’s very own All We Are impressed in the afternoon displaying a tightness and sense of musicianship that proved thrilling. Their almost funk-influenced sound and up-beat tempos tempted out some sunshine that was to prove elusive on Friday. Wytches again provided evidence of a band on the rise but then their new record and their recent support-slot show at The Kazimier had already affirmed this. Eccentric indie mainstays British Sea Power delivered another predictably good set as darkness fell over the festival. Main set staples (Remember Me, Waving Flags, No Lucifer) were interspersed with songs that have been played less recently (Larsen B, North Hanging Rock) building to a climax of a deranged Spirit of St Louis and a typically raucous Carrion. Judging by the crowd reaction, this went down a treat.
Saturday was relentless in its brilliance. Traams set the scene with a too-early-in-the-day set in the Big Top, combining a restless energy, with an angular post-punk sound complemented by a krautrock-influenced repetitive groove. This was a good start. There was a strong Welsh theme to Saturday and where Sweet Baboo charmed (inspite of the rain that he himself had tempted) Cate Le Bon blew everyone’s socks off confirming that reports of her February show at Leaf had not been exaggerated. Her voice when combined with the magnificent playing by both her and band member H Hawkline created a genuine psychedelic experience and one of the defining moments of the festival. With Perfume Genius scheduled to play later in the day, it was a rare treat to see him join Cate on stage to perform the duet I Think I Knew. In an age where the ‘psych’ bandwagon is becoming increasingly laden with ardent copyists, it is reassuring to watch a genuine and original talent stretch the genre and take it to places new; a unique voice.
Hookworms seem to improve with each outing. Their set drew heavily on the new album, which is due to be released in November and sounds stunning. On this performance their show at the Kazimier as part of Liverpool Music Week will be unmissable (see you there?). Gruff Rhys entertained a packed Garden Stage audience with a Power-Point presented story of John Evans/Don Juan Evans a late 18th century Welsh explorer who voyaged to America intent on proving the existence of a Welsh-speaking tribe descended from Madoc who, by legend, had discovered America in the 12th century, some 300 years prior to Columbus. Having not much enjoyed Gruff solo and long for the return of Super Furry Animals, this set was riveting and compelling.
The highlight of the festival was John Grant who headlined the Garden Stage on Saturday night. Having been tempted by The Flaming Lips due to the promise of their early-morning soundcheck, the sound from two-thirds of the way back was disappointingly low in volume and was catching noticeably on the breeze (more energy having seemingly been allocated to the admittedly impressive light show than to the musical amplification) so we retreated to see John Grant on the Garden Stage. Grant has played the festival many times prior and it is an experience he clearly enjoys and relishes. He is in stunning voice and in good humour throughout. Songs from Pale Green Ghosts and Queen of Denmark impress equally, particularly those from his latest release, which resonate more strongly in a live setting than they do on record. The set standout was Glacier, unflinching and beautiful in its lyrical simplicity articulating the struggles many have faced in a society where homophobia, sadly, remains present and real. The strong message of hope contained within the song strikes a chord with many as his voice somehow translates both the power and vulnerability of the message.
After the emotional energy invested in John Grant, Archie Bronson Outfit’s late night set proved as timely as it was popular. The raucous, garage-rock influenced set (complete with a divisive saxophonist – trust us, it works) proving that their excellent recent LP, Wild Crush, translates into a live setting.
Sunday was all about Yo La Tengo. The revered Hoboken band performed a Freewheeling set in the Victorian Singing Theatre that sits aside the Garden Stage. Inviting questions from a sun-drenched audience the band displayed a lightness and humour and, where too many bands remain frustratingly aloof from their fans, provided a sense of intimacy that is to be welcomed. Later on the Woods Stage, they delivered a set that combined the intimacy of their earlier show with the visceral power and musical virtuosity for which they are so renowned. Despite initial fears that they might be thwarted by poor sound, the set was a triumph. Ohm from the recently acclaimed Fade LP is becoming as surefire a classic as anything from their vast canon and was played with an intensity quite unlike anything seen all weekend. Other set highlights were Big Day Coming, Stockholm Syndrome (cryptically requested during the prior Freewheeling set) and the closer, Our Way To Fall.
Woods made light of the departure of bassist Kevin Morby to typically excel in the late afternoon sun. In particular, the songs from Bend Beyond sounded most impressive with the title track expanded to include a mesmeric wig-out middle section. An undoubted highlight. For us, the festival finished in the intimate Tipi Stage. Canadian Chad Vangaalen, whose recent LP is a particular favourite, pulled in a crowd despite twin draws of Wild Beasts and White Denim elsewhere and played an unabashedly loud, full-band backed set that was well-received. This was followed by Kiran Leonard, an Oldham teenager of rare promise and originality bringing unconventional song structures that hold one’s attention as one is not sure where they might go next. Some have likened him to both Frank Zappa and Ariel Pink and such comparisons are not unjustified. A precocious talent certainly, but also likeable, engaging and one to watch out for.
And with that End of the Road was over for another year and this might just have been the best yet. Tickets for next year are now on sale, and we can be certain that 2015 will have just as many musical treats to mark its tenth anniversary. We have our early birds in the bag already, see you all there.