It is true to say that our first visit to the End of the Road Festival last year was without doubt the best music event (bar SxSW) we had ever attended. A superb line-up, brilliant layout, and festival goers who were there for the music rather than the ‘experience’ ensured three days of superb entertainment.
It meant we bought tickets immediately they went on sale for 2011, before we knew the line-up, before we’d even washed the dust off from 2010, and waited impatiently for September to come around again. Granted, for us the line-up this time didn’t quite match the quality of last year (but then we were spoilt by The Felice Brothers, Deer Tick, Phosphorescent, Forest Fire, Joe Pug, Wolf Parade, Black Mountain, Elliott Brood and The Low Anthem et al) but there was still much to get excited about.
Car problems and traffic trouble meant we arrived much later than planned, missing Micah P Hinson, Caitlin Rose and Best Coast into the bargain. We had to park further away and soon discovered the festival this year was considerably bigger – a new main stage was testament to that, but more so was the crowds – lots of people, lots and lots and lots of people.
Doubts were immediate. I’ve never been a lover of the huge stages that most big festivals have, and the increased numbers surely meant the fantastic, pure love of the music that the audience had and so set the End of the Road apart from others would be seriously threatened.
Once the tent was popped up and mattress inflated it was into the big top for a first taste of Bo Ningen, and while tunes were in limited supply, the guitar shredding histrionics and theatrical rock ‘n’ roll moves thrown by the four Japanese band members, all dressed as women, was more than ample consolation for a large crowd.
By contrast Joan As Police Woman delivered a cooly confident set of indie ballads, poppy electronics and the occasional folk flurry, which were well judged and well crafted, preventing any hint of predictability from setting in. She was followed by The Walkmen who upped the energy and excitement levels considerably – their set was one of the weekend highlights with favourites like Juveniles, Angela and of course The Rat receiving rapturous acclaim.
A first visit to the main stage to see headliners Beirut confirmed all previous misgivings about big stages. While clearly good, clearly popular, and clearly pleasing the large crowd, it was still hard to connect with the set, despite excellent renditions of our favourites East of Harlem and Santa Fe. So it was back to the Garden Stage (is there a better festival setting in the country?) to see the legendary Mark E Smith prowl and chunter around the stage with the latest incarnation of the Fall. Either terrible or brilliant as a live spectacle, and rarely in between, they were the former, with a superb set of pummelling krautrock inspired anthems held together with his unique vocal incantations.
Saturday saw Beth Jeans Houghton take the stage first and while we hadn’t been hugely taken when we’d seen her supporting Phosphorescent a couple of years ago, this was an entirely different proposition. A beefed up band, a boost in confidence and stage presence meant a sparkling set of indie pop and folk that contained a couple of absolute stand out tracks in Shampoo and Queen Of This Town – still quirky, still irreverent but now with top quality tunes, her debut album is out in January and on this evidence will be a must-have.
Allo Darlin’ were (like all the best things at the End of the Road) another pleasant surprise – a toe-tapping set of classic British indie pop bursting with melodies and sing along harmonies, which was in stark contrast to the portentous gloomy folk of Timber Timbre that followed. Jolie Holland provided relief with a solo set of beautifully crafted, classic country tunes delivered with her honeyed southern vocal that we could listen to all day long. Another solo set from Matthew Houck aka Phosphorescent was hugely well received, mixing a cover of Dylan with compositions spanning the old (A Picture of our Torn Up Praise) and the new (Mermaid Parade, Los Angeles), and of course a sublime Wolves.
Avoiding the main stage, it was time for a double dose of high octane riffing and pulsating psychedelia from first The Wooden Shjips and then the Black Angels. Despite a slightly muddy sound (deliberate probably) both were triumphant with the former’s Lazy Bones and the latter’s Phosphene Dream being particular highlights.
Lastly it was Okkervil River, a band that for some reason we had not become overly familiar with over the years despite their excellent reputation. The live set we witnessed will change that for good, being one of the undoubted triumphs of the weekend. A fabulous frontman’s performance from Will Sheff, pulsating and mesmerising rhythms, and superb musicianship meant the hour long set passed in a moment, but left us a whole back catalogue to explore.
Then, as the tent called, we discovered that Bob Log III, fresh from a triumphant main stage slot in the afternoon was playing a ‘by popular demand’ headline slot in the Tipi Tent. Cramming ourselves in with the heaving masses, we enjoyed what is surely one of the best dirty blues shows you could ever see. Wearing his trademark crash helmet and playing a blistering set of raw licks that made Seasick Steve look like an absolute beginner, he held the audience enthralled for an hour with great between-song-banter and a hollered “goddamn Bob Log is good” screech at the end of each song. The set finished with two girls from the audience on his lap and three more dancing on stage.
Sunday began with Black Mountain side project Lightning Dust and they were a perfect example of why the End of the Road is so damned good. First up on the last day usually means a sparse, lethargic audience at most festivals. Not here, and the packed crowd were treated to a sublime set of psychedelic folk with a gothic tinge and the exquisite vocals of Amber Webber. Totally unexpected, totally mesmerising, and our best ‘find’ of the festival. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.
We took in the countrified shoegaze of Slowdown Molasses and the sparse, fingerpicked folk of Futur Primitif. We enjoyed a fabulously (and surprisingly) powerful set from an (also surprisingly) relatively non-hirsute Megafaun. Thoroughly enjoying themselves in the sunshine it was another exceptional set of indie rock and folk that left everyone grinning. We watched the Woodsist inspired triple billing of the Fresh & Onlys garage pop, The Woods hazy, psychedelic folk and Kurt Vile & The Violators powerful mix of spacey acoustics and thrilling Crazy Horse style guitar wigouts, and jigged along to the nomadic desert blues of Tinariwen.
Finally it was back to braving the main stage for Laura Marling, having missed most of her solo set at the Wilderness Festival. This time backed by a six piece band, her crystal clear voice hung over the festival as a thing of pure, fragile beauty. At just 21 years of age, she may well be the best songwriter in the country.
So, was bigger better? In our opinion, probably not, but crucially bigger was not worse either. The single most important thing – the spirit of the End of the Road – remained intact. There was still the feeling that you were simply amongst a crowd (a big crowd) of people who were there, like you, for the love of the music and everything else was secondary. Just the way we like it – we’ll be back in 2012.
Download Bo Ningen – Psychedelic Misemono Goya mp3 (from Koroshitai Kimochi)
Download Joan As Police Woman – The Magic mp3 (from The Deep Field)
Download The Walkmen – Canadian Girl mp3 (from You & Me)
Download Allo Darlin’ – My Heart Is A Drummer mp3 (from Allo Darlin’)
Download Wooden Shjips – Lazy Bones mp3 (from West)
Download The Black Angels – Telephone mp3 (from Phosphene Dream)
Download Phosphorescent – Reasons To Quit mp3 (from To Willie)
Download Phosphorescent – Wolves mp3 (from Pride)
Download Okkervil River – Wake And Be Fine mp3 (from I Am Very Far)
Download Lightning Dust – Never Seen mp3 (from Infinite Light)
Download Megafaun – These Words mp3 (from Megafaun)
Download The Fresh & Onlys – Waterfall mp3 (from Play It Strange)
Download Kurt Vile – In My Time mp3 (from In My Time)
Download Woods – Blood Dries Darker mp3 (from At Echo Lake)
Download Tinariwen – Tenere Taqqim Tossam mp3 (from Tassili)
Download Laura Marling – Night Terror mp3 (from Alas I Cannot Swim)
And don’t forget our previous free End of the Road mix we posted last week.Follow @madmackerel