No Direction Home Festival || Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire || 8-10 June 2012
The omens were not good for the inaugural No Direction Home music festival, setting out in heavy rain that only got heavier as the traffic got slower the further north I went. However, despite the slate grey skies and constant brake lights of the M1, a journey of over 5 hours was rewarded on arrival by a break in the weather than unbelievably lasted for the whole three days.
No Direction Home is a new “little brother” venture from those behind the End of the Road Festival (those who read MM even semi-regularly will know what a fantastic event that is) and so felt very familiar from the moment we set foot in the main arena. Familiar food stalls, the Rough Trade tent, the book tent, the cinema tent and more had all been transplanted wholesale to just south of Sheffield. Likewise the music line-up was the same mix as the End of the Road – predominantly Americana, folk (both freak and traditional), country, indie and a smattering of some ultra-heavy psychedelic rock over two main stages and a small, intimate café stage by the lake.
Indeed many of the performers (perhaps slightly too many) were equally familiar as End of the Road veterans: The Low Anthem, Gruff Rhys, Richard Hawley, Django Django, Other Lives, Dirty Three, The Unthanks.
In fact our opening set came from another EotR alumni, Lanterns on the Lake, their heavy, ethereal, ambient tinged folk a perfect atmospheric companion to the sullen, overcast skies and heavy clouds, whilst in the somewhat optimistically named Electric Dust Bowl Big Top, Wet Nuns flailed away with a punishing set of hardcore riffing and gravelly vocals – furiously competing with the elements outside.
It took Django Django to brighten the mood; their good-natured approach and twangy electro-krautrock pop lifting collective spirits. A huge improvement on when we saw them at EotR in 2010, now they ooze confidence and are happy to let the songs from their excellent debut album stand up for themselves; Life’s A Beach, Waveforms, Skies Over Cairo, Wor and standout single Default all being highlights.
Finally as the night set in fully, The Low Anthem took the stage as the night’s main attraction. As they did at the EotR, they soon captured and then captivated the audience with their haunting and melancholic brand of folk holding everyone rapt as they performed one stunning song after another. There was just time to catch a set from Canadian electro-rockers Austra to finish the night – and a perfect illustration of the eclectic reach of the festival. Not something we are likely to listen to at home, but live an astonishingly powerful and captivating spectacle with three front women dynamically weaving repetitive musical patterns in a manner akin to Siouxsie Sioux fronting Can.
Having gone to bed chanting the Woodstock refrain of “No rain, no rain” to myself I was rewarded on Saturday both with a dry start and a sweetly enchanting set of pastoral folk from Tiny Ruins, fresh from their recent tour support with the Handsome Family. Highlight being the surreal, but true tale of the Brazilian priest Fr. Carli who tried to fly using 1,000 helium balloons…some pieces of him were never recovered. Next up was quirky singer-songwriter Liz Green who sadly failed to sparkle as we’d hoped, and seemed a little daunted by the gravitas of the main stage, so it was back to the big top for Tyne & Wear’s Cornshed Sisters whose traditional finger-in-the-ear choral folk songs were much appreciated and provided a calming, bewitching effect over the audience.
Emerging, blinking and slightly dazed for Euros Childs it took a few songs for me to realise what an thoroughly excellent songwriter he is (for that genuinely is his real name), and for the last twenty years or or so he has been performing his own brand of slightly unhinged psych-pop laced with black humour and waspish wit. With Cavendish Hall he provided one of the songs of the weekend and one of those lovely ‘discovery’ moments of a new artist you know you’re going to enjoy for a long, long time to come.
Next up was Mrs Mackerel’s fave and one of the most individual performers of the weekend in anti-pop, anti-folk, anti-conventionalist Beth Jeans Houghton with her Hooves of Destiny. Opening with the galloping, infectious Atlas and running through many of the highlights of their excellent debut Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose (Dodecahedron, The Barely Skinny Tree, Lilliput, Harlequin and Sweet Tooth Bird) as well as non-album cuts like the barber-shop drenched harmonies of Honeycomb, the irreverent Shampoo (“looks like cum, smells like flowers, I use shampoo in the shower“) and Your Holes, it was the most delightfully unique set of the weekend and demonstrates that the independent spirit of indie pop is alive and well in BJH’s hands.
Other Lives followed with a set of wonderfully melodramatic orchestral folk rock that somehow reminded me of The Waterboys crossed with Radiohead and was every bit as good as that combination sounds ridiculous. Gruff Rhys was exactly as you would have expected – unconventional and predictably unpredictable, expertly mixing the glam rock stomp of In A House With No Mirrors with the gently psych-whimsy of Candylion and the melancholic pop of Lonesome Words. There was no such variety with the swirling headfuck of Moon Duo’s powerfully propulsive heavy-psych that suffered slightly from a muddy sound and their seeming insistence for playing in complete darkness on stage. They were followed by the equally pulverising Pyramids whose crunchy guitar riffs, slashing rhythms and howled vocals played out like an adrenalin fuelled Hawkwind on speed. Headlining the main stage was arch whistler Andrew Bird and despite his over-fussiness (no pictures, no family members, constant irritated gesturing to the soundman) he pleased the crowd with a set of winsome folk and some quite impressive violin manoeuvres.
The sun shone. Some of the thick mud dried up, a bit, and the wonderfully uncompromising Trembling Bells kicked off the day with a set of traditional British folk underpinned with the occasional ferocious onslaught of psychedelic pyrotechnics that was as bruising as it was soothing. The much-admired Cold Specks brought authentically sorrowful tales of the delta flavoured with a soulful taste of the Mississippi to the main stage, so authentic in fact you almost expected to see a paddle steamer on the adjacent lake. They were followed by a fabulously entertaining set of quirky and surreal indie rock from The Wave Pictures and back inside the big top local boys The Crookes charged up the crowd with a fizzing, high energy set of guitar pop. By now the crowd was gathering to pay homage to folk legend Martin Carthy who introduced each song with a conversational air and as though he had all the time in the world. Exuding bonhomie, he ran through a selection of traditional and classic folk songs and demonstrated why he is universally revered by fellow musicians as one of the best acoustic guitarists around. A pleasure to watch.
And on the back of that came the unexpected highlight of the weekend. While ex-Fleet Foxes drummer Joshua Tillman, aka Father John Misty’s album Fear Fun has gradually been growing on me over the past few weeks, to hear him play it live made it obvious what an outstanding set of songs they are. Just one man and his guitar, it was dark night of the soul stuff, visceral, bawdy, and confrontational. In between he was ironic, self-deprecating and slightly sarcastic and it quickly became one of those rare occasions where the audience become transfixed by what is being placed before them. Fun Times In Babylon, Only Son Of The Ladies’ Man, Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings, Nancy From Now On, Writing A Novel – each song greeted with more rapture than the last and as he finished with the stunning Now I’m Learning To Love The War and Every Man Needs A Companion the entire tent breathed a collective sigh and then erupted. It was worth the ticket price on its own.
Back outside Slow Club entertained with their jolly mix of folk and indie pop, and the sweet voices of The Unthanks accompanied by the Brighouse and Rastrick Band provided the perfect accompaniment to the setting sun over the lake. And finally, despite a broken leg (which precipitated a much appreciated parody of the famed Nirvana-at-Reading style entrance in a wheelchair), local hero Richard Hawley delivered a festival closing set perfectly in keeping with the mood. His velveteen vocals cloaking the bitter sting and melancholy of his lyrics while the 60s tinged psychedelic guitar of his latest album Standing At The Sky’s Edge weaved intricate patterns in the cool night air.
And so it was time to fight the pop-up tent and go home, one amongst 3,000 satisfied punters. No Direction Home succeeded in keeping the intimacy that makes The End of the Road so special and had many memorable performances that will linger long in the memory. Tickets are already on sale for next year (click here) and we’re hoping with a year under their belt, they will go with a slightly more original and bolder line-up. If so, we will be there again!
Download Euros Childs – Cavendish Hall mp3 (from Ends)
Download Cold Specks – Holland mp3 (from I Predict A Graceful Expulsion)
Download Father John Misty & Phosphorescent – I Would Love You mp3
Download The Wave Pictures – I Love You Like A Madman mp3 (from Instant Coffee Baby)
Download Andrew Bird – If I Needed You mp3 (Townes Van Zandt cover)
Download The Crookes – Backstreet Lovers mp3 (from Dreams Of Another Day)
Download our full Festival mixtape here.