My first time at the End Of The Road festival in Wiltshire. Friends had been recommending this festival for some years. The line up never had too many must-sees for me, so I decided to go as a volunteer. I could work for my ticket and would not be too upset if I missed any of the acts. This worked out really well; Wicked Events are a very well-organised and fair organisation to work for.
End Of The Road is a posh festival. People behave, you see no litter, the toilets are clean and even when it started raining heavily there was little mud, due to plastic matting that the grass peaks through. A normal lager could not be had, so I tried Bloody Mary's (pints!) and hot cider. The latter was a welcome alternative, because it gets cold at this festival, due to it being late season and the site being at an altitude of 137 metres above sea level.
The Larmer Tree Gardens is a beautiful location for a festival. The area called the Woods is a labyrinth of merrily decorated walkways with small stages, wellness stands and crafty activities. The music is on four main stages, which are easily accessed and that have great sound. Programming is such that there is little sound overspill. The Garden Stage is the jewel in the crown; a lovely enclosed space in the forest. The shows there have a really special atmosphere. The main stage, 'The Woods', is at a big open space, well-positioned with the audience standing on a slight slope looking down.
The weather was good for the first three days. Friday and Saturday had nonstop blue skies and sunshine. We paid for it on the Sunday, when it rained the entire day, persistently, soaking everyone and everything. I did not dampen people's spirits though and all the gigs remained well attended.
My volunteer job included dealing with lost and found, and selling festival programmes. I noticed that a percentage of the audience was foreign – Germans, Dutch, Italians, French, Japanese. Music lovers from far and wide know what a special festival this is. And so on to the highlights:
1. LANKUM (LYNCHED)
Lankum played to a lunchtime audience that quickly increased in size. I am a fan and I think they are an outstanding band. I had urged all my friends not to miss Lankum and it just goes to show that there is no accounting for taste. One of them patted me on the shoulder after one song and said, "I'll see you later", whereas another friend moved down the front, declared it the Gig Of The Year and went off in search of a CD.
To introduce the song 'What Will We Do When We Have No Money' Ian Lynch cheerfully asked if there were many people who were on the dole. About three hands were raised and that typified the End Of The Road audience in one fell swoop. Their droney instrumental polka is getting more impressive each time I hear it. The only niggle with this show was that it was too short. Being the opening act Lankum only got 45 minutes.
2. LUCINDA WILLIAMS
Nice to have a proper star headlining the gorgeous Garden Stage. I had seen Lucinda twice before at festivals, but this was definitely the best show of the three. She was accompanied by Buick 6; a simple set up of guitar, bass and drums, very effective and also nicely heavy! Not your average person's idea of country music and all the better for it. What made this gig so much better than the previous two was the fact that Lucinda really seemed to be enjoying herself. It was a well balanced set. Lucinda explained that she would try to play some songs of all her albums. She said that the band have rerecorded her album 'Sweet Old World' for its 25th anniversary and this will be coming out in autumn. Highlight of the show for me was a solo version of 'The Ghost Of Highway 20'. In its introduction Lucinda mentioned that “not everybody from the South is a bad person”. Lucinda's songs make you forget that you are standing in a forest in Wiltshire. She takes you to a world of highways, truck stops and honky-tonks.
3. SHOVELS AND ROPE
I first became aware of Shovels and Rope with the release of 'Little Seeds', their most recent album. Carry Ann Hearst and Michael Trent have been recording together for nine years. They are great songwriters, strong singers and both are multi-instrumentalists. It is not just that they are able to play several instruments, they could even be playing up to three instruments simultaneously, each. The drew a large crowd and went down very well. The most obvious comparison would be to the White Stripes, but with more of a country vibe.
I watched the documentary 'Heartworn Highways Revisited' in the Cinema tent during the festival, which features Shovels and Rope amongst others (John McCauley, Justin Townes Earle, the late Guy Clarke). I learned that the husband and wife duo actually left Nashville to be able to make it in the music business, and that they have a dog called Townes.
The best thing about festivals is the opportunity to discover artists you may not come across otherwise. I was unfamiliar with Laraaji, a 72-year-old musician based in New York, who has collaborated with Brian Eno amongst others and whom I have seen described as an 'electronic mystic'. It is hard to describe his music and to call it new age would not do it full justice. Laraaji was on stage on his own, playing a large number of unusual and exotic instruments. His show was part of a stretch of shows on the Tipi stage presented by BBC Radio Three program Late Junction. Apparently Laraaji had done a laughter yoga workshop earlier in the day. He was my discovery of the festival and I bought some of his music.
5. LISA O'NEILL
A great gig from the always excellent Lisa O'Neill. Her stage presence, personality and humour really add to the music and made her stand out among the many indie bands, who play nice jangly tunes very well, but who have nothing to say for themselves in between songs. Lisa told us about her skydive that inspired 'Pothole in the sky', about a man smuggling wheelbarrows across the border between Northern Ireland an the Republic, and about her conversations with Elvis. She was accompanied by two musicians and she spent a long time afterwards chatting with the audience ("I don't bite") and signing albums.
6. TOOT ARD
Toot Ard are from the Golan Heights and play desert blues with a twist. Their music is faster than your average Tuareg tunes and they feature a saxophone player. I first saw them on the Saturday night, when they were one of the surprise shows in the Tipi tent. I missed the introduction and was very keen to find out who they were. The moderator eventually gave us their name and said that they would also play in the Big Top the next day. I went again and they went down even better there. The whole tent was hopping and many went straight to the Rough Trade tent afterwards, only to be told that alas they had no Toot Ard albums to sell.
7. THE JESUS & MARY CHAIN
I only knew the Jesus & Mary Chain from afar. I remember them being hyped by the music press at the time of their debut 'Psychocandy' and would have heard the odd song over the years. I always thought that if I listened to them properly I would probably like them and so it was. They were the final act on the main stage on Sunday, playing outdoors to folks that had endured about fifteen hours of solid rain. Both band and audience seemed to decide that this was not going to ruin the party. Jim Reid thanked the crowd more than once for coming to see them, realizing that there were alternatives playing under canvas. The band sounded not unlike Primal Scream, and for all I knew it could have been Bobby Gillespie behind the drums. Band members were not introduced. The songs were melodious, with a nice full sound and the vibe was up, despite conditions.
I did not get to check out too many bands beforehand, but I had listened to some songs by Shame and put them on my must see list. Shame are a young band (aged 19-20) from South London, with a proper frontman in Charlie Steen. With echoes of Joy Division and the Fall, this sounded like older music, in a very good way - a band to watch. I later went to a discussion about fanzines on the Library stage and Charlie was on the panel. I liked him even better when I learned that he does a fanzine himself and is an admirer of legendary rock scribe Nick Kent.
9. AMADOU & MARIAM
Amadou & Mariam were on before the Jesus & Mary Chain and faced the same uphill struggle playing for cold and wet punters while the rain kept coming down unabated. It took crowd and band a few songs to warm up but then all were 'in the zone' and a terrific concert ensued. I had seen them before, but many years of international touring have turned these veterans into a slick live act. The band included a drummer and a percussionist and special mention has to go to their backing singer/dancer/vibe woman extraordinaire. Amadou Bagayoko is a mean guitar player. I picked up a copy of their biography, 'Away From The Light Of Day'.
10. VAUDOU GAME
Vaudou Game opened the Garden Stage on Sunday, facing a sizeable crowd holding umbrellas and pints of Bloody Mary. Singer Peter Solo from Togo spoke to us like no-shit-taking teacher, making it clear that this was a participatory event. He wanted people to move and to connect. When some audience members started a conga trail that kept getting longer it brought a huge smile to the charismatic singer's face. His band are based in France and if you ever have the opportunity to see them live, do not miss it. They received a prolonged ovation at the end and everybody left happy.
11. COURTNEY MARIE ANDREWS
I am always a bit sceptical about darlings of the critics, particularly when they are good-looking young women, however there is no two ways about it: Courtney Marie Andrews is lovely: Lovely voice, nice person, strong songs, nice interaction with the crowd. She sounds very much like Linda Ronstadt, whom I have always liked. Courtney Marie told us that it was her band's first time in Europe. I wonder what they made of all these music fans in rain gear, seemingly oblivious to the weather. She appeared later on at the tiny Piano Stage. I did not watch that set, but heard her clear voice echoing through the woods as I walked by. End Of The Road really is quite a special festival.
12. MICHAEL CHAPMAN
I had spotted Michael Chapman during my research and realized he was worth checking out. He did not disappoint. Excellent atmospheric guitar playing. Michael performed solo on the Garden stage to a large afternoon crowd. He played a song he said Lucinda Williams had covered ('That Time Of Night') and she had done such a great song version that he did not know why he was still playing it himself.
A band from Philadelphia including sisters Katie and Allison Crutchfield. Katie is the main person in this band, but it was the sisters singing together that made this stand out among the many female fronted pop indy acts that played the festival. Altogether the band produced a very pleasant-on-the-ear full sound. I saw them twice, as they were one of the late night surprise acts on the Tipi stage as well.
14. ULTIMATE PAINTING
At another festival Ultimate Painting would not make my highlights list, but End Of The Road is not as tailored to my personal taste as for example the Cambridge Folk Festival is. I saw some very good gigs - all of the above - and some I did not like, and there was not much middle ground. Ultimate Painting are from London and play pleasantly jangling pop. They look old-fashioned, with pudding bowl haircuts, holding their guitars up high. The fact that I was cold and they played in a tent warmed by the number of bodies in there definitely helped.
15. XYLOURIS WHITE
I like the idea of Xylouris White. They consist of lute and drums. The lute player is from Crete and the drummer used to be in the Dirty Three. I had come across some of their music on magazine CDs from Mojo (compiled by the Bad Seeds) and Songlines. Live they were interesting but perhaps not in the best slot – very late and straight after Lucinda Williams. I was not blown away but would give them another go, given the chance.
Least liked: ALEX CAMERON
I did not get this at all. Several people had recommended Alex and I wondered if I was missing something. Wikipedia tells me that Alex has adopted the persona of a failed entertainer. It makes sense now that I did not like this, as I like music to be straightforward.