This was the second End Of The Road festival, set in a well manicured public gardens a few miles from Blandford down some not at all scary after dark single lane country roads. Despite the odd 'too many festivals'-driven sneer from outsiders - how come nobody says Bestival, a week earlier, is too late in the year? - the first event beat the far more press lauded Latitude to the Best New Festival gong at last year's public voted UK Festival Awards, and it doesn't take long on site to see why, or to determine that this site has its own special aura. You could put it down to the way it combines the best visible elements of many a much loved second tier festival : the spectacular setting folk with many twists booking policy of Green Man (the festival the organisers openly admit was their inspiration), the bottom-up build and all-in attendee as music-appreciating gang mentality of Truck, the family friendliness of Summer Sundae and the below-radar flightpath of any event that doesn't have the dead commercial hand of Mean Fiddler acting as a surrogate Banquo's ghost. That it's not yet one for the Q set is ultimately its most pleasing aspect, that Simon and Sofia have gone through with their big idea and chanced across something special in itself.
But even then there's something different, something other about this one. There's not the scale of human traffic evident in a lot of the competition even though it was within 500 tickets of selling out its 5,000 capacity; everything's more laid back, people seem in less of a rush to get from stage to stage, more content to explore. And there's plenty to discover, from the Somerset Cider Bus that had massive queues outside all weekend to the forest area. Clearly a lot of lateral thinking work went into this area, from the fairy lights and toys draped on and around the trees to the clearing it led to with a piano in one corner. And that's before you've got to the Tree Of Knowledge (a bookcase full of reference books wrapped around a tree), the healing fields, the art installations, the roped off sculpted scenery or the tame peacocks that wandered around the fields.
By the time we arrive we've missed Strange Idols for the second time this summer among others, and our plans to see ex-Grandaddy Jim Fairchild's new project All Smiles are stymied by the simple fact that he seems not to have turned up. Instead, in the midst of one of the light but annoying persistent showers that will litter the day, we start with cult folk-roots outfit the Willard Grant Conspiracy, an Americana cousin to Nick Cave in his most pessimistic moods. There's clearly a sharpness to their melancholy but the intensity of emotion doesn't quite translate to a big open air stage despite their quasi-orchestral mob-handed setup. In fairness we couldn't stop for much of their set as over in The Local, the new bands tent new to the festival this year, was Napoleon IIIrd, someone we've wanted to see since the excellent In Debt To album (finally released on CD on October 22nd, we understand) landed with us. James Mabbett may well be joined by a drummer and organist but this is no attempt at organically attempting to recreate all the intricacies, loops and multitracking of the album, much of the backing being dealt with by a large analogue reel-to-reel tape player he keeps having to bang to stop it buzzing. It barely matters, as the frustration and passion inherent in Mabbett's voice comes through as much as the hook-laden but complex and oddly structured backing gives the songs their individual twist. It's the kind of thing some would dismiss as 'too clever for its own good', whatever the hell that means. All we'll let on is it's a standout set by a genuine individual talent.
Suitably ennobled we promptly wander into the wrong tent and end up catching the end of Washington's Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter's set of dark alt-country, which doesn't grab as you feel it should but our decision turns into something of a boon when Howe Gelb, curator of most of the stages today, Big Top MC and resplendent in a large white cowboy hat, joins in on improvised piano for their last song. Back in the Local tent are Actress Hands, scion of the Brighton Scene - all of Brakes are watching on, including Alex White even though he's supposed to be in the band - but today bedevilled by problems with tunings, the mix, the mikes, the monitors and just about everything else. At least Matt Eaton can make light of it all, and their Big Star-indebted sound is more convincing live, when it works properly, then they've managed on record as yet.
We missed Stephanie Dosen at Summer Sundae, and while again her ethereal style might suit a tent better than this big Garden Stage, backed by an all-girl quartet, two on strings, there's something in the soft-spun fragility of her writing that seems to work in this setting. Her banter and occasional subject matter suggests elements of being away with the fairies as often as spilling her innermost thoughts and secrets, but it's kept in check by a delivery that's reminiscent of Martha Wainwright at her sweetest. You can see what Bella Union main men Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde saw in her, as while it's very much in the alt-country milieu there's a ghostliness and subtlety that suggests the Cocteau Twins' own world.
Actress Hands' Johny Lamb and Matt Eaton are back on The Local stage for the former's own band Thirty Pounds Of Bone, and while some of the summery power-pop influences are there live at its core this is a different beast, more trad-English folky and sea shanty-inspired while still veering off on warped alternative tangents, like Michael Head teaming up with Sparklehorse to create a darkness on the edge of a coastal town. A confident, poised set proves there's gold in this strand, not really folky in the modern sense of the term, instead founded on home-brewed ambition and a singular cause, and we end up buying their CD on site from a stall run by Rough Trade, who seemingly keep having to fend off enquiries about the seperate entity label, and have to resort to a wind-up torch after their lights go. There's an allegory about the state of independent record shops here somewhere. John Doe, once of LA punk trailblazers X, now a fairly standard bluesy acoustic singer-songwriter with a dark storytelling bent and a song about ex-punk colleagues now deceased, passes time even before Gelb and band join him towards the end, while Woven Hand's gothic backwoods folk approximated Will Oldham mid-cathartic therapy.
This is Scout Niblett's first festival in seven years, she tells us. Maybe this is the type of under the radar activity that means while the Nottingham-raised Steve Albini favourite holds a small but forceful cult following we'd never managed to get into her. Until now. Starting off alone with electric guitar, later joined by a flailing drummer, it's immediately striking how much passion and empathy she puts into her performance, writing the most delicate, intimate allegories and personalised stories and coating them in a sheer rush of melodically tensed dynamics and grunge-influenced dirty great guitar sounds cut to the bitter quick. Comparisons to Rid Of Me-era PJ Harvey and long dark night of the soul Cat Power are undoubtedly there but Niblett's songs seem to come from somewhere else entirely. Her forthcoming fourth album, featuring four duets with Will Oldham, will on this evidence be something special.
Sons Of Noel And Adrian's baroque orchestral folk (featuring, it transpires, ex-Hope Of The States violinist Mike Siddall) has promise but doesn't really go anywhere, so for the first time we head off to the bijou Bimble Inn tent, scene, it's said, of the very heart of the festival's all-in atmosphere. Which we can see, but the downside was having to watch Marie Frank behind a group of children playing Jenga. It's no great loss in all honesty, her Sundays-recalling acoustic-led songs are fairly devoid of individual character.
We never really fell for Midlake's appropriation of 70s soft rock for their own ends on The Trials Of Van Occupanther, and while they're playing solidly enough on their only UK festival appearance of the year - indeed, they've broken off midway through a US tour to come to Britain for this one gig - there's nothing there to make us change our minds, and they're not going to play Balloon Maker, so we decamp to The Local and join a half-full tent in sitting down to listen intently (the sound, by the way, was excellent throughout at all stages) to Mary Hampton. Yet another Brightonian, she's very much in the English folk revival tradition of Briggs and Denny, a storyteller possessing a voice of great clarity and an ability to pull the listener transfixed into her worldview.
As if Robyn Hitchcock - pop polymath, inventor of psych-indie before cheap categorisations were par for the course and a close second to Nick Lowe in the All-England Gracefully Ageing Singer Championships - wasn't draw enough, accompaniment on huge acoustic bass, slide guitar and mandolin is provided by John Paul Jones, next to be seen for £125 in the O2 Arena in November. Despite such a huge and varied back catalogue that we hardly recognise anything in the set it's all of a piece without being one-paced, typically whimsical but highly intelligent and emotional, psychedelically aired but melodic and modernistic. Being Hitchcock, these come with between song patter that drifts into odd diversions and alleyways yet always find their way back into introducing the next song. Joined towards the end by a saw player and that man Gelb on piano, this was a superior delve into the psyche of one of our foremost off-kilter songwriters, not to mention his accomplished mate.
And so to wipe clean thoughts of both the cold and any ideas that today was getting far too folky with headliners Yo La Tengo. Ira Kaplan's guitar manages to break down before he's even started, which leads him to fling it to the ground and storm off ostensibly in search of a replacement only for that one to start working again when he returns. Understandably he rages through the opener Sugarcube as if it has a personal vendetta against him. From then on, although accomodation problems meant we couldn't stop for the whole set, it was proof that here are three people who both know exactly what they're doing and haven't pre-planned anything but are more than capable of following each other when Kaplan's off on a ten minute noise solo. Only the experience of actually seeing them at full throttle can probably get across what YLT live are like, from the abrupt changes in style and unsettlement to the musical dexterity while everything fires off around them. No peace in the Dorset night, then, but nobody's complaining when a headliner delivers a set this stratospheric.