Friday, September 28, 2007

Night falls over Larmer Tree: End Of The Road Festival Sunday review

The Swedish game of Kubb, something akin to two-sided pub skittles, has turned up mid-field, certainly a lot earlier than we do. Luckily we've already seen main stage opener Port O'Brien fortuitously, if not Dawn Landes, the bluegrass singer who does Young Folks. Someone we hadn't seen, on their third of four sets, are End Of The Road Records' own The Young Republic, who have clearly entered into the spirit of things with two members in dinner suits and singer Julian Saporiti donning silver face paint, while later on they bring out some kids to inexpertly throw sweets to the crowd and do tricks with those reel things on string you get in juggling kits. None of this overshadows their genre-bounding sound, which is rooted in country rock but with cleverly worked shades of Beatles melodic harmony, classic rock, Dylan, power pop and Belle & Sebastian wistfulness. Worth keeping an eye on. Certainly more so than the mildly hyped Pete & The Pirates, who turn out to be a mildly post-punk take on the mid-90s Blur template, and not a particularly exciting one at that no matter how much the singer moves around in a Orlando Weeks fashion. Meanwhile the Seasick Steve set in the Bimble Inn is packed out well beyond its limits and turns out to be a Q&A with someone from Mojo magazine. Presumably he plays something at some stage, but we have other things to do.

Then Jeffrey Lewis and new backing band The Jitters, featuring brother Jack, come on in the Big Top and start with a Crass cover. Then another one. And another one. Eight, in fact. To be fair he is over to promote his new 12 Crass Songs stopgap covers album, but as he only thinks to explain this after six we can imagine potential converts confused as to why the post-slacker antifolk poet of the comic book kids was delivering a load of scrappy left-wing polemics, all of which include the word 'system'. Things improve when a bloke in a Cramps T-shirt is invited on from the front to add shaker and backing vocals, and get very much better when Lewis gets into his own songs, No LSD Tonight and Moving followed by a extraordinary solo Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror that gets the best single reception of any song played throughout the three days. That's why he's so feted.

Herman Dune is similarly loved without the wider acclaim, but unlike Lewis you feel that in an age of The Gossip in the top ten and Feist on iPod adverts these Richmanesque faux-naive poetic homilies to love and life could turn heads given promotion (indeed I Wish That I Could See You Soon got play on The Box). David-Ivar takes the tenets of anti-folk, welds them to west coast pop and you just wish the overcast skies would brighten up to make it befit the mood created. It's Dune's (and Lewis') friends The Wave Pictures who make the greater impact at the time, though, in a clashing Local set. Dave Tattersall turned up the previous day in both Darren Hayman's sets and his own band share much of Hefner's DNA, Modern Lovers indebted and very much set in the bedsit world of sexual discomfort, social mores and self-deprecating humour both in (not least the occasional solo) and between songs. While we were only vaguely aware of them previously the much-travelled trio - bred in Leicestershire, Cardiff scene members through university, now based in Bethnal Green and just signed to Moshi Moshi - understandably already have a hardcore following, eventually leading Tattersall to abandon the setlist and take requests, and their kitchen sink microdramas have hearts and minds to win over yet.

Johnny Flynn is one of those people who looks far too young for the voice and style he utilises. The ridiculously talented Flynn starts on an English folk footing but is equally at home with country, old fashioned blues and bluegrass, and is lyrically smart with it. Ramshackle charm is a much abused term in reviews, and the Sussex Wit do making a pig's ear of a couple of finishes, but when they're motoring and you can hear them all it coalesces into the self-confident understated joy mirrored in their releases to date, especially the closing with a hoedown version of Tickle Me Pink and a folk dance song with Flynn on fiddle and drummer Matt Edmonds on guitar, when the sound team remember to switch it back on. How new label Vertigo, home of Razorlight and Dirty Pretty Things, will approach them is beyond us, but it'll be fun getting there.

Somewhat unexpectedly The Local is completely packed out beyond mere queueing and waiting for Peggy Sue & The Pirates, but there's a right row going on on the Garden Stage. Archie Bronson Outfit's hypnotic hammering is rousing enough on record, but it's clearly live that they come into their own, Sam Windett's scorching riffs and whiskey-soaked tremulous yell plus enormous bass lines underpinned by Mark Cleveland's unstoppable cyclical drum thumping ensuring a blues-punk monster has disembarked at the festival. A very different blues-soaked experience follows in Seasick Steve, whose summer of festival touring has made him a stage walkabout crowdpleaser to consolidate his feted slide stomping Mississippi hobo blues skills, even if he does break the Three Stringed Wonder two songs in.

We've already seen him this summer, so it's off to the Big Top cabaret. Almost literally, in Misty's Big Adventure's case. Misty's are one of those bands that people either hate at first sight or completely fall for, such is the nature of their screwy brass-powered upbeat psychedelic cabaret pop plus deadpan crooned hopeful/cynical lyrics plus blue facepainted dancer wearing red all-in-one outfit covered in blue rubber gloves who calls him/itself Erotic Volvo (and by the way, if any of The Twang are reading...) For us, although Grandmaster Gareth often talks up Raymond Scott, Julian Cope and Pram as influences, we're more inclined to see them as the closest thing to a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band successor, presenting as our evidence Gareth's sometimes satirical (The Kids Are Radioactive), sometimes wise beyond reputation lyrics and the jazz-influenced swing behind him plus onstage unstoppableness. And Fashion Parade is surely a Noughties Can Blue Men Sing The Whites.

On leaving the Big Top, two parrots by overhead. It's fitting.

Charlie Parr is another popular favourite we seem to have missed, although the Bimble Inn was again packed out for the bluesman, so next up is another band we've seen already this summer, The Broken Family Band. While at heart they tread the same Brit-Americana path as plenty of others here, they stand out for the way they're not afraid to go one louder, packing a fuzzed up punch on their newer material that stands often uncomfortably adjacent to their slower burning dustier Will Oldham-meets-Pavement songs. Steven Adams remains one of our greatest deadpan banterers. We will go on to realise we've missed a last minute Twilight Sad show. And two semi-secret Herman Dune sets with Jack Lewis and various Wave Pictures. Again, arse.

Jens Lekman is running late, so Josh T Pearson, who we'd earlier seen literally observing the cigarette stall (and to be fair you can barely miss him with the world championship entrant beard and stetson) has been bumped down the Big Top's running order. Any thoughts that a timeslot further from midnight than the former Lift To Experience frontman's howling at the moon should ideally be are quashed within seconds. He hardly seems to be putting the effort in to look at him through the gathering darkness, but as his guitar rings out apocalyptically in all other respects he seems possessed, sometimes stage-whispering into his own self, sometimes with righteous preacher intensity about demons and angels. By the time his hour has finished everyone's ears have been given a full going over.

Which makes readjusting to headliners Lambchop quite a challenge. In fact they're slimmed down anyway, losing a few members and a string section, and the set chosen spends a decent period in the hushed state of the Is A Woman album. Although it does get more rousing, we can't help but think of their indoor set at Summer Sundae 2004, where the acoustics were much more favourable to this kind of thing, and while Kurt Wagner's contemplative tales do occasionally strike a chord the feeling is that Sunday outdoors is perhaps not the best place to experience their captivating peaks. Inevitably, we now learn we missed a choral Up With People prominently featuring, yes, Howe Gelb.

So let's instead finish with some West Coast-influenced Swedish pop. It's End Of The Road, it's everything you could want. Jens Lekman's new album went straight to number one in Sweden, which shows where we're going wrong (his website says it was promptly knocked off by Paul Potts, which shows where everybody's going wrong). His gorgeously written and carefully constructed songs from the heart, equal parts post-twee and lush pop, off-kilter lyrics looking askance at small town life and love captured by a strong, tight band that left just enough room for Lekman to play in. A joy throughout, and a nigh on perfect closing complement to this most already unique and accomplished of festivals.

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