Thursday, September 18, 2008

Come, come to the Larmer Tree: End Of The Road Festival Sunday review

Can we share our own plans? So we were planning in the few days before EOTR to do something with whichever artists we could back into a corner to tie in with this here blog, without actually thinking what that one thing would be. Having seen someone touting a signed blow-up banana around Summer Sundae we considered getting as many performers as possible to sign something and then give it away on here, but the only things we had to hand that we could carry in our bag for the duration were a 50p notebook and the back of an eight pack of Duracell (AA size, for the record). Then there was the thought of getting personalised video or audio messages, but our camera's video option doesn't record sound and our phone sound recorder didn't come with a USB cable. Eventually a lightbulb appeared - there's plenty of people we like around, why not collect some Celebrity Playlists? Unfortunately we came up with that one halfway through Sunday, so it was a bit late, and as up to that point we'd seen out with the plebs such luminaries in our world as Jeffrey Lewis, Martin Noble, Tom White (although we think he hates us - long story), Marc Beatty, Dave Tattersall, Darren Hayman, Robin Ince, Josie Long (those three in conversation, which seemed right and proper), the aforementioned Richard Hawley and, in a surprise cameo, Aleks Campesinos, while the only person of note we saw with the hoi polloi after that point was the bass player from Absentee, who was ahead of us in the organic burger queue late on Sunday, it all seemed more than slightly forlorn. Next year. We'll get our name around. Make up a T-shirt if we have to.

Music.

Sons Of Noel & Adrian, a ten-strong baroque chamber folk collective drawn from that Willkommen Collective we discussed yesterday, open up the Garden Stage with their expansive, brittle and doomed sea shanties, shifting from wistful picking-led melodies to washes of controlled noise and choral vocals with subtlety and grace. Not, as demonstrated by Bon Iver yesterday, that they're all bad, but it's interesting how the populace will fall for any American folkie outfit with a hint of foreboding while this sort of thing remains unbidden, taken up only by those willing to make the effort to dig it out. It feels at once universally sourced and yet a solely British take on what modern folk should mean. Maybe it's because some British bands are too much in thrall to the American traditions to think outside that box - case in point Congregation in the Big Top. Victoria Yeulet has a fine set of hollering blues pipes, working against Benjamin Prosser's 12-bar slide guitar and simultaneous bass drum kick playing, but there's little variation and nothing there to suggest it's going to come soon.

Last year The Wave Pictures packed out the Local tent with fans well before most people had come across them, so obviously they had to get the promotion to the Garden Stage this year. That they don't look overawed by the experience, in fact quite the opposite, is testament to the trio's abilities to wring peculiar gold from the Richman/Hayman template and, live at least, whack in a dollop of compacted Neil Young soloing. They're getting a very odd reaction at the moment, with reviewers comparing them variously to The Enemy, Ocean Colour Scene and assorted other landfill indie acts, but you know Steve Jones would run a mile if confronted with this level of ability and lyrical dexterity (yes, of course the sculpture/marmalade line gets a crowd singalong), not to mention this level of self-deprecation, especially when Dave Tattersall lays into his own mother's meterological reading skills before bashfully realising exactly who he's talking about. It's pretty much a straight up hits set including one new song and a vocal turn for drummer Jonny Helm on Now You Are Pregnant, and it strikes a fine chord.

Given the roots of New York anti-folk were in simplicity and musical regression and the Moldy Peaches specialised in a child-like wonder at adult themes, it's not entirely surprising Kimya Dawson's new album is for kids, and given the family nature of EOTR it's not surprising she plays bits of it in her set. Her grown-up songs are, well, more of the same, except about relationships rather than scatalogical, but Dawson has a charm that means these ideas come across all the better. Moving from US anti-folk to British blues-folk might have seemed retrograde were it not for the abilities of Liz Green, the reticent young Mancunian whose acoustic jazz influenced take sounds like she's inherited the direct spirit of those captured by Alan Lomax's sound archive, aided by John Fairhurst's nimble fingerpicking. Not at all overwhelmed by the space of the huge Big Top, Green has enough projection in her to go far. Also having a go on his own, his Magnolia Electric Co on hiatus, is Jason Molina on the big stage, in good voice and impeccable suit but with a set that washes straight over us. Maybe it's the fact that we didn't know a lot of these songs, or maybe it's because after two and a half days of general aimless trudging we're for the time being out on our feet.

"Welcome to our festival!" What could revive us? Well, some ragged three-chord garage punk led by a man in military uniform and handlebar moustache, for a start. Billy Childish, possibly the only man in rock who would call a heckler "you silly sausage", and his Musicians of the British Empire are doing what he's been doing for three decades now - raw, scorching beat group/power trio pre-punk with Nuggets/Who/Sonics/Kinks riffs, a Thames Estuary accent and a healthy disregard for everyone else. It's not professional as such - like some self-parody he stops one song because he claims he's forgotten its fourth chord and later spends some time retuning before realising he didn't need to for the next song, while bassist Nurse Julie seems to spend the majority of the 45 minutes giggling even when not forgetting the words to one of her two vocal leads - but it all adds to the gaiety of this bracing racket, and he becomes the first artist we've ever seen fully fill the Big Top. Long live Billy Childish, still doing his own cussedly raucous thing in the face of fashion.

Speaking of anti-fashion... "All weekend people have been coming up to me wanting me to do some of my new stuff" deadpans Darren Hayman at the outset. This is in fact Darren & Jack Play Hefner Songs, the occasional (although the suggestion is this is the last time) roundelay in which Hayman and Hefner multi-instrumentalist Jack Hayter...well...play Hefner songs, here aided by Franic (who gives Amelia Fletcher's vocals on Don't Go a shot, Hayman's first choice Emmy The Great being unavailable) and Jonny of the Wave Pictures. Quietly Hefner's direct riffs and unstinting lovelorn lyrics have become an influential band on a great swathe of the modern indiepop scene, not to mention bred a coterie of slowly ageing fanboys that enable Hayman to step away during the very first song A Hymn For The Postal Service and everyone to shout back the '2, 3, 4..." from the middle of The Hymn For The Cigarettes, which Hayman promptly forgets the words to. Heavier on the early songs, you get the feeling Darren and Jack could have continued all night if they wanted; how they actually finish is a rousing The Day That Thatcher Dies closing with Hayman, Hayter and Dave Tattersall exchanging solos three times over "like on Let It Be".

Jeffrey Lewis also takes the wide angle on his career, but such are his storytelling skills that we even trust him when he leaves one song to Jack. No comic book displays, but there's a new song about how much better Herman Dune were when both brothers were in the band - a very Jeffrey Lewis subject - another elongated version of The Last Time I Did Acid..., that man Tattersall pops by on ukelele for a couple of songs and there's the now obligatory closing with two Crass covers, the last of which, Do They Owe Us A Living, seeing John Darnielle run on to contribute backing vocals. The Garden Stage overrunning means we did what we feared we might not get to do and see the last two songs of Tindersticks' set. They're in particularly velvety form tonight on this short evidence, if by all accounts mostly the new material from The Hungry Saw, a string section aiding these smoky song noirs of experience go over.

Anticipation, aided by a number of namechecks by everyone from Hayman to Charlie Fink, is at fever pitch for The Mountain Goats in the Big Top, and when Darnielle takes the stage properly he gladly acknowledges the reception, prepares himself... and breaks a string with the very first strum. There then follows a five minute hold-up for a replacement, Darnielle attempting to sing Regina Spektor's Samson over the top of drummer John Wurster (ex-Superchunk) keeping the rhythm of that first song, Palmcorder Yajna, going until being called away for running repairs. Just the fact they did Palmcorder Yajna was in keeping with the set, with a few from Heretic Pride mixed with some cherrypicking from the previous few albums, including a new arrangement of Dance Music and a particularly fine Have To Explode. Having played Sept 15 1983 to near silence Darnielle notes our being taken in by the performance - for which, it has to be said, the vocals weren't always audible, and in a Mountain Goats show that's really quite important - and promised "another song about child abuse", which turns out to be This Year, and on that song's rapturous reception he encourages us to sing along to closer No Children, an offer gladly taken up by many. Eventually, then, a triumph and another high water mark in a weekend already full to the brim with them.

Only one thing for us to do now - watch Brakes. It's tradition. So there's all the old favourites, the usual slew of Brakes newcomers bemused and amused by the things everyone else is singing back to Eamon and the lengths of some of the songs - Cheney gets three plays - a couple of promising new songs, a new Tom White haircut (a kind of off-centre Travis Bickle with fringe) and the personal surprise of Isabel and You'll Always Have A Place To Stay, which by our reckoning means that in the seven times we've now seen Brakes or solo Hamilton they've played everything from both albums except Sometimes Always, and they only do that in Brighton for obvious guest reasons. The only guest this time is Hamilton's new wife - we'd thought she'd been introduced as Carla Bozulich, as in the ex-Geraldine Fibbers frontwoman, but checking facts, dates and likelihood we're not sure - who in marrying him has earned herself a lifetime pass of Jackson duets and, frankly, the pair of them making out like teenagers in front of all these people.

And so, for another year, ends this most glorious of festivals, the right setting with the right people at, if not the right time - would you camp in a field in mid-September for anything less? - certainly the right atmosphere, this year enlivened by many properly memorable performances. We've already got our early bird ticket for 2009.

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