Thursday, September 18, 2008

Do you like folk music?: End Of The Road Festival Saturday review


After the rains, the mud, an amorphous sticky gloop that keeps one of our shoes for itself twice and nearly makes a small part of the route between the two major stages and an area near the Bimble Inn impassable. Luckily not a single drop lands for the rest of the weekend, albeit six thousand people walking over it all over the following two days keeps it nice and rugged. Enough weather moaning, then, there's music to be watched.

Absentee open the Garden Stage doing their alt-country-but-more-alt thing, about half and half split between first and forthcoming second albums and with Dan Michaelson's Cohen drawl - hurrah! - actually audible for the most part. There's a lot to be said for them, not least that they do get underrated a good deal, but they're mostly falling on deaf ears this early on and there's not that spark to win them over. Unlike, over in the Big Top, The Accidental. A kind of folktronica supergroup involving one each of Tunng, the Memory Band, the Bicycle Thieves and someone even less famous than the Bicycle Thieves, they exude the right amount of bonhomie and charm, laying aside any electronic leanings in favour of fingerpicked guitars, warm but dark undertones and four-part harmonies, a compelling experience that'd be joyful were it not full of songs about ghosts and bad pubs.

Time to brave the Bimble Inn. Did we mention last year that we never liked the Bimble Inn? It's a teepee shaped tent with cushions and soft flooring down one side and a bar extending about two thirds of the way down, which means you're either stuck at the back unable to see (especially so this year with the wet floor precluding last year's bouts of sitting down) or, due to the talking at the bar, hear anything or you're right under the performer's nose. We're at the back for Threatmantics, so what might well be very loose folk is audibly trampled all over. Doubtless had we properly heard much more they'd have been better suited than Screaming Tea Party, here because their label Stolen Recordings, home to wasters Pete & The Pirates, have chosen this as the perfect spot for a label showcase and they'll bring their part-Japanese screaming noise-poppers featuring a thrashing guitarist in a gas mask and two others wearing golf visors if they have to. Keep the noise down, there's delicate acoustic guitars over there.

And over there on the Garden Stage there's violins, glockenspiels and that bloke off that song off the radio with the odd Bristolian vowels despite being a Londoner. Noah And The Whale, bumped up - but not too far up - the bill in the wake of their top ten album success, aren't as gleefully overawed by the attention as they were at Summer Sundae in the week they broke big, and probably aren't as joyful as the best of their songs suggest they should be played as a result, but they're certainly going for it, and when Five Years Time finally arrives last there's children on shoulders doing the actions, as there should be. Stolen's Let's Wrestle will never get children singing along, or so you'd hope, but their ramshackle indie like mamma used to make has its charms, if not aided by Wesley Patrick Gonzalez being too low in the mix. Followers of their In Loving Memory Of... EP will be interested to know that the band had hired the self same Joe Reddington as their roadie, by which they mean appearing on stage mid-song to deliver a bottle of beer for the bassist.

Because the one thing Brighton's music landscape could do with another of is a micro-scene, the Willkommen Collective is the name of a group of bands who share a folk outlook and personnel, and they've set up camp for an hour by the piano in the woods for each of the bands to have a go, although pretty much all of them are in the band that starts, Shoreline, in any case. Theirs is an expansive, swaying sound lifted by strings (Mike Siddell, who used to be in Hope Of The States and recently seen schlepping around in Lightspeed Champion's footsteps, is in them), banjo and harmonies, and here given further levity by the small boy in full Superman outfit who wanders into the area and stands puzzled in front of the collective for some time. By the time we return after a second, even more wayward set by The Young Republic which this time has the good grace to end on Modern Plays, Sons Of Noel & Adrian are bringing it to a close

It is at this point that we wander down to the other end of the enchanted forest to the lit up dancefloor installed, like the table tennis table a bit further back, for no reason other than because they can. Three children are sitting on the branches of a low hanging tree. One decides to shake the adjacent branch. It near enough takes our head off at the nape of the neck. Their father has spotted this and warns them off trying that again. We turn round. It's Richard Hawley. It's that kind of festival. (Hawley, who we'd seen earlier in the organic pizza tent, dresses off-duty much as you'd expect him to)

Justin Vernon, AKA Bon Iver, seems genuinely taken aback by the size of the crowd that's come to hear how he intends to rework the intimacies of his album to a setting fit for the open air. An hour later, everyone watching is taken aback by what he's done. It's a basic band set-up behind him, but the fleshing out of the songs in no way compromises the gorgeousness and personal touch of those songs famously worked up in a secluded log cabin, if anything enhancing their peaks and Vernon's swooping voice. Gradually Vernon came to know he had everyone at his beck and call, encouraging them to sing along to the end of The Wolves and then howl at the sky, and you don't hear an approving roar when an artist asks if we want to hear a new song much. That song, Blood Bank, has an understandably fuller side but is as raw, keening and loquacious as anything on the album, which bodes well. The other surprise, a cover of Talk Talk's I Believe in You, simultaneously sounded like an original and a faithful reading of the actual original, which takes some doing. The applause is long and heartfelt, and Vernon seems genuinely touched. No wonder. Bringing Bowerbirds on at the end for a heartaching harmony-driven reading of Nashville singer-songwriter Sarah Siskind's Lovin's For Fools put the tin lid on it and screwed it on with industrial force - an absolute, EOTR-winning triumph.

Ah, the Third Battalion are here with their branches and their flags and their, um, Yoda on a stick. That must mean British Sea Power are around to maintain their 100% EOTR appearance run. Playing to what seems to mostly be their crowd BSP choose the cussed route usually only seen in radio sessions, opening with the not immediately obvious A Wooden Horse and later dropping in Like A Honeycomb, an often overlooked track from the often overlooked itself Open Season, and A Lovely Day Tomorrow, one of our favourite BSP songs and given a fine workout here if truth be told but, and there's no getting around this, a seven year old B-side. Otherwise it's the usual spiralling ambition set to socio-historical themes, and they're all the better for it. Overrunning means Lately/Rock In A has to be abandoned from the end of the set, but Martin Noble gives it a go anyway when his guitar packs in halfway through No Lucifer, instead choosing to go over the barrier and have several fateful goes at crowdsurfing, eventually returning with the owner of a meticulous banner heralding 'THE RISE OF IRISH SEA POWER', designed in the same way as their own first album cover. What had gone before demonstrated why people go to such lengths for this band.

After a failed attempt to make anything out of what Birdengine was singing and plucking and a visit to a piano set by Timothy Victor's Folk Orchestra, essentially a very British version of the Coal Porters school of bluegrass hoedown, Low came onto the Garden Stage to darken the mood in more ways than one. Time was when they were as quiet as they were slow, but Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker and whoever's their bassist this week have been upping the amplification for a while now and blazed through the likes of Sunflower, Dinosaur Act and Canada with malice - quiet, stark and careful malice, but still malicious nonetheless - aforethought, with little of the warmth some of their later work has projected.

Now, a confession. We left early to catch the second Acorn set, which meant we missed the talking point of not just the set but the entire festival. Witnesses state that right at the end a string broke on Alan Sparhawk's guitar. Having already confessed to having a bad day, Sparhawk spectacularly lost it, making an attempt to break the thing before grabbing the strap, whirling it round hammer thrower style and launching it full throttle right into the crowd, to a complete stunned silence. Luckily it caused no injury, and the recipient seems quite pleased with his new slight seconds guitar, but you can imagine the pall that caused to fall.

The Acorn, meanwhile, might have been even better in their enclosed space than before, their percussionist taking the advantages by using the Bimble Inn support beams as something else to hammer on as all around ratcheted up the tension and release in the music and there was barely room to breathe for the dancing and general enthusiasm, especially so when Rolf Klausener mentioned almost in passing a couple of minutes after a rapturous finish that they had some free promos of Glory Hope Mountain at the front. There'd have been less of a crush had he said he had free £50 notes to give away. It's not often that Jeremy Warmsley gets overshadowed in our view, but there he was, and he pretty much admitted so. Not that he was bad by any stretch, despite the best efforts of instruments that kept very briefly cutting out, reworking songs from The Art Of Fiction - I Knew Her Face Was A Lie, inspired by seeing a YouTube cover, solo on the piano a highlight, and previewing some of How We Became in its stripped down three-piece live version. The cover of New Order's Temptation makes for a rumbustuous closer, even more so than the still skyscraping Craneflies. Winningly, when he said at the end he had two CDs to sell afterwards, unlike The Acorn he actually meant he had two copies of The Art Of Fiction with him. (And he still had time to educate us in the finer points of high five etiquette)

So out of kilter, despite the drummer's superb beard, with many of those around them they might as well have played Download they may be, but The Chap know how to bring the party. A very specific type of party, though, one that takes the stripped back punk-funk of a Talking Heads from any era you want, injects healthy electro beats and oddness and then slathers it in so much knowing, pop culture referencing archness it makes Franz Ferdinand resemble One Night Only. With judicious use of samples and the odd piece of choreographed shape throwing there's clearly something very wrong about The Chap, a band who could only be fronted by a man called Johannes von Weizsäcker who closes the set by attempting to destroy a cello only by the strength of manaical bow sawing (the horsehair gives in first), but at the same time something very right about their mutant art disco-rock, post-modernism coming right round the back and giving itself a kick up the arse. While dancing.

It's very difficult to dance to Two Gallants, but it's also very difficult to ignore them when within earshot. The passion and righteousness in Adam Stephens' pained holler, while their death blues marches are pumped full of steroids, Tyson Vogel's imaginative drumming against Stephens' less than delicate fingerpicking emerging somewhere near acoustic Led Zeppelin. In the dark of a near midnight, and only just over half full Big Top, these redemption songs are almost terrifying, especially when Las Cruces Jail virtually raises the roof. Given we aren't going to get into the packed Local tent to see Shearwater and with the Modern Ovens (Hamilton and Noble BSP's Jonathan Richman covers band with Matt Eaton and Darren Moon of the Tenderfoot) still an hour and a half away, we consider that a good place to leave it for the second night.


James Welch said...

Great review, wish I was there :(
Oh, and thanks for the shout-out :)


Richard said...

I missed Sparhawk's total freakout too - I didn't realise it was actually THAT mental, rather than just a token rock'n'roll gesture, until I read this. Wonder if anybody filmed it? It sounds kinda terrifying.

I'm posting my own far inferior review over at by the way, if you fancy comparing for any reason.

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