Coming away from our first End Of The Road Festival this time last year (follow the tag link) we genuinely thought about not going back for the plain reason that they'd never top that bill and any further investment might dull the memory of what a wonderful thing had going on here at Larmer Tree Gardens. Then we decided we were being silly, as it'd be far better regarded among bands, bookers and potential ticket buyers after proving they could do it for a second year, and bought an early bird ticket. Eventually announcements started being made, and we felt smugger with each one. Then it sold out, and notwithstanding worries over space we were pleased. This, if we're honest, was the festival we were most looking forward to this year, and things looked even more up, overcast skies aside, when we clocked how many more stalls and food outlets they'd managed to fit into a relatively small space.
In truth, those leaden clouds above would play a large part in the Friday proceedings, meaning that when Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin open the Garden Stage with their preppy, peppy 60s hooks in thrall to the Shins and first album Weezer, the combination of the conditions and the small, unenthusiastic crowd mean they pass by without making an impact. It's when we retreat to the Big Top that we realise that in those terms it's not going to be all plain sailing - the heavy rain that did for parts of Bestival in this area of Britain the previous weekend have left the entrance to the marquee muddy already, not to mention that sound problems mean a steward is still blocking the entrance more than twenty minutes after the first band are meant to have started.
But when they're sorted, there are much worse ways of kicking off a stage for the long weekend than Gossamer Albatross. Showcasing a set of songs not even on the demo EP circulated at the end of last year, there's a confidence about their ability and Lewis Gordon's vocal and melancholic storytelling beyond their years, recalling not just the regular touchstones of Beirut (if Zach next chose next to investigate the folk music of Britain) and Final Fantasy but through to the lofty perch of Neutral Milk Hotel and the 'Big Music' of the Waterboys. Some of the intricacies, as well as Gordon's vocal in the mix, as lost when they introduce a rhythm section and rock out, as much as they do, but the towering ambition is intact and that they're about to work with Jeremy Warmsley makes sense given the similar construction of these apparently very new full band songs. You really feel that this is a band perched on the edge of having a great deal of national attention come their way and who are gaining the confidence to take it head on.
Trying to work out who Cats In Paris take after isn't so easy. Not that there aren't touchstones, it's just they spread them out over a wide area and then attempt to cram them into the same four minutes, where analogue synths crash into pop hooks hiding in heavily compressed prog structures and emerge into the freak-folk undergrowth amid surrealist imagery. Comparisons to Deerhoof can be drawn, or perhaps Animal Collective if they'd first heard Bearsuit, but there's little so wilfully self-indulgent or atonal, except perhaps for the screaming bits, just the mere ADD musical schizophrenia as Michael Watson darts between synth, violin and mike as he carefully lays down his jigsaw piece of experimental cut and paste pop with harmonies that remembers it's still worth dancing to. It should be a mess, but as it is it almost demands you go away and think through what you just heard to see how it all makes sense.
That this was all going off inside the Big Top was lucky, as outside it had started pelting down and will do for much of the evening, causing not nice conditions underfoot, puddles to form and everyone who had the foresight to bring wellies to don them (don't look at us like that). Many, however, still brave the rain for The Acorn, and it becomes apparent during the weekend's first, but not last, properly magical set that this is a band worth braving anything up to and including plagues of locusts to see live. Their album, Glory Hope Mountain (out in the UK in roughly a month's time), is an inventive work but one that needs time and effort; translated to the stage, though, it bursts into spectral life, a dynamic reworking of the album's pastoral themes that brings them into glorious rhythmic, energetic technicolour. Starting with its best song Crooked Legs helps, but throughout the Canadians' wealth of instrumentation and the sheer grace and power Rolf Klausener invests in these lushly arranged, meticulous songs of experience and hope alongside his six bandmates' invention, making these wide open Gardens spaces seem all the more intimate. It's a triumph, and if there isn't a wave of hype by the album's release there's something very wrong.
The Big Top still just about running late means we have time to catch the end of The Young Republic's set. Last year their careering multi-handed Americana was a joy, but despite the eight on stage clearly having a whale of a time there's little actual spark coming off them, despite a spirited run through Girl From The Northern States. Similarly, as the rain hits its worst, A Hawk And A Hacksaw's Baltic hoedowns struggle manfully to make an audience connection and carry lugubriously on for a trifle too long. Faring better inside the Big Top is Peter and the Wolf, against what it has to be said are some odds as despite the name it's one bloke, Red Hunter, mostly with just a ukelele and his plaintive vocals performing a couple of songs he claims to have written the other day in a quietly mesmeric set.
Laura Marling, sporting a new fringe bowl cut as well as a suit jacket, seems to be in a Boris Johnson fashion phase. Despite not quite looking like she's got over the nerves stage of playing live to large audiences and barely saying a word from stage entrance to last song, she's far more composed than that, though, doing that whole effortlessly drawing the listener into her fragile world thing, aided by a fine band, not least in the all-round abilities of Marcus Mumford, possibly pop's only accordion-playing drummer. A new song confirms her advancing abilities with finding the key to the heart. The real deal? She's done more than enough to make such notions hackneyed. The rain chooses this moment to cease after a good twenty minutes of concurrent sunshine, leading to two rainbows. It seems to fit.
What a thing of wonder is Warren Ellis - the man, the stare, the beard. Dirty Three's music may be instrumental, usually a signifier for members to concentrate on their instruments as if in open heart surgery, but while Mick Turner seems immoveable and Jim white looks imperturbable while playing complex drum patterns Ellis and violin are off all round the place, high kicking and swooping in on his bandmates' instruments. And while live instrumental music is often fated to dull longeurs, the pitch and yaw of Dirty Three's sound, Ellis and amp whipping bow across strings with virtuoso ease while making one violin sound like a roomful while Turner's guitar alternates between carefully picked out wonder and shoegazing noisescaping, is inescapably exciting. And then the song ends and Ellis sets off freestyling for a couple of minutes about what the next song may or may not be about, once announcing it to be Everything's Fucked with clear relish at the end of a spiel during which he detailed exactly how he'd caused the previous day's Channel Tunnel fire. Completely captivating, intense and unique, it's a rare object lesson in how music without words can be even more of a spectacle than with. The bit of Robyn Hitchcock we catch mid-set can't really compete. Almost completely alone this year - he invites his sisters on for some close harmony and later has another guitarist join him - and still able to construct a setlist half of which you won't know, such is his back catalogue (although closing with a fine version of the Soft Boys' Queen Of Eyes) and banter that makes Ellis' look monosyllabic and obvious, but it's not as engaging as last year with John Paul Jones.
Somewhere among the talking in the expanded and moved away from the main stage from last year Local stage we catch the end of One Little Plane's set, Kathryn Bint delivering charming and slightly offbeat singer-songwriter fare in the Emiliana Torrini mode but with space still ahead of her to develop. Someone well developed in the art of standing out from the crowd is Mark Eitzel, and while we've never really got round to investigating American Music Club properly that's clearly very remiss of us on this form. The behatted Eitzel comes on like a preacher, passionately spitting out tales of betrayal and black humour in a crooning wild-eyed style which Nick Cave seems to have taken extensive notes from, the very apotheosis of this damaged emotional bar-room alt-rock. Following them into the Big Top come Akron/Family, the trio in their hooded, headbanded, robed finery and starting with some campfire ohm-ing that lasted for some time. And then some time further. And some more on top of that, so much so that we decided they were having one of those improv self-indulgence nights and left. It seems to have turned shortly afterwards into a feedback frenzy involving The Acorn and sundry audience members. Well, it had to happen.