There's always been something unique about the Dorset/Wiltshire end of festival term party that is End Of The Road, and late on Saturday it finally struck us exactly what it is. Wandering through the semi-secret woods, nominally in pitch darkness but for the endless fairy lights, somewhere between the light-up dancefloor and the piano around which were crowded all sorts of nogoodniks - some in bands - having just watched a bonfire in the middle of the largest field, a drum circle off in the middle distance, the thought struck us: there may not be the extra-curricular activities, but there's no need to actually come out of this heavily manned fairytale setting to go and watch some musicians. It's enchanting enough as it stands.
Romanticising to the nth degree, of course, but there's a soul beyond mere entertainment value to EOTR that many a festival strives that little bit too hard for. It bills itself as a festival that relaxes you, and with its garden setting, not too large location and variety of celebrated features, from the woods to the Cider Bus, give it that ordinary magic beyond most festivals' kens. Maybe it was because for once it didn't tip down on the Friday, or indeed at all, but that enchantment all seemed heightened this year. This isn't a summer festival as outsiders would recognise it. Up against Bestival and after the official media wind-down of Reading & Leeds, it's almost our little secret. People care. Because the festival cares.
Reputation suggests the Canadians should have made more of an impression, I suppose, but as it stood they were a good way to open a festival of this nature for us with their dialled-down post-Funeral mini-orchestral swells and Casey Mecija's emotionally hefty delivery, if not quite laden with enough hooks to drag many people into the Big Top. A tent, by the way, that like the other tents was reduced in size this year, good in this case as it rectified last year's sound issues, but not so much in the already hard to warm to Tipi (ex-Bimble Inn), which redesigned itself into a glorified L-shape with lots of support beams but meant even fewer people could get in and/or hear anything.
Mumford & Sons
When and how did Marcus and the rest of them become so popular with the kids? There's a small but vociferous band of them at the front cheering every song as if they're headlining, when they're the first band on the Garden Stage of the whole event and in a 45 minute slot they barely make it over half an hour despite this being the first stopoff on their album tour. No doubt their hoedowns are things of occasionally ramshackle but often wholehearted attraction, though, and maybe the pop-psychologist in me thinks the adoption of their four part harmony laden bluegrass may be a rustic 'natural' reaction to the dayglo electronics of last year's loves. They have a spell over the rest of the onlookers too, as Mumford suggests in passing that people sitting in the sun get up towards the rollicking end of Roll Away Your Stone and at least half of them do, like a half Mexican wave moving away from the stage. Wonderful start.
When Emil Svanangen played here two years ago we were struck by how much more full-on his live song was compared to the aching loveliness of his recorded output. Since then his follow-up Loney Noir has disappeared under the critical radar, and the songs from it don't seem to leave much impression, but he seems to have found a happy medium live through warm harmonies and likeable banter. It's just musically a little safe and directionless.
David Thomas Broughton
Some people, of course, thrive on the apparently directionless, if in a suitably opposing manner. Broughton has a double bass player and drummer for most of the set but it doesn't anchor him down all that much, as songs get extended beyond their means so he can add extraneous bits to the loops, wander off and play a bit of one finger keyboard (they gave him one of those as well), rearrange his scarf or, and this is very much key, whatever, before starting a new song regardless. At one point he combines the disciplines of guitar solo and speed banana eating, having had the fruit/herb/whatever on his shoulder for the previous ten minutes. He proceeds, of course, to put the peel on his head and disappear into loops of oblique noise and bleak cries. Only a brief smile flashed at the soundman at some out of time noise threatens to break his lugubrious poker face. A few walk away not quite understanding it all, or perhaps out of fear, but the vast majority are rapt. Then four kids come on and bash a couple of drums arrythmically for a couple of minutes, the one nearest to Broughton throughout eyeing him up in great suspicion. Eventually he stops them. He does this by bellowing "STOP IT! STOP PLAYING!" Then he faces us and, once he's quietened the rabid applause, offers his postscript: "now you can go and see some real music".
First visit of the year to The Local for a sweeping post-rock inflected collective with a violinist providing a quasi-orchestral edge and the capacity to build into towering monoliths of distorted guitars from pastoral beginnings. It sounds to us a lot like Her Name Is Calla, and unfortunately they don't have that extra dramatic spark or ambition that marks HNIC out.
There aren't many bands who could get away with announcing at the very outset that they were going to play a lot of songs they've never played before, at least in this country (from new album The Golden Archipelago, aimed for February/March) Then again, especially after last year's Local-filling midnight set, there's not a lot of bands you'd trust more than Jonathan Meiburg's collective to uphold their core musical sentiments no matter what they spring on us. These new songs comprise about half the set, sounding more like a band than before, going down some interesting sidepaths with Meiburg largely on guitar throughout. One song employs redoubtable drummer Thor Harris on clarinet and then as half of a glockenspiel duet. The rest of the set is as restlessly dramatic as expected, Meiburg's voice soaring and the arrangements enthrallingly rollercoaster-like in emotive reach. Sounding ever closer to a filled out Talk Talk, there seems no limit as to what they can achieve.
A late replacement for the Mummers, who pulled out due to what seems to be tragic circumstances, we've never quite got into Euros as a solo artist and his own material doesn't seem to have the stickability or interesting quirks of Gorky's. Or maybe we were just too excited for...
Everyone's live highlight of SXSW, if Dave Longstreth and co feel they have anything to live up to it doesn't show in the slightest. It helps that Longstreth is an amazing guitarist, his acrobatically complicated African-influenced guitar lines never seeming showy in execution, locking into the odd complex groove or intra-band play-off where required while still knocking out these tremendously labyrinthine lead parts. Around him the rhythm section hold the polyrhythms down as much as they dare, Amber Coffman locks down a capable second guitar and the other two girls shift between instruments and lending their harmonic vocal talents. And they are talents, just as integral as the warped Afropop to the DP's sound. Much has been made of Coffman's Stillness Is The Move vocal, which she pulls off with mighty aplomb to prove against the odds that there was still room for the set to get better after a remarkable Rise Above that opened up the already spectral sound of their recorded version, but the opening of Angel Deradoorian's own acrobatic without being showy pipes on an acoustic Two Doves pretty much silences the place. Her and Coffman trading rapid scale notes at the start and end of Remade Horizon is practically inhuman. Ending up on the barrier watching such a phenomenally tight and accomplished band, let alone one reaching for such ridiculously distant stars, right now feels a unique experience.
Once upon a time, in its own way, a Herman Dune set would have been something to treasure but now you get the feeling the now duo have lost their way a little, going on the portentious 'rocking out' and the increased proportion of lyrical inanity. They rescue it towards the end with more of an upbeat party feel, but that should have been there from the start. It always used to be. Perhaps the good while they spent playing table tennis in the woods that afternoon took it out of them.
The Week That Was
Do you reckon Peter Brewis named his side project such so that, at the end of their last gig, he could declare "that was The Week That Was"? Because that's just what he does and just what this is, work on the third Field Music album long underway. With David on drums they go through the album in order with a playful confidence - check that vibraphone work! - that belies the parent band's questioned live reputation. They finish with a couple of covers, neither of which we recognise. Good work all round.
Explosions In The Sky were the night's headliners, but having missed all three last year there's no great sense of loss at having watched TWTW instead. We wanted to see Beth Jeans Houghton but the tent was too full up, so end up by the piano watching a group of men in assorted levels of inebration, some of whom were clearly strangers to each other, attempt to cover Paranoid Android entirely from memory on an acoustic guitar. Bet Dave Longstreth could do it. And a lot more besides.