There weren't more people there this year than last, the first sellout, but at times it felt like it. As mentioned there was an unprecedented demand for Fleet Foxes, whether through the Horrors pullout or, y'know, people just wanting to see them, but the new Tipi layout led to some mighty backlogs too - First Aid Kit, Blitzen Trapper and J Tillman all suffered. The problem is you just can't hear anything from a certain distance, and even getting in five minutes early or so for the first two bands of the Sunday proved a challenge finding space with everyone sitting down. Simon Taafe has already said this will be sorted out for next year, but some sort of balance has to be found given the Bimble Inn sound issues of previous years, although this year's faults were heightened by the bass-heavy PA from the Local next door, a tent that was about the same distance away last year.
Some of these people were in Friday night's piano stage karaoke, we're sure. Mic stands bedecked with peacock feathers, as only seems appropriate, we've ended up in such a poor position that we can only actually see the band members when they move to the front of the stage. No question there's something interesting here, though, maybe a little Grandaddy without the analogue keyboards (but with a drum machine and an accordion on one track), maybe Pavement, something we'd like to see 'properly' round about Indietracks next year. Certainly poppily upbeat and 'natural' sounding enough.
Stars Of Sunday League
Sometime Emmy The Great collaborator Euan Robinson is more reflective of Adem then anyone from that direct scene, a folkily likeable heart on sleeve storyteller rich on minute detail as an adjunct to the bigger personal picture amid arrangements stripped of anything too opaque. He mentions Ballboy as an influence, which is evident if with a modern folk edge. Robinson meanwhile makes for a likeable character for all his supposed self-examination flaws, and we could have one to keep a properly close eye on here.
We missed out on Bob Lind with Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley on backup through various meetings, eatings and watching people play Scrabble out in the gardens. It also meant we missed the hand of commercialism butt its way in as between garden stage bands was filming for a scene from a forthcoming film adaptation of widely ignored Guardian cartoon Tamara Drewe. It was seemingly the loudest thing on the stage all day given we could hear it from the other end of the site, although one wonders how the setting would look realistic for a "hit band performing their number one single" at a megacorp festival. Still, it's a British independent film starring (absent) Gemma Arteron so nobody will ever see it.
Joe Gideon & The Shark
Viva Seifert is one of music's great expressionist drummers. The sometime Shark is all over the place in a way that doesn't translate well in attempted written explanation - not just using loop pedals to work in keyboard, vocals, effects and whatever else is handy but crashing all round the kit with no little force or limb flailing dramatic flourish. And incredibly precisely too, fluent and almost tribally rhythmic. Much as she's the visual focal point of the pair, it's Gideon's raggedly glorious wall of swamp blues-fuzz guitar and epically sonorous monologues that take audible precedence. The effect, as ever, is to almost visually win people over in an inexorable fashion, the pair's broad smiles after every song reflecting the huge ovation for them all. Mark Cleveland of the Archie Bronson Outfit lends a second percussive hand to Civilisation, but frankly he's not as agile. Gideon passed us wandering down to the dance floor later on. It couldn't have seemed more out of place were he...
Bob Log III
Right, so here's a bloke in a gold lame boilersuit and full face pilot's helmet with a mike made from an old telephone receiver attached to the inside playing insanely fast slide guitar while keeping time with his own bass drum. For an hour. There's not a lot of stylistic variation, but it hardly matters when the visual, and indeed the skill, not to mention the banter, is this remarkable. His request for females to bounce on his knee (during I Want Your Shit On My Leg, natch) goes unheeded only because, and we have eyewitness accounts of this, security were stopping willing volunteers from scaling the barrier. An absolute one-off.
Mind you, we do end up wandering into the woods for what should have been a couple of minutes. Why is there a massive crowd around the piano? Are they expecting someone?
Being several feet away from Will Sheff, even in casual mode, allows us to observe not only his fine new beard but his skill with songwriting and an audience that must have been treble figures of onlookers, and not just paying punters - Franz Nicolay and Josh T Pearson for two are in attendance. A five song set includes something that turns halfway through into Joni Mitchell's The Blonde In The Bleachers and, on inevitable request given they'd not done it in the 'proper' set, a mighty Westfall before Sheff alone comes back for an unrehearsed run through The President's Dead. And there goes one of the great bands of our time in the most intimate special setting they'll play in many a year. And we were there.
Magnolia Electric Co.
Seemed a bit of a comedown after the heights of Okkervil in close quarters, but this incarnation of Jason Molina's vision seems like he's coasting a little anyway. We really liked Songs: Ohia, but this errs too much towards more The Band trad country-rock with no real desire to go anywhere.
For a wild man of rock'n'roll revivalism, as one with the regulation black clothing and quiff, Sartain doesn't really set himself apart from the legions of garage blues/rockabilly retreaders no matter how many people die violently in his songs.
Sparrow And The Workshop
Something of a slow burn going on around the cosmopolitan Glasgow-based trio and while we can't fully throw our weight behind them. there's definitely something going on. Their take on alt-folk seems sepia tinged, sometimes like a lost Johnny and June Carter Cash murder ballad transposed to the 90s roots of alt-country, stripped down almost to the bare bones the better to play off the Lanegan and Campbell-esque interplay between Jill O'Sullivan and Gregor Donaldson. Maybe a little too in thrall to various points now but there's definite room to let their approach catch full bloom and make something really striking.
Dan Michaelson & The Coastguards
Michaelson's lugubrious bass of a voicebox is striking enough when he's fronting Absentee. Here in front of a downhome, melancholic outfit heavy on the pedal steel it's as if an Anglicised Leonard Cohen is burrowing through to the earth's core. The effect is Bill Callahan at 33rpm and it'll be interesting to see what he does next.
Couldn't go a festival year without them. Unfortunately what that means is once we've got the description of Tom White's current facial hair (tache, general four day growth) out of the way there's precious little new to say about them on STN. Not that that's a complaint. The second EOTR ever-present, people go wild for them down the front, actual crowdsurfing taking place by the end of All Night Disco Party, and while there's no new songs and only three from this year's Touchdown it still makes, as ever, for the most fun that we ever had.
If it's going to be a countryish sort of day - Dan Michaelson, S&TW, Magnolia, Steve Earle being on before Case - it might as well be someone with a crystal clear voice to soar into the darkening heavens and a proper femme-country outlook of either standing up for herself or having extreme heartbreak leave her incapable of standing up for herself. Most of the set comes from the recent Middle Cyclone album, which failed to take her into wider hearts by the expedient of being comparatively rubbish, which affects proceedings, not least as when she breaks into an older song the general relief is notable. Even so, only the cover of Train From Kansas City demonstrates any sort of liveliness. Still, as yet another to openly awe at the sort of place she's playing, she might bring the New Pornographers next year.
Frustrating band, the Dodos. At times their intense percussive nature leads to enthrallingly hypnotic moments, chiefly through restless drummer Logan Kroeber, yet between those come longeurs when the pace and attention level, both of detail and of us, completely slackens, subtleties smoothed over until you could ice skate on them.
The Hold Steady
By all accounts the organisers had a lot of trouble picking up a Sunday headliner, but despite a nowhere near packed garden stage they did well. What do you need from a headliner, after all? Someone with a fulsome catalogue of great songs who can get a crowd going and belie the big space they're presented with? That's what the Hold Steady are born to do, crank out the one part Bruce to one part Replacements to one part whisky chaser and watch Craig Finn harangue the front row as if his travails with last night's girl is specifically our fault. And they do bang them out, starting with Constructive Summer just to stake out their turf, barely pausing over an hour and a half, so much so that Finn doesn't even break into his beer bottle until more than halfway. When he does the "so much joy in what we do up here" spiel during Killer Parties, this time augmented with shout-outs to the festival and a good deal of the day's bill, you can actually believe it and the crowd definitely want to. Right at the end, it may not have been the prettiest, but it bulldozed Larmer Tree Gardens with kindness.
Archie Bronson Outfit
Except it wasn't all over in the Big Top. And christ alive, when did the ABOs - nearly ever presents themselves, having now played three plus two-thirds of them as Pyramids last year - get so loud? When they recruited someone to make 8-bit noises over the riffs, possibly, but then the riffs are at ear blistering volume. There's a handful of new songs of great promise, but the enduring image is being caught out by their doing an encore but still hearing every note of Kangaroo Heart from right across the site. In a way, despite its voluminous difference from much of what had preceded it, it's this triumph of music and festival spirit over surroundings that sums up End Of The Road 2009.