Tuesday, 18 September 2007

End Of The Road

The end of the 2007 festival season draws nigh, and so it must be time for End Of The Road. With more the atmosphere of a weekend-long picnic or country fete than the abject hedonism of many more mainstream festivals, it's a colorful, family focussed affair. Draped in fairy lights and bunting, End Of The Road offers a class above in friendliness, facilities, hot spiced cider and a seemingly never-ending smorgasbord of great food and music from the more mellow end of the indie-rock and alt-country spectrum. Here are some of the highlights, running order as mixed and mingled for the page as it is in my memory.

Napoleon IIIrd is the first band I see after running up the bank to the arena in the showering rain, tent still strapped to my back. A rousing set from a rising star, even if I do say so myself. Darren Hayman seems unable to put a foot wrong, unfurling perfectly formed, witty and world-wise songs with his trademark cockily tilted self-confidence and slanted charm. He later plays a set of bluegrass in the secluded piano clearing, hidden behind a glittering tree tunnel near the main stage.

All this in stark contrast to Josh T. Pearson, who looks like he's just walked on out of some yonder desert, strapping on his horned guitar for some powerfully apocalyptic, distorted, yowling tales of hopelessness, love and devils clashing with angels. He stamps his boot and the ground shakes, his eyes and teeth shining from beneath his cowboy hat and huge bushy beard. Later, The Archie Bronson Outfit deliver robust, bludgeoning rock 'n' roll with no small lack of guile, while rocking indie godfathers (& mother) Yo La Tengo run through highlights of their vast back catalogue to the delight of (possibly) the weekend's biggest crowd.

On Saturday, Antipodean trio Devastations swan onto the stage slowly, tuning, fumbling with their amps, pedals and instruments as if playing in a practice room, before launching into a series of deathly ballads and squalls of piercing but musical guitar noise. Notably, the bass player delivers a slow-handed sexually charged performance of such magnitude that it'll keep the gathered young mothers in fantasies for years to come.

Danielson and his multi-instrumental familial troupe look as likely to try and sell you cookies or win a badge for river crossing than fill a generous one hour slot on the big top stage. A cruel bit of scheduling means I don't get to see out their performance, but it's clear that they're really quite great - being happier than the Chipmunks playing a set of Monkees songs with the Krankies as a backing band and managing not be annoying doing it is really quite a skill.

The talk of the festival is a performer I had the misfortune to miss. She's a prodigious sixteen year old called Alessi, and respected sources say her name in the same breath as Bjork and Joanna Newsom, passionately describing a haunting voice and vivid, memorable songs... one to watch out for in the future by all accounts.

David Thomas Broughton

David Thomas Broughton plays three sets across the course of the festival, each characteristically unplanned in the traditional sense, but rather the living culmination of all of his performances and writing to date. The music is tossed and rewritten, toyed with, mashed together, looped and battered in whatever manner Broughton sees fit from moment to moment. He's at once a heartbreakingly fragile character, shaking and moaning grim existential tales of lost love and death in that gorgeously dark and expressive timbre, but he just as easily breaks out of the singer/songwriter mould, frustratedly pacing the room beatboxing, pausing to frown at his assembled instruments and instead storm off, striking poses and looping back improvised versions of pop songs, rants and repeated phrases, and using anything he can lay his hands on to create freeform rhythms. Every performance takes on a life of it's own, and while for some the tumbling mass of ideas provides a frustrating lack of musical cohesion, the visceral and invigorating tight-rope act of it's construction is my high point of the festival. Later that night, Broughton's beautiful ever-unfolding melodies still ringing in my ears, I glimpse my first shooting star, a white scratch across the sky that makes my breath catch in my throat. And I lie awake for hours, my teeth and bones clattering and clacking in the sub-zero black, my mind buzzing with sound and convinced there is no dawn coming.

The surprise performance of the festival comes on Sunday in the unlikely shape of famed music writer Everett True, who sings three ragged a cappella versions between sets on The Local Stage (one of which, a traditional nursery rhyme-esque folk song about death, sticks in my head for days afterwards). End Of The Road signings The Young Republic are seemingly everywhere with their polite and well-formed skewed indie-pop tunes. Viking Moses has brought a big band with him, and while his voice is as arresting and unique as ever, the new format seems to struggle to bring the best out of his songs - but it's definitely in there to be found.

Best new discovery The Wave Pictures receive warm onstage mentions from Jeffrey Lewis and Darren Hayman, and it's easy to see why - they perform a beguiling set of intelligent, wry stories of modern life, sex and young love, wrapped in tatty but pretty playing. I'm left wanting a lot more.

Fireworks Night / The Wave Pictures

The same can be said of Fireworks Night, a dizzyingly talented dash-cutting ensemble trading in claret confessionals and gravel voiced, tobacco-stained drama, all told via sensitive piano work, nigh-on perfect string accompaniment and a fantastic songwriting flair. Their closing number 'Echo Swing' is among the best I have heard in recent years - this is a band surely headed for wider recognition.

Lambchop close things up on the main Garden Stage with a beautiful set drawn from their sprawling back catalogue. Three songs from 'Is a Woman' stand out - Wagner's paper-dry croak of a voice often sounds best recounting small introspections and details of American life as found in 'My Blue Wave' and especially a gorgeous drawn out version of 'The New Cobweb Summer'. 'Up With People' sees things get rowdy with a civilized clap along, then the trim 6-piece band walk off, leaving a lot of warmed hearts to wander into the cold English night.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw Alessi at the Old Blue Last earlier in the year and although she was clearly talented, her cutesy affectations and joanna newsom-esque singing voice really started to grate with me after a couple of songs.