The Garden stage at End Of The Road is the festivals most scenic and memorable setting. The tree-lined, natural amphitheatre is the perfect place to ease into a hard day’s music watching when still slightly weary from the night before, indeed it’s an ideal place for a kip until the bands start up. On Saturday, the ever excellent Heavenly Recordings were curating the Garden stage with a selection of their finest artists. Opening proceedings on the stage were Hooton Tennis Club. A band who, it turns out, we knew far more songs by than we’d realised; indeed that song that spells out Powerful that sounds a lot like Pavement and is on the radio all the time turns out to be by Hooton Tennis Club, and the band were both very enjoyable, and very popular, so popular there was barely room to lie down! When they finish a huge amount of the audience left, but we were going nowhere, not least because up next was one of the sets we were most looking forward to all weekend in the shape of H.Hawkline. Huw and band, which included Stephen Black aka Sweet Baboo, ran through a superb set taken largely from his excellent album from earlier this year In The Pink Of Condition. His blend of woozy psych-pop was perfectly suited to this setting and time slot, and one of the most enjoyable sets of the weekend.
Whilst we could happily have sat in the beautiful, Peacock filled setting of the Garden stage all day, they’ve sadly put good bands on elsewhere, so we dragged ourselves over to the Big Top to see former member of The Walkmen, Peter Matthew Bauer. Having travelled over to the UK without a band, he rather remarkably found one using Twitter, rehearsed with them and brought them down to the festival. Even more remarkably it sounded rather lovely; fleshing out tracks from his excellent Liberation! album that came out last year, and even debuting a new track, you almost can’t believe they only formed forty eight hours before performing. From there it was over to the Woods stage for Slow Club. Few bands can have changed their sound quite so dramatically as Slow Club; last time we saw them, they were a fairly lo-fi two piece, Charles playing guitar and Rebecca largely sticking to hitting drums and various other percussion whilst standing up. Now they’re a soul-pop, five piece: Rebecca’s sultry-vocal coming more and more to the fore, and it was a slick, polished performance, all very impressive and competent, but somehow a bit less charming than they used to be.
From a band who’ve polished their performance beyond recognition, we headed to one who’s charm is perhaps largely down to being entirely unpolished. Californian teenage-two piece Girlpool were delightfully stripped-back, just two voices, a bass and a guitar. They effortlessly harmonised with one another, seemingly bonded by some sort of unspoken chemistry. Without wanting to sound like a patronising old man they distil everything that’s great and good about the teenage spirit, they have the sort of wide eyed world view that can only come from those who are still learning how the world works. They capture a moment that everyone the world over lives through and strike a chord with so many people, a skill that few bands are capable of doing. Music like this might sound simple and flimsy, but it’s utterly vital, and probably more than any other band here: they will inspire a generation of people to form bands and pursue their musical dreams.
The delightfully odd collaboration between Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley, Drinks, took to the stage to a large audience on the Garden stage. The sizeable crowd is perhaps largely on the back of Cate’s very popular solo material and within a couple of their art-rock tracks, a fair few have wandered off. Certainly they’re a divisive band; summarised by a rather confused looking man dressed as a Gherkin looking at the band on the stage like they were the odd ones. None the less it was a superb set; delightfully awkward and angular, their grasp of rhythm and noise was thrilling, and as Tim thanked, “those of you who didn’t leave” at the end of the set, we were struck by the old adage/cliché about The Velvet Underground not selling many records, but inspiring an awful lot of bands, Drinks might just be following in their footsteps.
My Morning Jacket have the unenviable task of proceeding probably the most anticipated set in the festivals history from Sufjan Stevens; luckily they’re not the sorts to be overwhelmed or ever disappoint. They ran through a set of excellent, reliable Rock’n’Roll taken from both their most recent album, The Waterfall and some crowd pleasing old favourites. Led by their ever charming, beautifully voiced band leader Jim James, resplendent in some sort of cape/poncho number, they were well received and the perfect warm-up for the evening’s main event.
We must admit we had some concerns about Sufjan Stevens‘ headlining a festival. For starters he’s been notoriously reluctant to play them, add to this the fact that his most recent album Carrie & Lowell is, even by Sufjan’s standards, an intimate and quiet record and we feared the chatting few might ruin it for the silent majority; for the most part we needn’t have worried. Sufjan’s set was nothing short of mesmerising, the tracks from Carrie & Lowell taken away from the albums sometimes overwhelmingly sad whole were given fresh life, the old tracks reinvented and injected with new energy. The highlights, all down to personal choice; the heartbreaking Casimir Pulaski Day, the energetic rockier version of Chicago, or the mesmeric extended, almost post-rock version of Blue Bucket Of Gold, which closed the set. Personally, it was Fourth Of July that brought the tears closest to rolling, it’s easy to overplay the reverence acts are given, but with Sufjan it’s entirely earnt, to paraphrase Monty Python, he’s not the messiah, he’s just a very talented boy. After the set we headed to the forest disco, but somehow the old Rock’n’Roll records failed to ignite our dancing shoes. Emotionally drained we retired to bed, and right on queue someone stumbles over our guy-rope and takes out half our tent: not even the magic of Sufjan Stevens can fix some things.
Sunday’s proceedings kicked off under warm, late summer sunshine, perfect weather for a day outside, and terrible news for anyone who was playing in the tents. We headed straight to the Garden stage, only to find that everyone else had the same idea before us, and the rich vein of sunshine on the left hand side of the stage was already full to bursting with people who had either flocked to see Charlie Cunningham, or decided it looked the nicest spot for a nap.
Unperturbed, we headed into the newly opened up to festival goers, and absolutely beautiful pond areas. You can see why Larmer Tree Gardens is popular even among people who don’t have any interest in slightly folk-tinged Indie. After debating the merits of joining a queue to play Croquet, we decided it was probably getting a bit too quaint, and decided we should start thinking about watching some bands. Over on the Woods stage were Spanish five-piece Hinds, who, following a mix up with a hire-car and a flight from Ireland nearly didn’t make it to the festival at all. Despite that stress and an early afternoon spot, they remained both very fun, and charmingly ramshackle.
The heat and fact that everyone else seemed to have the same idea put us off packing into a sweaty tent with This Is The Kit and Bernard + Edith so we stayed outside with Los Angeles’ Dawes. If Hinds are the sort of band you can imagine taking the wider public by storm, Dawes are a band who just seem made for End Of The Road. They ran through a series of expansive-Americana tracks with nods to the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or more recent contemporary Jonathan Wilson. As the band were introduced they each performed an impromptu solo, and like their whole set it was seriously good fun. Whether that would translate onto record we’re not entirely sure, but definitely worth seeing live.
The first hotly anticipated act of the day were Canadian indie-poppers Alvvays. They drew easily the biggest crowd of the day and despite singer Molly Rankin having a painful sounding sore throat, it was an excellent set. They blended tracks from their debut album with a series of new tracks, and even threw in a Kirsty Maccoll cover for good measure. It’s only on, the ludicrously difficult to sing at the best of times, Party Police that Molly struggled; and even that was delivered with enough charm that the crowd didn’t mind. They say God loves a trier and End Of The Road love Alvvays; one of the best sets of the weekend.
Following an agonising decision with regards to our last food choice of the weekend, we head back to the Woods stage for Future Islands. Our decision to watch them over the much hyped Mac De Marco down largely to the promise of some of singer Samuel Herring’s legendary dance moves. While his moves don’t disappoint, and his tendency to break out into a low Cradle Of Filth like roar is entertaining, ultimately they just don’t have enough good songs. They’re more likely to go the way of The Bravery rather than New Order without beefing up their sound.
Closing the festival are The War On Drugs. Their position at the top of the bill down largely to the success of last year’s Lost In The Dream album. What was so entertaining about that album was its slowly shifting atmospheres; long tracks which meander beautifully, and slowly unfurl their charm over repeated listens; which is part of the problem tonight. Live sets have to be different, festival performances in particular need to be punchy, but with The War On Drugs you found yourself waiting around for the catchy chorus, and getting a tad bored in the noodling outro. In a couple of albums time they’ll have the volume of crowd pleasing hits; for now we headed off to catch the closing moments of Laura Marling. The always exquisitely voiced Laura was closing proceedings on the Garden stage in typically delightful fashion, closing on a particularly splendid and lively version of Sophia.
The crowd drifted away from the stage in various directions, to the woods, the cider bus, the Tipi-Tent for the final “secret” sets, whichever way people were headed there was a sense of contentment. We headed back to our tent, the sounds of Hinds’ late night set booming across the campsite. The people around us a happy, tired troop of music fans, End Of The Road treated us all very well this year, doesn’t it always?