It’s a testament to End of the Road organisers Sofia Hagberg and Simon Taffe that not even the festival’s most professionally melancholy acts could contain their merriment at playing amongst peacocks, enchanted forests and parrots in the beautiful Larmer Tree Gardens, with everyone from Bon Iver to Warren Ellis singing EOTR’s praises. Squirreled away down the rabbit warren lanes of the Dorset border, this wonderland infant festival managed to command an amazing roster, and sell all 5000 tickets whilst keeping its friendly ethics and atmosphere intact. Canada’s The Acorn hit on a slightly guilty note, commenting, “so this is where white people come from”, but lifted the mood with their comfortable woodsy snow-capped songs (although they’re the first of the weekend’s bands to not do their album much justice). A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s intense jarring Baltic folk was sadly lost a little to the leafy heights of the Garden Stage and the drizzly afternoon, and the augmented band clustered together in a corner of the stage.
The many nooks and crannies of the festival only upped the charm quotient, from watching parents getting carried away in the kids’ bhangra dancing workshop to giggling whilst a hokey “peace healing practitioner” conned a gullible family into a trip around the woods to massage each other’s auras. Back on the Garden Stage, Bon Iver’s natural candour and emotional understatement made for many a lump in the throat, breaking away from his falsetto for a new organ-led song, Blood Bank, about “finding yourself trapped in the snow with someone you’re meeting for the first time”. This apparently is one of his last gigs touring For Emma, Forever Ago, and this aching song of missed opportunity and awkward encounters is an auspicious sign of what’s to come. His songs climb from burning embers to cloud-piercing firecrackers with The Wolves, the audience shivering as they sing “what might have been lost”, beaming with awe at our own mellifluous intensity. Brightonian Sons of Noel and Adrian, a self-professed “musical centipede”, are reminiscent of a more folk, less neurosis Arcade Fire, with their huge vocal harmonies and chorus of whistling glowing like the spirits in the woods, perfect for relaxing on a bin bag (as much as is possible) in the morning wake of far too much hot spiced cider the night before.
Low play what should have been a triumphant set, sad and redolent, with Dinosaur Act and Sunflower amongst others, but as the sky darkens so does Alan Sparhawk’s mood. He bitterly asks the audience if they’ve ever had a day where “everyone you love tells you that they hate you?”, and ends the set by violently hurling his guitar across the heads of the front row. Miraculously, no-one was hurt, but although the owner of the mangled instrument went away beaming, many of the audience left silenced with concern for his emotional wellbeing. It was an evening where many seemed let down by their heroes, as Sun Kil Moon followed with an esoteric, grumpy and indulgent set. Someone shouted, “play Glen Tipton”, to which an ostensibly bored Mark Kozelek replied, “jeez, three songs in and you’re criticizing me already?” Yep, three songs, and half an hour. However, their aloof monotony makes it even easier to be charmed by the cute, but never twee dancing of The Chap, who brought joyous angular poppy krautrock to The Local stage. They borrowed from Fujiya and Miyagi’s delicious cornered pronunciation, and Devo’s arch deadpan outlook on life, their manifesto for “proper songs about girls and clubbing!” making them a jolly good fun antidote to the weekend’s weightier bands.
The goofy fun streak shines brightly in Sunday afternoon’s bands too; The Wave Pictures aren’t particularly innovative, but frontman David Tattersall’s bashfulness at potentially offending his mum, and their slinky-like lyrical bounce lead nicely into Kimya Dawson’s busy set. She cuts an altogether different figure above the magic eye-esque sea of of checked shirts before her, starting bashfully with a song from her new album of songs for children, a cutesy actioned tale about bears which delights the beaming families in the crowd. Unbeknownst to them, it’s probably all a giant metaphor for skag. The parents in the crowd are quick to cover their spawn’s ears as she starts Alphabutt, the A-Z of animal poop – “d is for doody…f is for fart”, and the humour turns more puerile, comprising some staple festival Bush bashing, and her polite decline to ride an audience member’s cock. She completely epitomises the childlike wonder of the festival, and it’s brilliant to watch adults sniggering like Beavis and Butthead at the toilet humour inherent in her set.
Jason Molina is impossibly well presented given the gloopy mud, and slightly disappointing – he does little to lift the spirits – it’s more of a fan’s gig than anything likely to convert anyone, which is a shame considering the wealth of his back catalogue. Another berserk shift in tone comes from Bob Log III, who looks like Boba Fett phoning adult chat lines, and roars like Billy Childish should. His one-man band schtick and thankfully very layered striptease are funny for five minutes, but we escape before any mention of dipping a boob in his Scotch, bewildered at the reverie surrounding him. Both Darren and Jack Play Hefner, and Jeffrey and Jack Lewis are spirited manolescents, followed by the majestic grandeur of Calexico. The muddy camaraderie of the festival extends to a member of the crowd buying them a round of steaming ciders, which are subsequently passed around the front rows. Were it not so teeth-chatteringly cold, there’s no doubt that everyone would have been on his or her feet. Brakes end the festival on a frenetic, wired high, with Eamon Hamilton bringing his new wife on stage to sing Jackson (so new in fact that she seemed still to be wearing her wedding dress), and Comma Comma Comma Full Stop seems the perfect definitive cue to bite the cake reading “Eat Me” and slope back to reality.