Caught Live: End of The Road Festival @ Larmer Tree Gardens, North Dorset
Why do so many thousands flock each year to the so-called 'big' festivals? Bigger distances from tent to stage, bigger queues everywhere, bigger crowds, bigger ticket prices – these are all a given. But bigger headliners also? Well, this year the relatively small-scale End of The Road Festival defied this logic by offering one of the biggest headliners of the season, Joanna Newsom, who brought the final night of the boutique gathering to a close with her only UK festival appearance of 2011. And with big-hitters Mogwai and Beirut headlining the other two nights, this year's lineup in North Dorset easily rivalled those of EOTR's larger cousins.
Arriving at Larmer Tree Gardens, it came as something of a relief to find that the addition of a fourth stage has done little to diminish the festival’s intimate charm: although the new Woods Stage is the largest, giant screens are thankfully not required; the now-second-largest Garden Stage, meanwhile, remains a beautiful setting, flanked by overhanging trees and elegant Georgian follies and out-houses. These two arenas hosted the more 'restrained' of this year's acts – laidback Americana was a recurring theme throughout the weekend – whilst The Big Top, with its canopied darkness, housed the raunchier bands.
Sticking with The Big Top, it was perhaps appropriate that festival stalwarts and indie elder statesmen Brakes should be chosen to close proceedings there on Sunday night: this was the Brighton quartet's fourth time playing EOTR, having done so on each of the fest's first three years in a row. Ever ebullient, their enthusiasm for the other bands on offer, as well as for the weekend as a whole (for pretty much everything in fact!), was highly infectious, and they turned in a storming set in front of a loyal and similarly energised crowd. Between-song banter doesn't always come off in a festival setting, but frontman Eamon Hamilton had everyone in the palm of his hand with a succession of jokes and witty anecdotes. For closing number 'Jackson' – their spirited cover of the Johnny Cash & June Carter classic – the band even invited a thrilled front-row fan up onstage for a heartwarming duet.
An unspoken rule of most festivals is that various excesses, egos and complications will inevitably lead to headliners not always winding up on time; It's a rule that doesn't seem to apply to EOTR, however: at this festival the artists are uniformly punctual and respectful of their peers, and Brakes' impeccable time-keeping allowed the sizeable crowd to migrate towards the main stage just in time for the start of Ms. Newsom's mesmerising solo set. Shorn of her band and alternating between harp and piano, the Californian held the audience captivated despite the sometimes protracted and intricate nature of her songs. Complaining throughout of cold hands and charmingly pointing out the mistakes in her own playing – which no one but she seemed to notice – Newsom was at once humble and mesmeric.
Of the other acts on the three-day bill, standout turns came from Bo Ningen, a startling Japanese noise rock four-piece, under canvas on Friday and – diametrically opposed – Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck, who delivered a delightful early-Saturday solo set on The Garden Stage. Also on The Garden Stage, and doing his bit to raise the average age of this year's performers, the inimitable Mark E. Smith (who clearly hadn't received the memo about keeping things laidback) and his comrades-in-Fall shook up the mood and belligerently defied categorisation to close proceedings on Friday night. Others to impress included Kurt Vile, White Denim, The Black Angels and Wooden Shjips, while the award for best long-haired posturing of the weekend went to feisty L.A. eardrum-shredders HEALTH under The Big Top on Friday. Their frantic walls of disemboweled noise actually stood in stark contrast to EOTR's prevailing mood, which primarily revolves around sitting back in the sun and soaking in some folky vibes. As alluded to above, the Americana thread ran deeper than ever this year, and there were some 'very chill' sets from Woods, Best Coast, Josh T. Pearson and John Grant. The sun went on shining well into Sunday evening for the ever-self-deprecating Laura Marling, who quickly warmed to the crowd; the elfin singer's smiles were reciprocated, with 'Sophia' in particular, and her new material in general, getting a big response.
All in all, then, despite 'The Little Festival That Could' having expanded its operation somewhat for 2011, the annual trek to Larmer Tree Gardens remains a worthwhile and thoroughly enjoyable experience that's as much shaped by the people and setting as it is by the quality of music on display – as clichéd and trite as that may sound. With summer festival season now well and truly over, it's a journey we certainly look forward to making again next year.
As well as compiling his thoughts on End of The Road 2011 for us, Richard Gray also had his camera with him throughout the weekend. You can check out bumper photo galleries from all three days of this year's festival here: FRIDAY // SATURDAY // SUNDAY