8 September 2011

Glitterball in the Forest 
End of the Road Festival has grown up but still enchants 
Deep among the undulating Quantock Hills, difficult to find and obscure of music lies the last festival of the summer. End of the Road at Larmer Tree Gardens has been thrilling hardy festival goers since 2006 when its free spirit and exclusivly non commercial attitude excited a group of music fans exhausted by the mega-fest of Glastonbury, disappointed by the mainstream festivals or new to the whole festival thrill.

Gruff Rhys shows his appreciation
As someone falling into the last category it was exciting to find a festival restricted to relatively small numbers (about 5,000 at the first one), with good food & beer options and the sort of bands that appealed to my left-field mindset. Richard Hawley, British Sea Power, Brakes, Josh Ritter, Howe Gelb, Guillemots, and I'm From Barcelona were amongst the eclectic mix at that first EOTR, none of them liable to crack the charts any time soon, but all of them quietly fantastic.

And so six years on the festival has grown, over the years we have seen other thrilling acts, Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Super Furry Animals, Calexico, King Creosote, Seasick Steve, Yo La Tengo, Wilco, Conor Oberst, The Felice Brothers, plus the wierd such as Bob Log III and the hauntingly lovely The Low Anthem, Lanterns on the Lake, The Accidental, Bon Iver, The Unthanks and yet more Richard Hawley.

This year a lot has changed, with a new stage where toilets, showers and tents once stood, a different entrance, rejigged car parks and a new comedy stage deep in the woods. With it have come more people, there must be over 12,000 now and it shows in the way that everything is just a little more crowded. I'm not complaining however, it's still a wonderful festival, free of commercialism and with some wonderful touches.

Tony Law lets the kids take charge on the
Comedy Stage in the woods
That comedy stage is a tiny, permanent, wooden and canvas structure, halway down a hill open to the elements, in the forest. At last all the people who want to see the performers can, perched on straw bales or sitting on the leaf litter. Joanna Neary's neurotic, illustrated explanation of how to spice up the marriage bed was beautifully acted while Tony Law's willingness to have his set overrun by tiny children wanting to sing nursery rhymes was brilliant, as he ran with the moment. The Balconettes comic songs had great punch lines while Phil Kay's long, scatalogical, improv, folk was a real tour de force.

Grooving at the Secret Disco
Talking of fun in the forest, out past the Healing Fields and Dish Cafe is the Secret Disco. I'd tell you more but I really dont want to encourage more people to go. But if you can imagine DJ's perched in a wooden boat playing soul, R&B, indie-pop and boogie woogie hits while a grinning crowd dances on a small stage under a deep green, illuminated, forest canopy, complete with glitter ball you get the idea.

Food plays an important part in the festival experience and again EOTR has it right, there is nothing overly branded or brash. Many of the vendors are local, mostly using organic produce. The one disappointment this year was Pie Minister who had run out of Matador (beef, chorizo, olives, butter beans & sherry) pies by 5pm on Friday (despite my Tweeted requests before and during the festival). I was looking forward to that nearly as much as I was to seeing Midlake!

Foody find of the festival was The Story, smoked pork and beef platters, warm and tender, packed with flavour, just right for a chilly evening. A special mention too for The Tea Stop and their double decker bus, great toasties and real china.

Midlake concentrate hard on growing
their beards
So what of this year's crop of bands. Beards as ever played a prominant role for those on stage, especially amongst the men. Midlake were the beardy beauties of Sunday evening, thankfully ditching the two flute attack from earlier in the year for a more festival friendly, almost Neil Young, guitar heavy approach amidst the harmonies and tales of the dark woods. The Fall showed that sticking single mindedly to what you do best and ignoring the audience while relying on a pounding beat with incomprehnsible vocals is as exciting as ever. Lykie Li should be a big star: Adam & the Ants driving, heavy drums, goth outfits, Siouxsie vocals and soaring choruses with looks to die for make a wonderful live show. Gruff Rhys helped the sun come out on Saturday afternoon. Laura Marling benefitted from a full band, bringing her glorious voice alive, while Okkervil River played an unexpectedly full-on country rock show.

Find of the festival were Megafaun, rootsy, harmonies, humour and musicianship, just the thing for a Sunday afternoon at the Garden stage. While Lanterns on the Lake shimmered with their dream pop cross between Mazy Star and The Cocteau Twins and Beth Jeans-Houghton's mellow voice belied her funny, acerbic lyrics.

But its not all about the music at EOTR, its the attitude of all the festival goers, chilled, relaxed, happy and tolerant. It's the 3 year old's in Half Man Half Biscuit T-shirts, the Somerset Cider Bus, the views over the hills, the peacocks and Victorian folley's, the elderly couple rocking out to Brakes and the gentle sound of rain on the canvas of your tent to accompany the pluck of  Joanna Newsom's  harp.

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