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The Quietus Goes Down To Dorset: End Of The Road Festival Reviewed
Luke Turner , September 17th, 2008 21:55

The Quietus gets to grip with the Dorset mud for a brilliant End of the Road festival, where revelry is to be had as much from the sideshows as superb sets from the likes of Mercury Rev and The Dirty Three.

Warren Ellis at End of the Road 2008
Warren Ellis of The Dirty Three
The End of the Road Festival 2008
Larmer Tree Garden, Dorset

There aren’t many festivals where one can sup on a decent ale in the comfort of one's own tent while gazing out over miles of rolling English countryside. Then again, End of the Road is the hidden gem of the season, taking place a week after most festival-goers have cleaned the Bestival mud out of their prawn outfits and hung up their Argos tents for the year.

The line-up is one of the best of the summer, the site perhaps the most beautiful, but these are not the only reasons why End of the Road succeeds. You've also got to tip your hat to the thoughtful, unfussy organisation, be that for the provision of top notch catering, or the flashing dancefloor hidden deep in the woods, or the excellent film programme, or the comedy and storytelling pavilion, or the lack of backstage, and so on. It all adds up to create an air of low-key enjoyment and warm-spirited atmosphere - even the prevalence of Aryan babies in three wheeler prams isn't off-putting. Indeed, spirits are kept up despite a Friday deluge that turns the site into a quagmire, and makes for some shivering nights that even hot spiced cider with extra brandy cannot counter.

As well as bringing an enthusiastic crowd of regulars, End of the Road seems to have bands who turn up every year. Absentee might be first on the Garden Stage on Saturday, but their increasingly upbeat ditties (possessed of the same hidden sparkle as Dan Michaelson's misleadingly dolorous voice), draw a healthy and loyal crowd for this tender hour. British Sea Power, too, seem to use their status as hardly perennials to feel enough at home to play a bold set that features a couple of rarely aired b-sides, and doesn't end with the customary theatrics and descent into ebullient noise. One suspects that this is because a daytime showing is never really going to suit their more unhinged side - this might not be up there with, say, their recent show at the Natural History Museum, but the airing of the oddities once again shows their jib is cut with a keener eye than most of their contemporaries. This is reinforced by The Modern Ovens' (a Jonathan Richman tribute band that features BSP members)not-so-secret gig in the Bimble Inn later on.

The Quietus sups

The Bimble, along with the Local tent, provides an excellent 'fringe' to the larger bands on the Garden Stage (tucked into a clearing in the woods), or the rather less appealing Big Top tent. I was skeptical about Revenge of Shinobi, given the current fad for naff music made from, or named for, computer games, but such misgivings are misplaced. Their double drumming, and guitar, synths and vocals manipulated to sound like flocks of lost migrating birds calling through the night might suggest a certain Animal Collective influence, but there's something more at play here; a certain shoegazing with gumption, perhaps. On Sunday night, The Constantines play heartland rock 'n' roll and a cover of AC/DC's 'Thunderstrike' in the Local tent, breaking into the sweat of the festival in the process.

Despite the stench of sour mud and the kind of non-atmosphere that these big tents always create, the Big Top is the place to catch performances from some of the less folk-leaning acts. Brakes top off a typically witty, punchy set with Eamon Hamilton performing a duet of 'Jackson' with his new wife, looking happy as the proverbial pig all the while. Screaming Tea Party's wild oscillations between power pop and the heavier, darker material that goes with their sinister gasmasks give lie to any thought that End of the Road is just about nice boys and girls with acoustic guitars. Similarly, Zombie Zombie round off the Sunday night with a brilliant set of burbling Krautrock, hissing noise and demented yelps from the drummer - making for a kind of assisted Suicide, if you will.

The peripheral entertainment is fantastic, too, even the bits not put on by the End of the Road team themselves. It's easy to wander out of the site for a Sunday afternoon stroll through the picture postcard village of Tolland Royal, though unfortunately the pub is either closed for refurbishment or conversion into a country retreat for some stock broker sheltering from the current storm. Back on site, there's a drunken Irishman hosting a game of musical bingo in one of the lounge tents, while on Sunday afternoon a charming couple from Wales have brought along umpteen Scrabble sets for general enjoyment under the trees as peacocks wander past, trying to take a peck at the double letter score. Such things could easily feel twee, yet at End of the Road it just adds to the general bonhomie and community spirit.

Talking of twee, the only personal downer of the weekend comes courtesy of Bon Iver. Currently riding a wave of fervent hype, their earnest witterings, anemically lilting folk (including a lifeless cover of Talk Talk's 'I Believe In You'), and wheedling requests that we all sing to the sky somehow manage to draw the biggest and most terrifyingly enthusiastic crowd of all. Like Devendra Banhart before him, Justin Vernon uses tales of recording in remote log cabins to imbue his music with a sense of mysticism. Yet the result feels like the Emperor's new clothes, quavering emo that says everything and yet nothing, Coldplay sung through a mouthful of muesli.

For me, it's three of the old masters who put the wax seal of quality on End Of The Road. Tindersticks, while not exactly airing many of their most notable numbers, wear a smoking jacket to compose an elegant billet-doux to invite us to Sunday tea, like a Bad Seeds you could take home to meet your mother. Friday night's set from Dirty Three is so stupendous that it renders the idea of finding some more music to watch later that evening rather pointless. It's a wonder how Warren Ellis doesn't lose his shiny slip-ons with every exuberant kick, and as he exhorts his bandmates, steam blasts from his beard. Mick Turner's guitar is loud in the mix, but this does nothing to detract from the sheer beauty of the likes of 'Sea Above, Sky Below' and 'Hope', especially in this setting. It's like watching a desert sunset from the windows of a rattling train, sublime yet strangely transient. Yet that's not to forget Ellis' humour - he introduces 'Everything Is Fucked' with an amusing monologue about the track being their attempt to release a hit single - next year, the organisers ought book him as a storyteller in the comedy and fiction pavilion.

Rivalling the Dirty Three for performance of the festival, though, are Mercury Rev. As forthcoming new album Snowflake Midnight proves, they're a band with a renewed sense of vigour and invention. Although much of tonight's set might be a decade old - largely drawn from Deserter's Songs, they've acquired a new mettle and play, as the saying goes, out of their skins. Yet there's always been something not entirely human about Mercury Rev live. While Grasshopper still lurches away, sunglasses on, over his guitar, Donahue is now grey of beard but still gesticulating and dancing with a beatific smile on his face, as if some harpy bringing songs of life and death from the Larmer Tree darkness. Their decision to headline here rather than sit wedged in at teatime in a larger festival is to the credit of both band and bookers. A closing rendition of 'Holes' that merges into a potent cover of Talking Heads' 'Once In A Lifetime' and sends us off for a night of starlit revelry bodes not only well for Mercury Rev, but for many more years of inspired enjoyment under the bruised September sky.

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