I think I’ve seen the performance of the weekend from New York’s Walkmen on Sunday night, amidst End of the Road’s beautiful West Country hills. Their singer Hamilton Leithauser croons their old song “The Rat” with righteous, Dylanesque venom at the heart of loud, lashing rock’n’roll. Hand in his pocket as if in a Vegas lounge, but thrusting himself forward with pugilistic attitude, Leithauser leads a band proudly pouring out passion.
In its seventh year, End of the Road has become an established, beloved festival on the basis of its gorgeous setting and impeccable musical taste. With David Byrne and St. Vincent, Sigur Ros and Belle and Sebastian as eclectic headliners, that reputation is maintained. Byrne and St. Vincent are sharply stimulating fun on Friday. The sort of daftly graceful formation dance moves familiar from Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense add to the complexity of their nine-piece brass band’s swinging syncopation, and they close with a glorious “Road to Nowhere”. Sigur Ros mix the vulnerability of singer Jonsi’s pleading choirboy voice with epic prog-rock blow-outs on Saturday, while Stuart Murdoch lets Belle and Sebastian fans dance and sing on stage to “The Boy With the Arab Strap.”
American singer-songwriters are an End of the Road speciality. Californian Cass McCombs barely says a word, concentrating on singing over languidly repetitive guitars, and snapping out “Mystery Mail”’s pulp saga of Baltimore crime and punishment. Seattle’s Damien Jurado is even better, riffing like a stand-up in between his hope-flecked lyrics of mental fragility and magic. The festival’s other speciality, booking the cream of Swedish talent, offers Jens Lekman’s socially precise, autobiographical pop and Anna Von Hausswolff’s massive, melancholy prog. In the woods, meanwhile, a paper trail leads 200 alert fans to a secret, wholly unplugged gig by Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison, who sings of wounded people who cry in the high street “just to be heard”. Savages, too, are exciting and mysterious.
And as I leave the Walkmen, I stumble into the last two songs by John Murry in the Tipi Tent, then stumble out in punch-drunk wonder. “Little Colored Balloons”, about the pallid Murry’s near-death from a heroin overdose, is rock’n’roll played at the furthest cliff-edge of intensity. The songs are life-lines, thrown by a floundering man and caught by his fans. That was the performance of the weekend.