End of the Road Festival, Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset
A perfect farewell to summer
Tuesday 14 September 2010
"What's Americana?" one of the Felice Brothers asks rhetorically. "Back home we call it 'we can't make any money because we play the way we do'". But by the time Wilco close the fifth year of this near-perfect, summer-ending festival, we've seen several American bands, and some from nearer home, who feel much finer than that. In the fairy light-garlanded maze behind End of the Road's main stage, music echoes softly as stray festival-goers wander and talk. The setting's other-worldly magic has faded for me on my fourth visit. But it increasingly feels like a vital refuge for fans of rock's roots and possibilities, where music can still be personal and profound.
Wilco's electric-guitar storms and country hoedowns show the range of America's best band, and the newly affable mood of their last two, middling albums. Their singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy sings of souls like burning stars in "Jesus, Etc." as the stars in the deepening West Country night glitter above him. The Low Anthem beat even this rousing send-off with a warm set. "This God Damn House", a reverie on woodwind and brass about a lonely man sitting in his living room, shows how far rock'n'roll has come since Little Richard. Iron & Wine's Sam Beam sings his semi-surreal lyrics mostly on acoustic guitar, till the big, raptly attentive crowd howl for more. This laid-back, sweet-voiced charmer responds with a great song of gentle, total love.
Canada's Wintersleep play with the clipped excitement of early REM in a small tent, outshining Saturday's headliners Yo La Tengo, whose Ira Kaplan gently nudges his guitar into the stage in a sluggish parody of real Hendrixian excess. It's a studious set from a veteran band whose energy seems to be running down. I leave Friday's headliner Modest Mouse, too, for The New Pornographers' perfectly constructed pop barrage. Equally memorable are Deer Tick who, unfazed by a blown generator, raucously sing on in a darkened, unamplified tent.
There are disappointments of course, from Radiohead drummer Philip Selway's meek discontent to the straight country of Nashville's new critical darling Caitlin Rose, and the purposeless, generic Americana of The Antlers and others. Even the Felice Brothers can't quite conjure the old Southern spirits of Gettysburg and Texan great Townes Van Zandt referred to in their lyrics.
Why worry, though, when you can see discoveries such as the breezily intricate Brooklyn folk-funk of Here We Go Magic and impish Icelandic folk singer Olof Arnalds, or watch Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley, cigarettes firmly in mouth, DJ crackly 1970s seven-inches as if they're at an ancient workingmen's-club disco?
Edwyn Collins continues his rehabilitation from a cerebral haemorrhage with a full-blooded roll through his old Orange Juice hit "Rip It Up", its sardonic wit and Afropop bounce undimmed. The Unthanks offer Northumbrian folk's wit and pain, complete with clog-dancing. "The Testimony of Patience Kershaw", based on a female child labourer's unpitied plea to an 1842 commission easily cuts through time. Such heartening, surprising moments abound at the End of the Road.
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