End of the Road Festival, Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset

A festival that's out of this world
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The Independent Culture

The very last festival of the summer proved to be the best of the lot. The clear view across the rolling Dorset fields wasn't sullied by the sponsors' logos that rock'*'roll has been sold to elsewhere. Instead, the organisers of this gathering of folk-leaning bands had strung winding lanes of trees with fairy lights and papier-mâché animals.

At night, knots of people wandered these woods and murmured in clearings. Turn a corner, and a festival-goer would be playing Neil Young's "Helpless" on a piano, while Midlake could be heard far away, through the trees. In this environment, rock'*'roll became a gently firm refusal of consumerist logic, a transforming trip to somewhere else.

The exceptional line-up helped. The yearning, fragile harmonies and sentiments of Sweden's Loney, Dear, and their balloon- and confetti-tossing countrymen I'm From Barcelona, revealed a shared vision subscribed to by many of the bands, where The Flaming Lips' utopian collective was the guiding light, and xylophones the child-friendly instrument of choice.

From Indigo Moss's diffident attempt at new English folk, and Hush the Many's eager, Syd Barrett-tinged psychedelic country, to the gossamer-delicate sounds of Sheffield's Monkey Swallows the Universe, this sylvan setting saw the return of brightly coloured, hippie naiveté – a rejection of cynical, corporate conformity.

There were sharper-edged talents on show, of course, mainly the Americana acts. Jim White, stricken by laryngitis and basically unable to sing, struggled through his tales of the Bible Belt's rotten-toothed drunks and "PCP in the breeze". He mentioned his suicidal despair before music saved him, making even this crippled show feel like a triumph for hope.

John Doe, meanwhile, provided acerbic, politicised realism, Giant Sand soon joining in as a righteously rocking backing band. Howe Gelb, a straight-backed, dryly amused Arizona native was the weekend's constant presence: the Wild West meeting the West Country.

Midlake, meanwhile, were simply magical. Dorset's starry sky suited their leader Tim Smith's dreams of rustic retreat, and his band were the best I've seen them, forcefully matching the daring beauty of last year's The Trials of Van Occupanther album.

The ludicrous hype over Led Zeppelin's reunion – set for November – was almost upstaged when Robert Plant considered casually joining his former bassist John Paul Jones's show with Robyn Hitchcock. Plant decided not to jump the gun and stayed in the wings, however, while Jones was usefully employed adding mandolin to Hitchcock's acerbically literate tales.

Joan As Police Woman's Joan Wasser was flirty and physical, with a voice that casually knifed notes home. The as yet unknown Swede Frida Hyvönen proved a crisply sexy kindred spirit, even as Michael J Sheehy was playing his swaggering yet guilt-ridden sinners' rock elsewhere.

The Bees' mariachi reggae, Super Furry Animals' mellow, career-spanning set, and British Sea Power's air-raid siren-punctuated post-punk clatter, played by a guitarist who blearily admitted he was "wasted, to be honest", left the festival high on inspiring British underground sounds.

But in the weekend's closing hours, American outsiders ruled. Seasick Steve's raw hobo tales converted one last festival crowd. And then Josh T Pearson, a Texan with a wild man's beard that made Steve look like a solid citizen, wrestled with angels and devils in songs played with possessed ferocity. At the same instant, on the main stage, Lambchop's Kurt Wagner was considering quieter, private demons. It was a fine end to a festival of other-worldly perfection.