End of the Road Festival, Larmer Tree Gardens, North Dorset
Americans who are self-conscious about visiting Europe can be sure of a warm welcome in one idyllic English corner. Now in its seventh year, End of the Road has bucked the festival blues by carving out a niche where Americana and US leftfield sounds command centre stage. Alabama Shakes brought their testifying soul-rock to two stages while a playful and vivacious Patti Smith preceded her set with a secret reading in a woodland glade.
Much of Friday was dedicated to the discerning Bella Union label's 15th anniversary. Bear-like solo artist John Grant set the tone with a speech praising both it and the festival. At the piano, Grant's rich, rolling voice gave his confessionals the feel of songbook standards. Country-rock labelmates Midlake joined him for a sublime "Paint the Moon" before their own set and Low Anthem's duelling pump organs and ramshackle elegies continued the eccentric love-in at the deceptively intimate Garden Stage.
In the main field, by contrast, Beach House were dry ice-wreathed enigmas, their more sombre material lacking punch in the open air. Anna Calvi was a better fit with chiming guitar and vocals that swept from fruity croon to full-blooded roar. Filling the big top, meanwhile, were Alt-J, pre-shortlist favourites for the Mercury Prize with debut, An Awesome Wave. The Leeds University graduates added snap and sparkle to their cerebral math-pop, especially the glitchy pulses of "Tessellate" and "Fitzpleasure".
Also heading up were Minneapolis-based Dark Dark Dark. Singer Nona Marie Invie's understated, well-crafted tales of heartbreak, backed by accordion, were more dramatically immediate than chanteuse pastiche.
References could be obvious if acts used them with genuine passion. Take the popular First Aid Kit, two country-obsessed, Jack White-endorsed Swedish sisters that showed a deft way with melody. Upcoming, all-girl foursome Savages provided a brisk wake-up call on Sunday: a Banshees wail over Joy Division shards and much venom. Cold Specks leavened her spirituals with a jazz-funk take on Will Smith's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme tune.
Grandaddy's reunion has been warmly welcomed after their fractious 2006 split, though as Sunday's headliners, the Californian group's blissful synth-rock rarely provided startling thrills. Brooklyn's Grizzly Bear stepped up by floating Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonies over twitchy rhythms and increasingly caustic guitar rock on new material, notably "Sleeping Ute", from the experimental pop group's long-awaited follow-up to 2009 breakthrough album, Veckatimest. Singer/guitarist Daniel Rossen was palpably grateful for the platform, commenting, "There's not enough of these things in America."
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