End of the Road Festival, review: A strikingly potent bill from The Flaming Lips to St Vincent

Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset

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The Independent Culture

The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne is dressed in a tin-foil version of a pimp’s fur coat, and a body-suit seemingly smeared sacrificially blood-red, when his high-kick starts “Race for the Prize”. Genuinely psychedelic lights blaze brightly for this ultimately exultant song about human potential.

That isn’t even the climax of a show in which Coyne rolls over the crowd in his transparent “hamster” ball with a life-guzzling grin, and the Lips seem the band most in touch with rock’s life-changing promise. It does feel like a climax for the End of the Road festival, in its ninth year. Steady growth has cost some of its early, close-knit connection to Americana fans, but gained this thrilling Saturday headliner.

The whole bill is strikingly potent. As the Lips end their greatest song, “Do You Realize?”, John Grant is starting his fierce and gorgeous evisceration of homophobia, “Glacier”, nearby. Earlier on Saturday, Gruff Rhys’s song-cycle detailing the absurd legend of John Evans, the 18th century Welshman who chased a phantom tribe of his countrymen up the Mississippi, almost equals Coyne’s uplifting pop art.

Friday headliner St. Vincent represents her new album’s techno-fear with statuesque mime, which occasionally resembles a Robert Palmer video whose sexual politics has been hijacked by the models. Jenny Lewis precedes her. In silk purple dressing-gown and shades, she adopts the hip-swaying persona of the riotous cocktail waitress in her song “The Next Messiah”, sugaring harsh confessions.

The slurred boogie and hip wit of former Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus can’t dispel the suspicion that British Sea Power’s simultaneously happening, playfully visionary English pop would have been the better bet.

Tinariwen’s pulsing Saharan rebel blues and the Felice Brothers’ warm-hearted, danceable Americana also clash. So do Sunday headliners Wild Beasts’ sometimes sensual, sometimes frigid synth-pop, and White Denim’s jammed rock deconstructions.

The Victorian follies and roaming peacocks in the Garden Stage are the perfect setting for Futur Primitif, aka Daniel Lefkowitz. Under blue Sunday skies, his yearning voice settles into simply moving sentiment. The West Country fields rolling to the horizon similarly add to Deer Tick’s tumbledown Stonesy swagger.

Stumbling on surprises in Larmer Tree Gardens’ fairy-light-draped maze, or the low-key Tipi Tent, is especially rewarding. Lonnie Holley, a 61-year-old black American who was sold to a whorehouse aged 4, exceeds his awful life-story with his art’s implacable intelligence. His improvised river-flow of keyboards supports lyrics in which shoes are removed to enter heaven, and computer technology is a “cold-titted mama”.

Turning another corner, I find Sheffield author J.P. Bean describing the 1960s folk club scene as “a network of good will”.

Sunday night sees that era’s folk-rock revolutionary Richard Thompson singing a great new folk anthem from an upcoming album, which shames the current recession as an excuse for repression. “They’re still throwing dust into your eyes,” he reminds us. People fondly re-sing its lyrics afterwards. His fighting tradition, like this festival, keeps growing.    

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