'What is the most important part of a festival?' End of the Road founder Sofia asked me during our interview, 'the audience' was her answer.
And this certainly shows. EOTR is a weekend-long cutting-edge music festival at the Larmer Tree Gardens on the North Dorset/ Wiltshire border. This is a special place even without a festival, but End of the Road uses every space to create something magical. You will find inspirational art and a library in the fairy lit woodland, victorian follies, a fantastic forest disco with lit dancefloor, an open air lounge complete with piano for your use, a croquet lawn, table tennis...oh yes, and peacocks roaming free! All this creates the perfect festival bubble from your everyday life and the perfect backdrop for an exciting line up of live music, comedy and talks.
Little presents to the ticket holders is a much appreciated part of this festival. This included a performance by Laura Marling to a very lucky twenty strong audience. But this festival is not just about the big names. It was for me a festival of musical recommendations - like when a friend who's taste you really trust gives you a mix cd. I interviewed one of the orgnaisers, Sofia. I wondered if I was being ignorant when I had not heard of all the bands, but Sofia reassured me that several of the bands are unsigned. And it is precisely the idea that you may discover a new band that it is up and coming or may remain niche, that so many people I talked to find so exciting. Sofia said that it is so hard for acts to break into the festival circuit that it is essential that this festival provides a platform for them to play on the same billing as better known acts.
This year the better known names included Laura Marling, Mogwai, Joanna Newsome, The Fall and many more.
Caitlin Rose returned to the festival to play here for the second year running. She was absolutley brilliant. Her voice is one of my favourites of all time and she's one of my favourite songwriters too! She has been described as straight Nashville but she really has an edge to her songwriting.
One of the best things about EOTR is all the different genres you get and I'm about to talk about someone who's totally different to Caitlin Rose but still blew me away. She's called tUnE-yArDs. She reminds me of PJ Harvey but a bit more crazy. She really is queen of the loop pedals and it’s clever stuff too. The set featured lyrics including 'do you want to live?' to which the packed crowd replied with a resounding 'YES!!'.
The Friday night Garden Stage headliner was The Fall. Unsurprsingly, you couldn't hear a word Mark .E. Smith was singing but The Fall live is not so much about the lyrics and Smith was on top form charisma wise. Befitting of this discerning festival you were not to hear crowd pleasers like Mr Pharmacist or Hit the North, but what a treat!
On Saturday, Northumbrian folk band, The Unthanks played a magical set. I am a big fan of The Unthanks: Becky and Rachel's voices are totally different but they blend so well to make beautiful harmonies. They played a less traditional set with contemporary numbers like Lucky Gilchrist. I interviewed Rachel Unthank after her set. I asked if she would be more at home at a folk festival but she told me that she loves this festival and was thrilled to be back for a second year, this time as a new mum. Rachel, like Caitlin Rose was sad that she could not stay to enjoy the other quality acts but both bands were hot-footing it to Ireland's Electric Picnic.
Chatting with a fellow festivaler by the relaxed piano bar, I was told that it would be 'disgusting' if I did not see Mogwai. I am so happy that I took that advice. They put on a massive show with flares and their own film backdrop and went down really well. The longer sets afforded to many of the acts is another winning feature of this festival. My original plan was to watch half an hour of Mogwai's set but I was so impressed I stayed for the whole thing. This meant I missed Okkervil River as was the case with so many other bands over the weekend, but I do not intend to complain about being spoilt for choice.
I could not get to see Other Lives who I heard packed out the Tipi stage; Lanterns on the Lake who caused a realy buzz in the Big Top; Megafaun and Dry the River who were originally on my list; or Diagrams' premiere (yes, I am kicking myself about that).
I was however captivated by Jolie Holland (just beautiful), a Phospephorescent solo set, and Willy Mason. I was glad to see Bob Log III - think Seasick Steve in a helmet, although he got a bit samey for me after a while. I was also really glad to catch The Walkmen and this band really went down well. Beirut were also worth seeing (I had to run between them and The Fall). These were excellent, mixing really tight brass including a sousaphone, with compelling harmonies.
Emmy The Great played the first ever EOTR and this year appeared in the opening slot on the main stage on Sunday. I am quite a fan and love the distinctive way she delivers her lyrics as well as the intriguing songwriting. I particularly enjoyed her song which referenced Billy Bragg. She took me backstage for an interview after the show. I asked how her new album Virtue differs to her last album. Emma said that Virtue is set in a fantasy world but deals with every day stuff. She told me that she has been plagued with laryngitis and so had to cancel a late night secret gig at the festival.
I was surprised to catch Emma (of Emmy the Great) in the comedy area. This is nestled in a natural clearing in part of the woodland and is a lovely and atmospheric spot to catch something different. During our interview Emma told me she dosn't go under the name Emmy The Great for her comedy venture instead they take on characters out of a teen novel.
Of course a festival is more than just the acts - a lot rides on the crowd there. I would say that EOTR attracts proper music lovers that also want to have a good time. The Stewards are relaxed and friendly. You are welcome to bring in your own alcohol and food, but the bars and infamous cider bus are well stocked and the prices reasonable. I treated myself to a yummy pizza from the Pizza Tabun after making a pitta bread in their open-fronted oven.
There was a lot of talk this year about the increased capacity of the festival. As far as I can make out, the crowd has grown from around 7,500 to around 12,000. But the layout has also changed to include a bigger main stage. I spoke to lots of veteran end of the roaders to get an idea of the reaction to this. Having loved the special intimacy of the previous festivals, most were understandably nervous about sharing it with more people and including a bigger stage. However, I think everyone I spoke to agreed it still worked well. The new stage is at the foot of a slope and is wide so that even with must see acts like Laura Marling, you can always get a good spot to see and hear the set. And it is difficult to find fault with that. The garden stage is the next biggest and still played host to The Fall and The Walkmen again you could still get in to see the acts and with a more compact area it retains some of the intimacy.
You can also find places to relax and plenty to try out. I went to an interesting talk by Guardian columist Laura Barton about sound and landscape featuring work by Jonathon Richman. I also enjoyed seeing Wire editor, Rob Young interviewing James Yorkston. My sister enjoyed 'the Wonderlands', where the children were encouraged to join in with the festival journey - complete with fake check in, their own travelogue to record their highlights, art, creative writing, and sculpture. Although it is not overun with kids and the adults were definitely joining in with lots of what was on offer. The hot ticket was the plasticine stop-go animation worskhops. Three days of painstaking filming with each child getting their own slot included in the final film. The team certainly deserve congratulations on that one.
The highlight of my weekend was the incredible Laura Marling. Her band were tight, her voice was amazing, her lyrics ispirational, she had the whole package, she brought it to End Of The Road and went down a storm. I had goosebumps running down my arm for the whole set. When I was watching, I got lost in the music and couldn't think about anything else.
This was my first time at this festival but I am certain that it won't be my last. And if you cannot wait until next September (and I do not think I can), the organisers Sofia and Simon are putting on a brand new festival in June 2012. 'No Direction Home' will take place in part of the Sherwood forest and if EOTR is anything to go by, the new venture is definitely worth checking out. My budget may not allow it but early bird tickets for both festivals are on sale now. If you are a music lover get yours now!