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Guitars reign supreme at the End of the Road

Guitars reign supreme at the End of the Road

September 04
03:50 2018

Avocado on toast. Vegan sushi. A spoon-making workshop. The End of the Road Festival appeals to a particular demographic and it does so extremely well. The site — in the undulating hills of Dorset/Wiltshire — is properly pretty. The food is global. The ale is real. The toilets are clean and regularly serviced. And the music is an expertly curated menu of indie-rock, niche American acts, a smattering of world music, and crowd-pleasing pop-rock. The trend that has seen emo-rap acts larging it up at Reading and Leeds has yet to reach Larmer Tree Gardens. Here, guitars are still the dominant force.

Which may sound like a limitation; in fact, what this year’s edition illustrated was the enduring strength and still-expanding range of guitar-based music. Take, for instance, the weekend’s opening act, Yo La Tengo. For decades, these darlings of the nerdy end of the indie-rock spectrum have been creating music that has made them the very definition of uncategorisable. Here they delivered a set in which they sounded like a different band in every song, and yet somehow remained Yo La Tengo. The opener, “You Are Here”, from this year’s There’s a Riot Going On album, was throbbing electronica; the final number, “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”, was a blizzard of Sonic Youth-style plank-spanking from guitarist Ira Kaplan.

Penelope Isles, a youngish four-piece from Brighton, used their guitars more conventionally to create grooves that built into something warm and solid. And they were thrilled to be there, flushed to find that they had attracted a decent crowd as one of the opening acts of the weekend.

Over the next three days, guitars came in all shapes and sizes. The one used by London-based singer and songwriter Daniel Blumberg was one of those rectangular bodiless things that barely look like guitars. His music was strange and stark and wondrous and at times barely sounded like music, Blumberg shifting from one foot to the other like a man at the end of a long queue, his band tapping, scraping, scratching and banging their instruments (double bass, drums, violin) — almost anything, in fact, except playing them conventionally. Blumberg’s high, anxious voice repeated phrases, his guitar the only instrument keeping any kind of pulse. A haunting experience.

On the smaller Tipi Tent stage, The Weather Station used guitars more conventionally in the service of Tamara Lindeman’s rich and steady voice, sometimes fluting like Joni Mitchell, sometimes dark and treacly. On Friday evening, the same stage was taken over by BBC Radio 3’s wide-ranging Late Junction programme, recorded for later broadcast. The first act was classic Late Junction fare: the Polish duo Zimpel/Ziolek, who used Jakub Ziolek’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar and voice, along with Waclaw Zimpel’s looped serialist keyboard patterns, as a kind of droning (in a good way) basis for Zimpel’s fluttering, shimmering extemporisations on bass clarinet.

Precision-tooled: St Vincent © Rachel Juarez-Carr

Friday evening’s headline show from St Vincent was stunning, precision-tooled and expertly rehearsed. And yet: the guitarist and singer lacks something. A heart? Soul? There’s nothing wrong with music that is rehearsed and choreographed, as David Byrne (with whom St Vincent played at End of the Road in 2013) illustrated earlier this year. But where Byrne has a catalogue of classic songs and a quirky warmth, St Vincent is ice-cool and knowingly unknowable. There were eruptive moments, notably on “Masseduction”, when she stepped forward to show glimpses of her brilliance as a guitarist, but overall this was a triumph of poise and spectacle over passion.

A rare guitar-free performance came from the Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman, accompanied here just by a keyboardist with multiple samples and backing tracks. Dressed in traditional robes, and sunglasses, Souleyman presided over a celebratory and eminently danceable hour of music, the rhythms shifting from Middle Eastern to Balearic and even once to zydeco. He sang and pronounced magisterially, and strolled the stage imploring us to clap; the crowd duly obliged.

© Richard Gray/EMPICS

Wild Billy Childish & CTMF delivered punkish, raw guitar in a thoroughly entertaining set that combined banter with classic tunes from Childish’s back catalogue, as well as cover versions that included the closing section of The Who’s proto-rock opera “A Quick One, While He’s Away”. He’s a funny chap, in his Davy Crockett hat, a man who brought — and still brings — a sense of fun to a style of music that can be wearyingly angry and bitter. As Childish said, “People think we’re punks but really I’m a hippy.”

Hookworms were one of three bands performing over the weekend with “worms” in their name (the others being Flat Worms and Cut Worms). These particular Worms employed two guitars, plus sometimes bass guitar, keyboards and walloping drums, and the yelpy voice of their singer (known only by his initials, MJ) to create a broiling, feverish barrage of sound. I wouldn’t be able to hum any of their songs, but the relentless pulse of their motorik beats and the sheer solidity of their sound remain with me.

Guitars took on an African timbre in Saturday’s headlining set from Vampire Weekend. Their music is simple in that it aims purely to uplift and create joy, but rhythmically and structurally it is richly complex, with its layers of lilting west African guitars, South African township bass, clumping-clattering drums and preppy-poppy East Coast melodies. At the end they brought a bunch of youngsters — one in a wheelchair — on stage to dance. Pure pleasure.

Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend © Burak Cingi/Redferns

As was the late-night (and entirely guitar-free) hour of comedy from Mark Watson, whose rambling, baffled-bewildered monologue contained barely any jokes yet was at times achingly funny: digression upon digression. And for the second time at the festival he delivered the end of his set from up a tree.

Sunday’s pleasures were manifold, and still largely guitar-based. Imarhan, the Tuareg band, played groovy, dusty desert blues driven by the hypnotic drone of two guitars. John Cale majored on past glories such as “Half Past France”, an eerie, cinematic soundscape which featured his bassist stroking his strings with a violin bow; “Helen of Troy”, with its fractured, angular alt-shredding solos from guitarist Dustin Boyer; and the Velvet Underground classic “I’m Waiting for the Man”, sung in his weathered baritone.

But the best was left until last. White Denim, the four-piece from Austin, Texas, headlining the Garden stage on the balmy final night of a warm, dry weekend, were stunning, blinding, dizzyingly good — prog-rock, funk, southern rock and heavy metal were among the ingredients in their head-spinning brew of styles, played with astonishing expertise and cohesion. These guys are torchbearers for the twiddly passage, the change of tempo, the tricky time signature and the crushing riff. It was an astonishing performance. Guitar rock is safe in their hands.

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