End of the Road Festival 2014, Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset
[Writing Soundtrack: Ezra Furman & The Boyfriends ~ Day of the Dog]
Saturday arrives slowly. Very slowly. After a long and exhausting Friday the lure of an airbed, sleeping bags (tastefully draped in a fake fur throw: the new festival essential) is overwhelming. So it is around lunch-time by the time we drag ourselves into the waking world and trudge off in search of eggs and pork products. But hey, we are on our holidays so a nice lie in is like sticking it to the man.
Tea and bacon is hastily procured and scoffed, when on the wind we hear doings afoot on the Woods stage. Being curious souls, we wander off, in true Holmes and Watson style, to investigate. We find a crowd gathering to watch the Flaming Lips soundcheck, Wayne Coyne leading the proceedings, resplendent in a red and white polka dot raincoat. This was more than just your run of the mill soundcheck. Wayne being in playful form is insisting that they play each song through in full rather than the usual odd verse. By the time they get to Yoshimi it is no longer a soundcheck, it’s a show… and we are part of it too. After castigating Steve Drozd for buggering up the intro, we then come under the scrutiny of the comic ringmaster who insists that we all join in on the Hai Hai bit. I glanc behind me at this point and the handful of curious folk who were there when we arrived has morphed into a sizeable crowd. A mass morning sing along orchestrated by the wizard in chief was just the ticket to start off Saturday. Later in the afternoon, passing the Rough Trade tent there were massive queues forming as Wayne Coyne held long, detailed conversations with everyone. It’s rare to see a pop star engaging with their audience quite like this, and while clearly a born show off, he can’t have failed to win over the doubters.
I confess much of the afternoon passed by in a blur; some mooching round stalls, a game of Ringo Bingo, an impromptu fly past from the Red Arrows, some tea and cake, a blast of Sweet Baboo in the rain before curiosity found us in the Big Top to check out Ghost of a Sabre Toothed Tiger. This being the latest project of a Mr Sean Lennon who, alongside his supermodel girlfriend on bass, delivered a set of spaced out psychedelia to a crowd not really knowing what to expect. Sean is quite the guitarist as it turns out and dressed in sharp black coat, hat and glasses looked spookily like his father. It could have just been a freak show, a gathering of rubber neckers wanting to see how the son of the most famous pop star on the planet turned out; but thank goodness he wins the audience over with his obvious sincerity. It is s mystery to me how Liverpool PsycheFest didn’t book him… a perfect spiritual homecoming I think. Worthy of further investigation.
Following a late afternoon nap (yeah we really are that hardcore) and some food, we wander back to the Big Top l to get a spot near the front for Unknown Mortal Orchestra. This was a day of tough decisions as Gruff Rhys was playing on the Garden Stage at the same time, but in the end UMO win our patronage. The UMO II album has been on heavy rotation in my life for the past year, and I have never seen them play live before, so it is something of a surprise to see what they look like. I don’t know why but you listen to the record and you expect to see a bunch of hairy arsed old guys rather then the young fresh faced trio setting up in front of me.
While watching them soundcheck we notice Sean Lennon is stood next to us avidly watching and snapping pictures of Ruban Nielson. He later a seat in front of the barrier right in front of us to watch the gig in a state of awestruck wonder while his girlfriend messes about on her mobile phone. When congratulated for a great set earlier he just smiles shyly, whispers thankyou and bows graciously before skipping away to the safety of other musicians. This prompts the discussion, what must it be like to be Sean Lennon…the son of John & Yoko? I mean that has got to be some weird trip right? Growing up in a goldfish bowl, haunted by your parents legacy every second of every day. That must really mess with your head.
UMO are everything I could have hoped for and in Ruban Nielson they have a guitarist who defies description. he doesn’t so much play guitar as wear it. In fact that doesn’t really do it justice; its as if the guitar is an extension of his body. When you see him play he uses every part of his body, a constant blur of activity to wrench the most sublime and delicate sounds from his instrument. Every note, every chord, eliciting a move of the body, skipping around like someone possess. He is a genuine talent with an ability that is clearly innate rather than taught. His voice, gossamer light on record, is rich and soulful in the flesh, like an Antipodean Smoky Robinson. They run through most of the songs from UMO II but sadly no Swim & Sleep Like a Shark… but I guess even indie guitar gods get tired of playing the hits.
As the final chord rings out we race from the tent and run to the Woods stage. Seeing the Flaming Lips live has been on the top of my wish list for a long time, and this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. Arriving a couple of songs into the set the arena is rammed. We wriggle our way forward, but finding a really good vantage point is just too hard. Never the less you have to take your hat off to them, they certainly know how to put on a show. Wayne is stalking the stage wearing what appears to be some kind of skeletal body suit and a huge tinsel cape, while the band are dressed as crazy green haired aliens. There are 18 ft inflatable dancing aliens. There is Wayne in his giant bubble scampering over the heads of the crowd. There are songs old and new; a joyous She Don’t Use jelly, a raucous singalong to Yoshimi (Hai Hai!). It was everything I could have possibly wanted from a Flaming Lips show….but….
And its a big but, but the following thoughts make the next decision so much easier. You see, musically speaking, I’m never entirely sure whether or not I like the Flaming Lips. I mean I don’t dislike them, but do I love them? I love their sense of showmanship, the way the engage with a crowd. I love the humanity of their lyrics on songs like Do You Realize? and Race for the Prize. I loved the mini concert we had seen at the soundcheck; it was warm and funny and strangely intimate in such a big arena. But musically…I’m never that sure, which I guess tells it’s own story.
Feeling the need to engage with something which really touches the heart, we turn tail and run to the Garden Stage to catch John Grant. I first saw John grant at Latitude, years ago, when he was still being backed by Midlake. To be fair I didn’t really see him at first, rather heard him while dozing in the main arena, and just got lost in the sound of his voice. I’ve seen him a couple of times since, often in odd venues, and have always found him a genuinely moving performer who can sing about deeply personal stuff while simultaneously finding some sort of universal truth.
As we charge into the Garden Stage, we were half expecting him to be singing into his whiskey in an empty arena, such was the crowd for Flaming Lips. We needn’t have worried; it feels like walking into the world’s most middle aged, middle class rave, as the heavy beats and squelchy synth lines of Pale Green Ghosts blast into the night. The crowd are dancing and you can’t help yourself but to lose yourself and immerse yourself in music completely. John is on good form tonight, happy and potty mouthed as ever, dressed in his, by now trademark, Icelandic hobo chic. Chicken Bones is a joy, GMF is dedicated to all the children he’d met in the signing tent (‘the greatest motherfuckers’ he’d ever met), Glacier is icy and heartbreaking. He finishes with epic Queen of Denmark; a song dripping with anger & self loathing, but also laced with irony and self effacing humour. His voice is a bit ragged and raw by now, and you can hear him straining to hit the big notes, but somehow that just makes it all the more moving. An incredible performance to a genuinely appreciative audience, this was definitely the highlight of the festival for me.
We pop into the Big Top on the way back and catch some of The Archie Bronson Outfit’s late night set. I have been enjoying their latest album a great deal, and it looked fun up there, But sometimes you have to know when it’s time to call it a night, so we make our excuses and leave. Wandering back to our canvas palace, tired and happy after a brilliant second day.