The sunshine liked Friday at End of the Road so much it showed up for the Saturday too. Geordie songstress Beth Jeans Houghton doesn’t really need the sun, having instead an impressively large band, but at least it helps remind everyone that they’re not back in rainy Newcastle. Superb recent release ‘Dodecahedrons’ makes a welcome appearance with its glockenspiel and airy, Kate Bush-inspired vocal present and correct. Epic Danes Treefight for Sunlight take their ’70s soft rock influences to the logical conclusion: rather than being simply influenced by Kate Bush, they go one better and perform a cover of ‘Wuthering Heights’, with an astonishing note-perfect falsetto vocal from their male singer. Like a magic trick in slow motion, it seems so simple when performed before your very eyes, but the senses still reel from the magnificence of it all. The song of the weekend, no question.
One of the attractions of End of the Road is the compact site – no more than a few dozen steps from the main stage and you’re in a surprisingly full Big Top tent, sampling the Anglostralian delights of merry poppers Allo Darlin’. Her voice an exact cross between Beth Orton and Louise Wener, banjo-wielding frontwoman Elizabeth Morris’s naive, wide-eyed charms hold the audience in enthusiastic rapture. The songs need to be careful to avoid Kate Nash banality, but mostly fulfill the brief of jolly, domestic tales of a girl’s love and adventure. If the reception here is anything to go by, we’ll be hearing a lot more from Allo Darlin’.
A sandwich and a sit down sees Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Mangan and his string and horn backing band take the main stage. A modernist folkster in the Damien Rice vein, familiarity might lead to a greater appreciation of the material. Some impressive scratchy string action from the cellist, though. A premiere gig is a rare treat; Sam Genders admits to being more than a bit nervous on the occasion of Diagrams’ first live performance. He needn’t have worried. It’s difficult to imagine a more endearing, joyful and musically rewarding 45 minutes. Diagrams’ eclectic, back-of-the-cupboard sound is truly uplifting, and Genders’ understated command of his band and the audience shows a maturity and experience that he would undoubtedly modestly deny. From funky little riffs, a mixture of electric and acoustic drums, parping horns, and the noisy breakdown in ‘Hill’ which had the audience whooping in approval, there’s never a dull moment – what we all secretly wanted Tunng to be all along. By the time the famously cheapskate but wondrously effective audience-inflated balloon shower kicks off at the end of the set, it’s mission accomplished for Genders. And he got to drink his years-old emergency vodka.
There’s something to be said for the experienced frontman of a well-regarded band using downtime to put together his own desert-island backing group and slowly letting the world know he exists in his own right. Gruff Rhys has been quietly doing this for years, and on today’s evidence he’s got it down to a fine art. A masterclass of mature guitar pop, there’s classic after classic here, including the brilliantly catchy and uplifting ‘Ni Yw Y Byd’, its six key changes and unbelievably catchy melody getting everyone singing along. Ah yes, there’s loads of Welsh language stuff, but when they’re such powerful earworms as these, suddenly we’re all fluent in the dialects of the valleys.
ATP-endorsed Wooden Shjips come with a nailed-on buzz from the sub-zero areas of the blogosphere, and with frontman Ripley Johnson’s impressively-coiffed facial hair demanding so much attention, how can the music compete? Kicking off EOTR’s shoegaze strand, the Shjips manage to make that dullest of genres listenable, and at moments actually exciting. Yes, there’s just one chord for minutes on end a lot of the time, as the songs meander towards some sort of meaningful conclusion, but the arrangements do have lovely touches of ambience, noise, and backwards guitar that hold the interest and, I admit, sound really cool in a head-nodding, stoner kind of way, man. But we’re only into early evening, and too much off this will have everyone drifting off into a trance. For aficionados only.
At the other end of the populist scale, a band heading straight for the mainstream are Wild Beasts (pictured at top), whose cerebral, off-kilter, arty rock seems to be making an impression on everyone except the Mercury Prize judges. The acres of dimming, firelit sky framing the stage serves only to enhance the emotional impact of this masterful performance. Accessible yet intelligent, with multiple vocalists delivering catchy yet complex melodies, a season of festival performances have honed these Cumbrians’ set to a sharp, effective distillate of virtues. The Coldplay you’re allowed to like.
It would seem churlish to ask for any further excellence tonight, but next up are Leeds’s Spectrals, looking for all the world on day release from sixth-form college, almost stealing the “band of the day” prize from their more experienced peers. Quite how Louis Jones has had the time to ingest ’50s hula bop, ’60s Spectoresque epic pop, ’70s prog-psych, and 90s baggy, let alone learn how to meld it together in a set which would be impressive coming from someone twice his age, is quite beyond me. Some of the sounds here are simply glorious, exemplified by ‘I Ran with Love But I Couldn’t Keep Up’, with its langourous tone and regretful lyrics – truly a modern classic.
So it’s with light hearts and a spring in the step that we head to headliners Okkervil River. But only moments into their bong-eared desecration of ‘Sloop John B’, it’s apparent that something’s not quite right. Whether it’s the material not really being strong enough, or Will Sheff’s try-hard handclaps and incongruous shape throwing, something doesn’t quite ring true. Clearly aiming for a slice of Arcade Fire’s demographic, someone should whisper in their ear, bombast doth not a good song make. And goodness knows, one Arcade Fire is enough for any lifetime. A slight disappointment, but quickly forgotten with the discovery of the forest disco, logically enough housed in a wooden shjip, suspended within the boughs. Playing a selection of vintage rock, soul, and funk, for those who have the energy, and can avoid a poke in the eye from wayward tree branches, there’s no better way to spend the small hours of a September Saturday.