The role of a festival is to offer a brief utopia to which the weary dweller of the real world can escape, a place where your only appointments are set to the schedule of stage timings. For this short time, your life is in the hands of the festival organisers, you place your trust in them to provide every amenity from water and food to entertainment. The whole process involves a certain relinquishment of control. And as the recent Woodstock ‘99 documentary showed in painstaking detail, it’s all too easy for the promise of a utopia to flip into a burning hellscape, so it makes you truly appreciate it when a festival is curated with the care of one like End of the Road.
Held in the radiant Larmer Tree Gardens in Wiltshire, it has become one of the most reliable of the UK’s mid-sized festivals. Running in the first weekend of September, it’s so named because it represents the end of the road for the summer of festivals, the last hurrah before the kids go back to school, uni starts again, and the weather starts to turn. Like Glastonbury’s summer solstice raison d’être, this provides a theme and a focus, a reassertion that this isn’t some badly thought out money spinner.
With the totemic helter skelter looming over the main arena, there’s the feel of an overgrown fairground that has sprung back to life, a sprawling wonderland of art installations, rides, games, activities and, of course, music. A large part of the site is nestled amongst trees, overseen by at least one complete family of peacocks this year and a couple of macaws who perch contentedly on the pavilions, giving the impression that nature has given its stamp of approval.
There’s a soft opening on Thursday with just the main “Woods” Stage and the Tipi Tent hosting performers. Khruangbin are great fun with their blissed-out psychedelic funk which includes a crowd-pleasing mainly instrumental covers spree that goes on a journey through pop and rock history, from the 60s surf rock of Dick Dale’s Misirlou to Spandau Ballet’s True, with many, many stops on the way. And it’s frankly joyous. In the Tipi Tent Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs cater for those in search of a more rambunctious time.
On Friday the full site is opened up, with the expansive woodlands that encompass the second billing Garden Stage, as well as a variety of other non-musical activities. Everywhere you turn is decorated in bunting and banners, with jolly papier-mâché characters emerging from the shrubbery. There’s a woodland library, a vintage ferris wheel going much faster than it seems it should, a karaoke bar, an art gallery, even a cinema, making it very unlikely that you’re going to be bored, whether you’re a youngster in the afternoon or a raver after hours.
The start of Friday’s music is heralded by folk revivalists Shovel Dance Collective who rally curious stragglers in the food court to join them at the Woods Stage for their moving arrangements of English folk tunes, which bring a sense of belonging as well as Godspeed-esque political urgency to the traditional music of the working classes. It’s a fittingly divergent start to a roster of acts that continues to zigzag stylistically throughout the weekend.
The darkened environs of the Big Top tent plays host to some of the more brooding acts of the weekend with Circuit des Yeux’s Haley Fohr giving a spellbinding, intense performance of her operatic rock on the Friday. Bristol producer Grove brings serious bass to the tent the following day with their punky dancehall bangers, persuading the crowd to form perhaps the weekend’s only wall of death at one point. They also make one of the strongest statements of queerness, joined by drag performer Lynks for their collaborative banger BBB.
Edging us in a soulful pop direction, Nilufer Yanya graces the Garden Stage on Friday evening. With grungy guitar, echoey alto sax and smoky vocals her sound is a fresh and intriguing mix. The Woods Stage, playing host to the sunny funk and soul of Durand Jones & the Indications and desert rock of Tinariwen, is on a trajectory towards the delicately crafted folk of Fleet Foxes. They remain a band who seem supremely in control of every aspect of their sound, making for a comforting if slightly down-tempo campfire singalong of a headliner.
For a more high energy top of the bill, Snapped Ankles are happy to oblige, with their synthy chaos ending the Boat Stage’s live performances for the day. Dressed as woodland spirits, their raucous sound brings in a sprawling crowd keen to get involved in the melée. It’s difficult for most people to see anything, but that doesn’t seem to put too many off. The disjointed math rock of Battles, which follows in the Big Top, is slightly too clever for its own good, almost like an exercise in teasing a crowd who at this time of the evening just wants to dance. However, this only makes the tribal four-to-the-floor silliness of closing song Atlas all the more cathartic. Fans of motorik wig-outs are treated to further delights with the weekend’s first surprise show in the Tipi Tent by Beak>. They bring their no nonsense old-mates-jamming-in-the-living-room dynamic and wry asides to a set of spacey grooves.
Saturday’s line-up produces perhaps one of the biggest clashes of the weekend with indie trailblazers Pixies and The Magnetic Fields headlining the Woods and Garden Stages respectively and simultaneously. Those in the know, however, are able to navigate the problem by catching The Magnetic Fields playing a secret show on Saturday afternoon at the Piano Stage – a makeshift three-walled living room hidden in the forest with a shiny blue piano, where throughout the weekend a selection of artists can be seen performing small sets of stripped back songs. It’s one of the touches that makes End of the Road truly special. Over the weekend, artists such as Soccer Mommy, Kurt Vile, Lucy Dacas, Porridge Radio also play to those lucky enough to hear the rumours or be in the right place at the right time.
Emanating an urgent, contagious excitement is Alabaster DePlume, whose Saturday afternoon set on the Garden Stage is a rousing jazz ritual. His joy at being there on stage with us watching, his reassurances that we’re all doing well even though it’s not easy, that we’re precious, create moments of real profound connection and positivity. It’s all held together by the assured musicianship of his band who are ever ready to adapt to his whims and follow the lead of his wavering, tender tenor sax.
A welcome last minute performance from indie pop favourites The Wave Pictures on the Garden Stage is followed by the sultry intimate rock of The Weather Station. Then, Perfume Genius in a silky suit on the Woods Stage makes a slightly skittish crooner, bristling with nervous energy in between songs which he transforms into breathtaking sensuality as he writhes on a chair tangling himself in a cloud of gossamer material. Moments of emotional intensity like the explosive Slip Away and crunchy wall of sound of Describe show a performer whose vulnerability is being transcended in front of us.
The Magnetic Fields’ back catalogue contains arguably some of the most beautiful songs ever written, many of which are delicately rendered here. It’s a real treat to hear Stephin Merrit’s iconic baritone voice leading a transporting, twinkly serenade. Meanwhile, Pixies on the Woods Stage are the weekend’s biggest pull. Even from the top of the hill, their unmistakable, archetypical indie rock sound penetrates, yelping, fierce, energetic as ever.
Those wishing for a laid back Sunday afternoon are suitably catered for with legendary Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia’s loose, joyful 70s afrofunk sound and the brass-powered soul of Ural Thomas and the Pain. Then, Kurt Vile & the Violators bring their slacker Americana to the early evening. Kurt’s chugging rock and goofy stage presence are eminently likeable. But even more special is his secret show at the piano stage earlier on in the afternoon, just Kurt and an acoustic guitar, the bedraggled troubadour with drowsy finger-picking and stream of consciousness storytelling. The poignant Runner Ups, especially, portrays something vast and intimate at the same time.
Whilst Bright Eyes is a rowdy, messy, at times uncomfortable headliner for the Woods Stage, there is something otherworldly about Aldous Harding’s set, which closes the Garden Stage. Staring wide-eyed at the crowd as if she is surprised to see anyone there at all, she moves slowly and methodically between instruments, like an alien still getting used to its human suit. There is a gentle, timeless magic to the songs, all performed with control and delicacy, each its own perfect contained piece, with every tiny musical gesture precise with intention. Throughout the latter part of her set, lightning is flashing across the sky, threatening the downpours that have miraculously been avoided up until this point. The heavens wait thankfully for a little longer, until the final song has finished, before emptying what seems like a whole weekend’s worth of rain in one ten-minute drenching.
End of the Road is a festival that knows its crowd. Over its history a 6music-friendly indie/alt-rock/Americana core to the line-up has persisted, and it continues to sell out every year, but an expanding umbrella of musical styles keeps it fresh. There’s a sense of community, with kids being cheerfully dragged around in their trolleys or hula-hooping in the circus area, and the whole enterprise remains family-run and independent. The key mistake made by the organisers of Woodstock ‘99, with its rampant onsite price hiking, was forgetting that what we’re trying to escape more than anything when we go to a festival is the capitalism of everyday life. This is perhaps why other festivals closer to home, like Reading and Leeds, often turn into nihilistic rampages of vandalism: they still have the feel that you’re having your money syphoned out of you at every turn. End of the Road manages to cling onto an ethos of sustainability and independent vendors, with barely a brand name in sight the whole weekend, and, even aside from the music, there’s something deeply rejuvenating about this.
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