While the headliners rightly stole the show, the festival’s strength in depth provided its lifeblood.
Words: Karl Johnson | Photos: Burak Cingi
End Of The Road’s location in Larmer Tree Gardens is one of Victorian extravagance. The grounds were meticulously mapped out and created in 1880 and, for the festival, some stages are tucked between clearings in dense woodland and others situated in more grandiose, cinematic set ups. I open with this piece of Wiltshire trivia because End Of The Road can be whatever you wish it to be, jam-packed with comedy or cinema, literature or forest wanderings, but the curation of the music tops off a 360 degree bohemian rhapsody.
While it would be truly unfair to call Thursday a warm-up, with stunning sets by Regressive Left, West London hip-hop outfit Nine8 Collective and a momentous set by Stereolab, the tantalising prospect of Friday’s heavyweight bill was always going to be a mouth-watering prospect. As an unexpected heatwave grew into Friday daytime, Mancunians newcomers The Goa Express provided that scruffy indie energy in the Big Top, while indie hitmaker Katy J Pearson brought numbers to the main stage. Modern Woman fuse groove-filled 60s folk with heavy alternative wanderings, underpinned perfectly by what was possibly the best vocal performance of the day by Sophie Harris. Restraint is as much a weapon as is all out noise for Dundalk quintet Just Mustard, they offer a true highlight in balancing the intimate delivery of Katie Ball and noise rock and psychedelic influences. The lo-fi lads from Hull have transformed into dream pop heroes in waiting, Bdrmm inflate then deflate us slowly and noisily in a wash of gooey shoegaze glory.
Damon Albarn doesn’t get out much, his choice of words not mine, but tonight he brings a set worthy of waiting. A true master of the stage, he moves through genre influences with ease, offering solo material in Everyday Robots, re-worked Gorillaz rarities and cult tracks from his Blur back catalogue (interestingly he mentions his band members for his solo show is pretty much the same as Gorillaz). Its almost criminal to have to choose between John Grant and Hot Chip for Friday’s headline slot, but Hot Chip it is. The London group have been active for over two decades, the deconstructed grooves of their early material sound as crisp and genre-bending as ever, while their newly more immersive electronica offers a simmering euphoria which lifts their live presence to new heights.
Saturday offers an early afternoon treat in POZI who make waking up early feel very punk, screeches of the violin combine with robust bass grooves in a hangover-shaking ordeal which offers new life to the idea of punk music. Bust a gut to see The Umlauts live, the newcomers play as a nine-piece and are completely transfixing. Their three singers bring the energy necessary to an experimental brand of electronic-lounge music to life. Jerkcurb rule the Tipi Tent – their 2019 debut LP Air Con Eden fits it’s circus-esque surrounds perfectly – while Penelope Isles offer the dreamiest set over at the Big Top stage. “Are you enjoying yourselves, or are you just humouring us because you think we’re thick c*nts,” exclaims Sleaford Mods singer Jason Williamson as they hammer through their Woods stage headline, his humour not lost on those who headed deep into the woods to catch his afternoon Q&A. Afternoon temperatures had hit 27oC, they’re competing with Johnny Greenwood on the Garden stage and to play directly after London jazz-psych-funk trio The Comet Is Coming – who take my personal award for best live discovery – is no easy feat.
Sunday’s early highlight came in the form of London-based power duo JOHN who lit up the Big Top stage, sharing dynamic new cuts from their upcoming third album Nocturnal Manoeuvres. Canadian septet Crack Cloud were one of the few international artists able to make the journey, showing the Garden stage why they’re touted as one of the most innovative names in art-rock. Dry Cleaning lit up the Big Top stage, fighting for the corner that suggest they’re the best new band in alternative music, the band’s instrumental prowess and muscle providing the perfect spotlight for Florence Shaw’s magnetic jigsaw-esque spoken word. Other daytime highlights arrived in the form of Big Dada-signees PVA, witty Leeds lot Yard Act and the superb Billy Nomates, who was joined on stage by Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods. Shirley Collins – a player in the revival of English folk in the 60s and 70s – opened her heart up to a sun-kissed Garden stage with a truly heart-warming set. The 86 year old shared stories of trips across America collecting songs and her earlier years in folk, performing alongside her band The Lodestar – with Morris dancers to boot. Sunday’s spoils were shared by Little Simz and King Krule, the former needing no encouragement in proving further proof of her brilliance as a performer and importance in wider music, the latter illuminating the stage amidst their headline power cut and paying tribute to Pixies – who had to cancel – with a cover of Wave Of Mutilation. For those with gas still left in the tank, Archy Marshall joined fellow Londoners Horsey on stage in the last set of the festival in the early hours.
Beside the roaring bonfire that spat bright orange sparks into the jet black skyline you could find the Tipi tent, which hosted secret sets deep into the wee hours, summing up the thirst and excitement for new music. Over the three days Giant Swan, Kikagaku Moya, Chubby & The Gang, Horsey, Black Country, New Road and Katy J Pearson all gave performances, while deep in the woods the Piano Stage offered intimacy in the form of folk supergroup Broadside Hacks. End Of The Road knew what was missing in our lives over the last 18 or so months and gave it back to us in spades.