Michael’s been back to his favourite annual music festival. He’s written about the many bands he saw.
I love the End of the Road festival. It has a really relaxed atmosphere and, most crucially for me (but I know not everybody), people seem to be there more for the music and less for the debauchery. The relaxed atmosphere attracts family groups, with many older teens attending with their friends and their parents. I was there with my partner, our two sons (now in their early twenties), as well as lifelong friends and their late-teens who’d brought extra friends and signed-up to work in exchange for their tickets.
The campsite is close to the music, and the festival site is compact enough to quickly move from stage to stage. There are four main stages (in descending size order: Woods, Garden, Big Top and Tipi) plus a tiny Piano stage (hidden in the woods) and the Talking Heads stage that was being used for a few extra music acts this year (and some comedy).
And there are plenty of quirky corners and getaway spots to escape from the crowds, crazy golf, art, comedy, films, spoon-making and all the other hippy dippy new-age mumbo you expect at festivals. Oh, and there are loads of food stalls, benches and late-night campfires to ward off the chilly night air (it gets surprising cold down in Dorset in late August).
Whilst many people were there to see a couple of their favourite headline artists, I go to discover new music (having done a little Spotify-based homework in advance). I enjoy the excitement of rushing between the stages, catching glimpses or staying for a full set.
I see so much that it’s easy to forget the names and experiences from day to day, let alone months later. So I like to photograph the bands and write a few words as a reminder. My review of last year’s festival is elsewhere in this journal. Frustratingly, this year, having taken hundreds of photos, I ‘lost’ my camera on the penultimate night so I’m relying on my memory and the images I took on my phone (plus a couple from my family).
Thursday 29th August
In recent years, End of the Road have started programming a few artists on the Thursday night, presumably to encourage people to turn up early. This year they had opened two stages: the smallest, Tipi tent, and the biggest, Woods stage. It worked. We arrived mid-afternoon and the campsite was packed by 6pm.
Kicking-off the festival, at 6:15 was the Canadian band Peach Pyramid, with their wistful female vocals and amplified acoustic guitars. If End of the Road has a typical booking then this was it. Wonderful musicianship, beautiful vocal, haunting lyrics, and a mannered North American delivery. The perfect start in front of a packed Tipi tent (which is actually a huge marquee next to an actual tipi structure that I remember being used for music but is now a bar). Next up, on the same stage, were Pottery, an all-male but still Canadian outfit, delivering a more complex sound that wasn’t my bag.
I wandered off to get some food and watch the hilarious Flamingods, from a distance, on the huge Woods stage. They received a great reception but it wasn’t my kind of thing so I walked back to see Beth Jean Houghton’s Du Blonde. They were so popular that I couldn’t get in. Still, I’d seen them last year so I didn’t worry about queuing. Instead I walked back to the Woods stage and bagged myself a place at the barriers for the night’s headliners, Spiritualized.
Standing, waiting, I was nervous. Spiritualized had performed one of my most memorable gigs (a live run-though of their album Ladies and Gentlemen we are Floating in Space) at Barbican a few years ago. I was concerned that they’d set the bar of expectations very high.
I needn’t have been worried – they kicked straight into a full-throttle version of Come Together and didn’t stop until a beautiful rendition of the gospel classic Oh Happy Day.
I went to bed (well, sleeping bag on a thin piece of sponge) happy.
Friday 30th August
First up on day two was Once & Future Band, from Oakland, California. Their sound reminded me of fusion jazz from the 70s which was no bad thing. But by the end of the third song about stoned nights and failed relationships I was ready to move out of the Big Top.
In the Tipi, I found Harrison Whitford having a great time, singing personal, reflective guitar-based country music with two friends from LA. Take a Walk, a song about having to keep remind yourself that everything is going to be OK, was a particular favourite.
I hung around to hear E.B. The Younger, the new project from (festival favourites) Midlake’s singer, Eric Pulido. The whispered vocals and expansive guitar sound felt a bit too much like a side-project to me so I took a walk.
In the woods (named the Effing Forest for the weekend) I came across the Piano stage just in time to hear three songs from the LA-based singer-songwriter SASAMI Her songs were beautifully haunting and I was surprised at how serious she looked, given how fun her videos are. I was tempted to go and catch her full set elsewhere, but instead…
…I joined my family at the front of the Garden stage for Jade Bird. We had all enjoyed her recent, self-titled album, released a few weeks before.
I wasn’t sure how ‘authentic’ she would be after I’d found out she is a Brit School graduate. And I was nervous when Jade came on, self-effacing and a bit giggly, lacking attitude.
Then she started playing and singing. She was terrific. Perfect country-tinged pop/rock songs, sung with power and purpose. This was perhaps my highlight of the festival (I suspect I might write that again later in this post as I enjoyed so much good music).
In fact, I enjoyed it so much that, when I found out she was playing on the Piano stage half an hour later I abandoned plans to be elsewhere and waited for her three songs there. She played two of her ‘hits’ before a perfect cover of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, at the piano. I had a lovely photo of that on my missing camera.
Next on my must-see list was Charlie Parr. Whilst making my first trip to the Talking Heads stage, to see him, I chose to pass the Garden stage and catch a glimpse of Let’s Eat Grandma. They were mesmerising. Catchy, soaring songs, performed by two women, skipping, bouncing and dancing across the stage like characters in a Wes Anderson film. I stayed much longer than I’d intended.
Eventually I had to move on.
A decade ago, at this same festival, I’d seen Charlie Parr playing in the actual tipi. He was the real deal, an authentic blues guitarist with an actual bottle-neck sliding along the frets. At least that’s how I remember it, but my memory is hazy and I didn’t write a blog post or take any pictures.
I jostled my way through the growing crowd and found a space on a hay bale near the stage. He was exactly as I’d remembered. He’s actually only a couple of years older than me, but Charlie Parr sounds like he’s three decades older, and he plays blues-guitar better than I’ve ever heard anyone play. He also told anecdotes and at least one great joke about cannibals and clowns.
Bodega were finishing up on the Woods stage when I passed by on the way for food. They sounded interesting but I didn’t have much time to stop and stare.
Refuelled, I was back at the Talking Heads stage for Rozi Plain. I was late and sat on the floor to one side but, when someone left from the second row bench, I grabbed my chance. Actually, that was probably a mistake. Rozi Plain’s music is subtle, quiet and intricate. Sitting next to the amps drowned out a lot of the subtlety. It was still great though.
From the intimacy of that small stage, I walked to the huge Woods stage. I’d enjoyed being at the very front on the previous night so I decided to try that again for Baxter Dury‘s set. I’d not seen him before but I was hugely impressed. The man next to me described the style as ‘don’t give a f*ck’ which perfectly summed up the show. I really enjoyed his spoken word delivery, swigging red wine from the bottle.
My family are big fans of the signer Mitski. I was less sure but went to check out the end of her set. On the Garden stage, I saw she had reinvented herself (yet again) as a performance artist, carefully positioning an Ikea table and chair (note the precisely measured tape on the stage) to allow her to dance, prance, stretch and fall onto and under them. I enjoyed the songs and was fascinated by the performance.
From there I waked to the Big Top to catch the last half an hour by the legendary band Wire. I’d always regretted not seeing them before. People speak of them with such reverence. I lasted two songs before giving up and meeting friends and family for some food (and a trip to see our friends’ daughter who was working in a tower on fire-watch across the campsite).
Michael Kiwanuka was playing on the Woods stage. His catchy, soulful pop songs were a welcome aural accompaniment but I wasn’t particularly interested in going to see him. Instead I made my way to the Tipi to see the excellent Derya Yildirim & Grup Şimşek, a Turkish (Anatolian) band, whose charismatic vocalist plays traditional songs on the saz, overlaid with the band’s psychedelic keyboards and guitar.
The festival keeps late-night slots free for ‘surprise shows’. These are usually bands who have played elsewhere at the festival. We hung around in the Tipi to see the first of the night’s surprises. It was the very pleasant New Zealand band The Beths. They were slick and competent but, as we approached 1am, I was perhaps not very receptive to more new music. We shunned the silent disco, passed the roaring campfire and made our way back to the tents.
Saturday 31st August
Saturday was going to be all about the Big Top stage, programmed for the day by the indie music magazine Loud & Quiet.
The first slot of the day (at noon in this case) must be a daunting prospect for any band. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the Glasgow-based band Sweaty Palms, having only heard a couple of tracks on Spotify. They came on stage looking like a misfit college class – the singer in a black stetson and sideburns; a highly strung guitarist in a goth’s trenchcoat and straggly hair; a fresh-faced, clean-cut keyboardist who could easily have stepped out of a 90s rave outfit. Then they played brilliant, hard-hitting, driving songs with disturbing lyrics, delivered in a half-shouting style, more than a little reminiscent of Mark E Smith. It was a great start to the day.
Staying in the Big Top, I was really looking forward to seeing TVAM. The band is more of solo art project from guitarist Joe Oxley, performing to programmed drum beats with some other musicians thrown into the mix. Each song was accompanied by video projections (actually a CRT TV, mounted on a school-style stand was the centrepiece, enhanced by additional projections). Archive footage from company promotional films, or b-roll VHS footage from shopping centres was cut together to bring alive the sense of the mid-eighties era when breakfast TV first hit our screens.
There was lots to like, not least that I got to have a bit of a dance. And I did quite enjoy it when the quite serious and detached artist came out to de-cellophane and sign copies of his album afterwards.
Unusually, the Big Top didn’t empty out after TVAM finished, it stayed busy and became increasingly full, in anticipation of Squid. Actually, I think a good percentage of the audience were their family and friends – apparently two of the band members have been coming to this festival since they were children, promising themselves every year that they’d perform here. It felt like a very special occasion for them and us. I’m struggling to think of how to describe their chaotic, complex music, there was so much going on. Look them up and go to see them. They’re great.
Whilst Squid had been performing, the heavens had opened in an almighty downpour. Oh, maybe that’s why the tent didn’t empty. But now the sun was shining and I needed some fresh air and sustenance so skipped the next band – sorry, Bilge Pump. Whilst I was out, I came across Courtney Barnett being interviewed on the Piano stage; it was a peculiarly dull chat. I just hoped she was going to be more lively when she played later that day.
I was back in the Big Top for the spectacle of Gazelle Twin. Dressed in a red tracksuit top with long arm tassels, leggings, cap and full face mask, performance artist and musician Elizabeth Bernholz looked like a demonic sprite. The music jumped between techno and folk, via almost every genre you can think of, and included a solo on the recorder. It was bizarre and lots of fun. I hope that’s the effect she was going for.
Still in the Big Top (well, back there after a bit of a breather) I joined my family in the front row for Kero Kero Bonito. The band are a kind of concept, dreamt up by South Londoners Gus Lobban & Jamie Bulled. With a love of Japanese rap, they put out an ad for band members and found vocalist Sarah Midori Perry (stage name Sarah Bonito). The songs are an engaging mix of J-pop, glitching CDs and video-game-inspired music. I must admit, I did feel a bit uncomfortable watching Sarah in her kawaii styling. But I enjoyed the catchy songs very much. At least, I did until the mosh-pit was in full effect (for Trampoline) and I found myself having to fight back the exuberance to prevent some younger members of the audience from being trampled.
I knew I’d be back in the Big Top but made a short diversion to see the sometimes-dreamlike, sometimes hardcore, always excellent Porridge Radio.
Then it was back again, this time for the astonishing jazz sound of Moses Boyd Exodus. I don’t know who their trumpeter was but I could have watched and listened to him all day. Frustratingly for me, I only had a half-hour window and much of that was filled with alternating solos between the other (all exemplary) musicians.
The day’s headline act was Courtney Barnett. Actually, she’s been bumped up the bill to replace Beirut, who’d had to pull out a few weeks before. Her slot had been filled by Kate Tempest who I am gutted to have missed, but you can’t see everything, eh?
Again, I went right to the front – I was really enjoying that new experience. She was at ease, joking, commanding, owning the stage – a completely different persona to the shy interviewee of earlier in the day. She has such a distinct delivery that I do tire of listening to whole albums, but live she was excellent. I’m pleased to have had the chance to be there and to be so close up.
I met my family (our meeting point is beside the big T outside the Tipi area, if you’re ever looking for us) and we went into the Tipi to see N0V3L, intending to stay for the two surprise acts afterwards as well. But we weren’t big fans and (perhaps because it was Saturday night) the crowd were boisterous and rowdy. We decided, instead, to head to the cinema.
Director Ben Wheatley and producer Andy Starke, of Rook Films, had been programming the screen all day (starting with the excellent and very spooky Dougal and the Blue Cat). For this late-night screening, they were showing their own film, Kill List. Ben introduced it by joking that we were all sick bastards. He thought the film was horrible and he wouldn’t be staying. He was going to see Sleaford Mods (we’d passed huge queues to get in to that show but I guess Ben would have a backstage pass of some kind).
There was a fun 10 minutes where the Blu-ray player wouldn’t work and we watched a terrified young staff member trying to fix the issue with Ben Wheatley looking over their shoulder and Andy Starke cleaning the disc with his jumper. Ben was right. It is a very bleak film. I didn’t make it to the end. I was too tired and it was very very cold in the makeshift cinema. So I left my family nodding off in their chairs and went back to the tent.
Sunday 1st September
Sunday morning began with us taking down the tents and ferrying all our stuff back to the car, packed and ready for a swift departure at the end of the night. It was during that process that I realised my camera had gone. So my morning also included a (sadly unfruitful) trip to the Lost and Found office. Still, I was ready for an 11:45 start in the Big Top.
Lewsberg sounded a bit like A House to me, but not enough like them to prompt me to stay for the whole set. I doubt that was their fault. I suspect I was just very grumpy about my lost camera. Have I mentioned I lost my camera?
I went and sat on the grass, in the sunshine in front of the Woods stage. Norwegian band Pom Poko came on half an hour later than billed. I still don’t know why. But the relatively huge lunchtime crowd hung around and waited and loved their lively female vocals and non-threatening post-punky pop sound.
It’s difficult to imagine more of a contrast as I left the lightness and sunshine and headed into the heavy darkness for Viagra Boys in the Big Top.
Apparently they are from Sweden, but the vocalist sang with an American twang and a Shane MacGowan persona; shirt off from the get-go, tattoos all over, cracking cans through the whole set. Their music is shouty, grungy punk. I loved their energy although I’m not sure it’s the kind of music I’m going to listen to at home.
With a very different take on heavy, shouty music, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs recreate the sound of the birth of late 70s, midlands-based heavy metal. They do it brilliantly with, I’m assuming, tongues firmly in their cheeks. It was one of the best performances of the festival and I’m so pleased to have been there to witness it, again from the front row.
A little dazed, I headed back out into the sunshine and caught the very end of South Africa’s BCUC – what I saw was great, and they certainly enjoyed taking their bows in front of an adoring Woods crowd.
After a quick food stop, I sat back on the empty grass expanse in front of the Woods stage, waiting for Cate Le Bon. Crowds gathered, filling every space around me. And on she came. I’m not sure why I disliked it so much (everyone else seemed to love it) but to me it felt like a terrible wafty parody of Ladyhawke, Bat for Lashes, St. Vincent, etc.
I left the crowds and met with my family and friends, and we became those annoying people who stand at the back and chat – sorry everyone.
We wanted to see the next band in the Big Top and we knew it would be busy. So, with plenty of time to spare, my eldest son and I went for a short walk (actually to look for a less busy toilet block in the Effing Forest but it seems unseemly to write that in a blog post). On our way back we stumbled upon Squid, playing on the Piano stage. Actually, the first song we heard was a Robert Wyatt cover about the horrors of the pig farms. Three songs later and we were running very late.
Rushing back to grab the rest of our family, we just made it into the Big Top before they closed the entrances due to overcrowding. It was absolutely packed for the hotly-tipped Fontaines D.C. Whilst doing my pre-festival Spotify listening homework, I’d described them as ‘shouty and Irish’. Having now seen them, I think that review still stands. They were great but I’m not sure why they were quite so popular. People seemed to know their tunes and sing along so maybe they were already much better known than I realised.
After one shouty band, we craved more. We rushed across to the Tipi for The Murder Capital (who, according to Wikipedia have been compared to Fontaines D.C. – although I can’t now imagine by whom). Things started well. Sharply dressed, like characters from Peaky Blinders, young men strode on with attitude and swagger, lighting a fag, sneering like a Gallagher. The first song was brooding, the second was about a friend’s death and the third… well, I was distracted as the singer had wandered off and sat on the side to look cool. They’d lost our attention so we left to make sure we’d be in plenty of time for a ‘surprise show’ in the Big Top.
We were in the Big Top in time for the soundcheck, in time to confirm the rumour we’d heard earlier. The south London band Shame were here to debut new material. I’d only seen them briefly, when they played a ‘career-defining set’ on the Woods stage last year, but the young people we were with had loved that set and were very excited to see them again. I’ve looked them up since I got home. NME described them as “2018’s angriest, shoutiest young British guitar band”. That’s about right – shouty men was definitely the theme of the day’s programming in the Big Top (run that day by the online music magazine Line of Best Fit).
A bit like seeing IDLES last year, I suspect I admired and appreciated them more than liked them. But I did enjoy the experience of seeing how fanatically excited the fans were of this very energetic band of what looked (to me) like schoolboys.
We left Shame after a few songs. While the crowds formed for Metronomy, on the Woods stage, we headed to the Garden stage for a headline performance from Jarvis Cocker.
Billed at JARV IS, a name under which he’s released one single, in truth we weren’t sure what he’d be doing. He’s performed at End of the Road as a DJ in the past so maybe that was all he’d be doing tonight.
As a whole band (including harpist) took to the stage, we guessed it was going to be a full set, and when the main man sprung onto an elevated platform, dressed in a brown suit and green shirt, flailing like a Geography teacher at a school disco, we knew it was going to be a special performance.
JARV IS is the (stupidly capitalised) name for the whole band, who have been writing and rehearsing together for more than a year. They have at least an album’s worth of brilliant songs and a frontman with all the moves and all the chat. Jarv.is were the perfect end to a fantastic weekend.
I’m sure we’ll be heading back to Larmer Tree Farm in Dorset for future End of the Road Festivals. I’ll be more careful with my camera next time.