For the past few years, I’ve made the annual pilgrimage to the End of the Road festival at Larmer Tree Farm in Dorset.
For me it’s the perfect balance of size, complexity and quirkiness. Plus most people are mostly there for the music which suits me more than the debauchery of some festivals or the networking opportunities of others.
And there are peacocks so what’s not to like?
I see dozens of bands, the majority of which are new to me so I know I won’t remember them unless I write some notes. And, as I’m writing notes, I might as well publish them here.
These journal entries are for me. But there might be something in here for others too.
Before getting into the detail of 2021, let’s talk about the year that never was – 2020.
The line-up for the 2020 festival was amazing – Pixies were headlining, Bright Eyes were back after a decade-long break, tUnE-yArDs were going to be there. It was going to be great.
And then you know what happened. The event was postponed and we were told that the headliners were committed to the future event. But of course they couldn’t be. A year on and the world is still turned on its head.
Frankly, this year’s line-up lacked punch, and (entirely understandably) it felt like some corners had been cut on the site (the toilets were not emptied anywhere near as much as usual). I enjoyed it all the same.
But the reduced bill meant that I couldn’t persuade my family to join me this year so I was there alone (well, with friends who go each year, and their friends and their friends).
There are several stages (all within quick walking distance of each other) so it can require some logistics to work out who to see, where and when.
As I’d heard of so few of the artists I had to do some advanced homework. In the days before, I’d downloaded a clash-finder and made Spotify playlists for each day to help me decide where to focus my energy.
Even on the day, there were still artists pulling out and being substituted due to Covid restrictions. So my careful coding of crosses, ticks and double-ticks also included a fair amount of crossings out.
I arrived on Thursday afternoon (the music was to start at 18:15 that evening).
It was unusually packed. The campsite had been rearranged (with yurts and glamping taking a chunk out of the land where I would normally put my tent).
It was difficult to find space for me, let along secure some extra so my friends could arrive later and pitch next to me. But we squeezed in, as far from the toilets and standpipes as we could manage.
Thursday 2nd September
We chatted and made tea for far too long before wandering into the festival site. But that was OK, only two stages were open and I didn’t have any double-ticks on my list for that opening evening.
As we walked through the entrance, wrist-bands aloft for inspection, we heard the end of Kikagaku Moyo drifting up from the largest stage – The Woods. But the food stalls had our attention more than the music.
Fuelled up we headed down to see that night’s headliners, Stereolab.
Can I be honest? I’ve never really ‘got’ Stereolab, they leave me a little cold with their detached pop. Some of it is catchy enough but it’s not my thing.
So, after half an hour I headed for the Tipi stage (which is actually a marquee that had been further upgraded to remove internal pillars this year – which made for much better sightlines).
Nine8 collective were billed as some kind of hot-house super group of rappers and songsmiths. There’s a lot of press about them so maybe I am missing something but to me it felt like they were out of their comfort zone (of fashion house launch parties at the Truman Brewery).
Maybe we didn’t get the full package – there were definitely fewer of them than I’d seen in publicity shots. They had a great DJ and there was a lot of posturing and geeing up the crowd but very little substance.
Musically it was a disappointing start. But nobody cared. We were back at a festival, in crowds of people, after a year’s hiatus.
Friday 3rd September
‘Refreshed’ after a few hours of constantly interrupted sleep, and fuelled by some brioche and crisp sandwiches (thanks Denise and Mick for the breakfast catering), I set off for a day of discovery.
First stop was back in the Tipi for Mermaid Chunky. They were brilliant and bonkers. I think you could describe them as art-pop situationists – Freya Tate on looping synths, drum machines and vocals, Moina Moin on sax, recorder and assorted toy instruments. Plus a group of psychedelic chamber maids.
My guess is they reinvent their set wherever they go, roping in friends and having the time of their lives as they do. Maybe it’ll be a hugely successful musical project, maybe it’ll just one of numerous youthful experiments (I’m pretty sure I spotted Freya playing with The Umlauts the next morning).
It was a pleasure to be witness to this particular ‘happening’, especially for the last song, when they were joined by morris-dancing agitants and people dressed in folk-horror owl and goat heads.
As is often the way, most of the bands that piqued my interest were in the Big Top (yes, an actual circus tent).
The Goa Express really remind me of the late eighties indie-music scene (which is no bad thing); a bed of organ sound, jangly guitar, simple drum beat and occasional mouth organ. But it’s their front-man and his distinctive vocal delivery that give them their unique sound. And it can’t hurt that he’s a fashion model.
After a half hour break for soundchecks (hats off to the technicians for turning it all around and keeping so tightly to schedules) I was back in the Big Top. I really enjoyed Julie Campbell’s project Lonelady. They’ve recently supported New Order and that feels like a good fit. There’s a concrete audio aesthetic to their sound – lo-fi digital, drum machines and loops, obscure lyrics about pscho-georgraphy, with some disco guitar on top.
I shot across to catch a couple of songs by the western-guitar sound of Sleep Eaters in the Tipi. Their sound was great although I do struggle to take seriously a man in a black stetson.
Just Mustard (in the Big Top) were one of my favourite bands of the festival. New to me, this five-piece from Ireland, evoked sounds of shoe-gazing bands like Chapterhouse or My Bloody Valentine. There’s something special about layered screeching guitar, repeated lyrics and a winsome female vocal. I’ll be listening to them a lot more.
The shoegazing theme continued after lunch as I went to see BDRMM (maybe it stands for: bedroom music). Originally a bedroom-based project from front-man Ryan Smith and his highly personal songwriting, the project has grown into a live act that owes a lot to The Cure and Ride. Maybe the fact that Ryan was wearing a Lush (the band not the soap shop) t-shirt, gives us clues to his influences. At full tilt that was a lot of fun.
I was a bit sniffy about seeing Damon Albarn. I’d been to see Gorillaz a fortnight before and his solo projects can never pack that punch. His latest album, The Nearer The Fountain, The More Pure The Stream Flows has an introspective quality and I wasn’t sure I was in the mood to hear him perform that, solo,
I’m so glad I ignored my inner voice.
He came on early which confused people. He’d brought most of the Gorillaz band which delighted people.
He performed an amazing set that included some of the heartbreaking solo work, alongside post-Brexit knees-up music from The Good The Band and the Queen, and of course anthemic tunes from Blur. Ending on This is a Low was a real crowd pleaser; it occurred to me that this is one of the only festivals where the majority of the crowd were born before it was released.
The cool kids rushed to catch the last 20 minutes of Arlo Parks and then came back for Hot Chip
But I took a more leisurely approach, stuck with my friends, bought some beers and prepared ourselves for John Grant on the Garden Stage.
There is something utterly compelling about a man as emotionally open as John Grant. His songs are witty, complex and utterly devastating. At least they were until his disco period of recent years.
I’m not sure I love that drum machine sound but his voice is incredible, and when he sits behind a grand piano, with dinosaur toys as mascots, you get a real glimpse into his fragility.
And what’s not to like about a man trying to unconvincingly tell the world that he’s the ‘greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet’ – it literally brought a tear to my eye.
There was more music but we didn’t have the energy to queue to see Warmduscher. Instead we went to watch the film Censor; its VHS slasher-movie theme felt strangely appropriate to the 80s music of the day just passed. And a sleepless night after a video-nasty perfectly encapsulated my 80s weekends.
Saturday 4th September
I began my day of music with the joyful absurdists, Melin Melyn in the Tipi. As the FT put in their review: ‘For no apparent reason, the Welsh group Melin Melyn appeared on stage with someone in a wig and fake beard painting at an easel.’ I thought they were great.
The Ümlauts had been one of the bands whose sound had intrigued me most from my pre-festival homework. Their often German (sometimes French or English) vocals and lo-fi electronic sound reminded me of Chicks on Speed.
They started late. There were so many of them that the sound-check took a very long time. They seemed nervous. Singer Annabelle Mödlinger explained that this was only their 4th gig.
Maybe they were inexperienced, live but this art-school (Wimbledon) band, with its roots in the Stroud, Gloucestershire scene were hugely entertaining with some excellent, catchy, chanty songs.
And it was great to see Mermaid Chunky’s Freya Tate pop up again on percussion.
The driving drum and guitar, plus angrily shouted London lyrics of Lee Patterson is a duo (neither name Lee or Patterson). The sound isn’t something I’d listen to at home. But they were perfect in the (by now very sweaty) Big Top.
They blasted through a cover of Blur’s ‘Back to Work’ as if it were a punk standard for a disenfranchised generation.
But I couldn’t stay to the end as I wanted to catch Caroline (and band named after a person who isn’t in the band) in the Tipi.
Tantric is how I’d describe their sound. Every sound felt constrained, sparse, minimalist, promising much but never following through. It was all very clever but somehow it felt too cold, too detached for a live show. I drifted off after a few songs.
Sonic psychedelicists Anteloper split the Garden crowd. Percussionist Jason Nazary provided the complex beats and meandering rhythms while trumpeter jaimie branch played phrases that she sampled and looped out of recognition.
This was soundscape rather than song, akin to freeform Miles Davis, or perhaps the most experimental Alice Coltrane. Perhaps it was nonsense but it was nonsense that I enjoyed experiencing.
My next stop was to see the enigmatic Lazarus Kane. Last year, Ben Jakes was performing as the character Lazarus Kane, confusing journalists with bullshit and spin.
The joke seems to have worn thin and now he’s the front-man with a ‘proper’ band.
There’s something hugely likeable about him and them. He’s obviously a musical magpie. The songs are catchy, the lyrics full of wit; the sound is indie-disco and everyone’s having a great time. Ben’s vocal style is Lloyd Cole or Pat Kane (maybe they’re related) until the more recent songs which have a definite Squid influence.
Every song has an introduction and explanation; I’ve no idea if any of it is real, and it really doesn’t matter.
Talking of Squid… they were my next stop. I went early (to the Garden Stage) as I knew they’d been popular.
Squid were the talk of the festival in 2019. Now they were back on a much bigger stage, with an enthralled, packed audience hanging on every word.
They are such an interesting band – complex and unconventional, always very listenable and occasionally very danceable. I loved every minute of their set and so did everyone else.
I should have gone from there to see The Comet is Coming. I listened from a long way away but I didn’t attempt to weave into the crowd. I really needed to eat something. I’ll have to catch them another time.
Two weeks before, I’d been to Somerset House, where Anna Meredith‘s music had been synched to the movement of bumper cars. I really wasn’t sure how that was going to translate into a live setting.
It was incredible. A wall of intensity – sound and light.
She really is one of our most exciting contemporary musicians and composers. I’ll be booking up to see her wherever and whatever she plays next.
I also kind of loved how much some people hated it.
I needed a little decompress after Anna Meredith. Sleaford Mods definitely didn’t provide that.
I absolutely love the idea of Sleaford Mods. I could happily listen to three or four songs each day and the simplicity and sincerity of their performance is compelling. If we ever meet, get me to tell you how incredible it was to watch Maxine Peake dancing to them on a TV documentary. But after a few songs I’m done.
I headed with friends to see what Jonny Greenwood was playing. It was beautiful but I can’t hep thinking that classical, atmospheric film soundtracks aren’t really Saturday night, festival fare. I didn’t stay long.
I knew I really wanted to see Ben Wheatley introduce his film In The Earth so I decided to amble through the woods to get there. The woods are filled with installations and artworks, and the cinema is tucked away, past the big wheel and the disco boat.
As I wandered through the woods to get there, all the lights went out. The power had failed and it was pitch black in the woods. Of course we all had phones with torches.
It took a while to reboot… so the cinema was running a little late when I met friends there a little later. As we now had some time to kill, we danced for a while beside the disco boat before heading for the screening.
I’d seen the film before (also introduced by director, Ben Wheatley). He is always good value. I love it and my tiredness, coldness and the weirdness of being in a tent with disco music drifting in, seemed to somehow enhance the strobing, psychedelic, feel of the second half.
I left happy and ready for an uncomfortable bed…
On the way we spotted that the late night ‘TBC’ slot in the Tipi had been filled by Chubby and the Gang.
There is something appealing about a full throttle ‘punk’ band that takes itself so very seriously. Singer, Charlie “Chubby Charles” Manning-Walker cannot stand still. He prowls the stage and growls into the mic, looking the part and delivering total conviction.
The crowd were loving it but I was too tired to get too drawn in. Back to the tent, I wrapped up warm and fell asleep happy.
Sunday 5th September
My first stop of the day was in the Big Top.
Oldboy were not who I was expecting; I’d evidently added the wrong Oldboy to my Spotify playlist. They weren’t the Cleveland rock folk band I was expecting. Instead they were three old boys, thrashing through their set. They seemed like they were having fun other than having to stop between songs for the drummer to take a breather. I ducked out after a few songs.
I hadn’t planned to but I took a walk to the Garden stage to see Anna B Savage and I’m glad I did. After a couple of heartrending songs about unrequited love she cheerfully told us she’d “lighten the mood by doing one that isn’t a miserable song about me”, she launched into the decidedly dour ‘Place to Be’ by Nick Drake.
I was back in the Big Top soon after to see John (times two), featuring John on guitar and John on drums and vocals. Full throttle ‘rawk’ is how I’d describe their energy. Probably not something I’d listen to at home but great fun in a sweaty tent at a festival.
But on a sunny day it was getting very hot in there so I went for a wander through the ‘Effin Forest’ where I found the Broadside Hacks Folk Collective setting up. They’re a really interesting group of musicians who very quickly had us enthralled with their harmonies and folk revivalism.
After a quick lunch stop I went to see Billy Nomates on the Woods stage. She was great. Drum loops and energetic spoken poetry, commanding the stage, never stopping. Her delivery reminded me a lot of Michael Franti which is a very good thing in my book. She even had Jason Williamson join her for a few bars.
Exhilarated I was back in the Big Top to see William Doyle. A solo artist with sampler, Macbook and thrashy guitar, Doyle was layering up to full speed when he urged us: “End of the Road, I need your energy”… and his Macbook cut-out. The crowd were pretty supportive as he scrambled on the floor to reboot the set-up.
I walked to the Garden stage to catch Jim Ghedi who I’d described in my homework as ‘earnest twiddly trad folk’. I was right. No bad thing but not enough to hold me so I went back to the Big Top for a few songs by PVA. They were fun, noisy, electronic and very young but I didn’t stay for too long.
In the Effin Forest I found Big Joanie on the tucked-away piano stage. It was great to see a band, comprised of women of colour; End of the Road is a very white festival. But i found their sound a little pedestrian for my tastes.
In the long shadows of festivals final hours, my friend wanted to see Black Country, New Road. I wasn’t so sure. I was wrong.
They were great. Song after song about being a loner and being unrequited and jilted and vulnerable and isolated, with a complex wall of musical accompaniment – ‘I am invincible in these sunglasses, I am a modern Scott Walker’. I thought they were great.
Of course the highlight of the weekend, for me, was Little Simz. I was first aware of her in 2017 when she appeared with Gorillaz and went on to support them on tour – she’d already released two studio albums by then (which shows how out of touch I am).
Back then she was a firecracker of nervous energy. Now she is a hugely accomplished and confident presence on stage. There’s still the machine-gun delivery but it’s now accompanied by full arrangements and a proper truckload of kit and entourage.
She’s become a megastar, beaming in, whipping up the crowd, dropping the mic and jumping back in the tour bus with her entourage.
‘I’ve never been to Sal-is-berry before, I’m digging it’ she told us; nobody corrected her.
She is amazing.
I know I should have stayed for more. I tried to be exciting by Richard Dawson and by King Krule. But my heart wasn’t in it so I headed for my car and the long drive home.
As I turned the ignition my display panel lit up with warning lights about an unsafe tyre. It was going to be a much longer and more adventurous journey than I’d planned. But let’s leave that for a different write up.
Will I be back net year? Of course I will. Will Pixies be headlining? Let’s wait and see?