Michael was back at his favourite annual music festival for the long-postponed headline from Pixies. Was it worth the wait? Of course it was.
I’ve been going to End of the Road festival at Larmer Tree Farm in Dorset for the past few years. I get to discover so much great stuff that’s new to me; to try to fix it in my head, I take photos and write about it.
As I write each year, these journal entries are for me. But there might be something in here for others too.
I probably write far too much so this year I’m going to try to be less verbose – let’s see how that works out…
Thursday 1st September
I got there on Thursday, pitched tent near some friends and we headed into the festival site. It was packed even though only the main stage (Woods) and the Tipi tent (which is now a marquee but was once a Tipi) had bands playing.
It used to be that people turned up very late on a Friday or early on a Saturday, and left on Sunday afternoon. Not anymore, this is now a five day commitment for most.
Headliners were the effortlessly cool and currently very popular trio, Khruangbin. They were great and everything but they don’t excite me so I headed to see a band who I knew would.
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs were just the ticket; they’re like a tongue in cheek Black Sabbath with a (to quote their singer) a ‘cut-price Freddie Mercury front-man’.
Friday 2nd September
On Friday, my first stop was the Big Top which has seen a bit of a make-over this year. The famous balloon-hanging elephant has been replaced by a tiger.
Later that evening, an overly friendly woman asked me if I thought it had transubstantiated, and engaged me in her own theories of Catholicism and magic… but I’m digressing, I’m supposed to be keeping this short.
I was there to see Automation. It must be tricky for Lennon Gallagher to come out from under the shadow cast by his parents. He seemed to be hiding in plain site in a kind of military hat come face-mask.
They were OK. Layered, urgent, screeching guitars and indie-band drums. Maybe it was too early in the day for such things. Or maybe it’s too early for them to have found their own sound.
I watched a little of Lichen in the Tipi tent but found it all a bit too sad. So…
I went back in to the light and down to Woods stage for the very wholesome Shovel Dance Collective. They sat in a horseshoe shape and sang traditional folk songs, collected from the great names of British folk. It was lovely. They spoke about folk music being true working class music; they are right of course.
Back in the Big Top I saw a fun set from Keg. I found it difficult not to compare them to festival favourites, Squid. But that’s hardly a bad comparison.
English Teacher were OK on the Woods stage but that is a big stage to fill. I didn’t stay long.
Instead I made my first trip the Garden stage for The Golden Dregs. They were slickly dressed in their all white outfits, and I’m guessing they are well established although I’ve not heard them before. I found the singer’s Tindersticks-like delivery a little single toned but other people obviously loved it.
I snuck out and went to the Boat stage (new this year) to see Party Dozen. This two-piece from Sydney (drums and sax) use loops, samples and lots of energy.
Vocalist Kirsty Tickle bounces around the stage as the rhythms stop, start and change tempo. She pumps the air with a fist and at times she sings into the bell of her sax. It’s a hugely engaging show.
In the Tipi I was looking forward to seeing M(h)aol. It was great to see the band loving the moment and interacting with the crowd. There were times when I felt like a silly old boomer being told I couldn’t understand their gender-fluidity and modern take on sex. Perhaps that’s exactly as it should; I am at least twice their age.
I left early because I really wanted to catch Anais Mitchell at the Garden stage. I’m so pleased I did. She was exactly as you’d expect – confident, engaging, captivating. And she brought on Eric D. Johnson (from Fruit Bats) to sing the part of Orpheus in a song from Hadestown; it was a perfect festival moment.
I stayed (and swayed) until the end before heading for food and a chat with friends. There was talk of going to see Skullcrusher so I went into the Tipi and almost straight out again.
I wrote the word ‘dreary’ on my itinerary (based on just one song). Of course that is vey unfair. What I should have written is ‘in no way does their laconic music align with the name they have chosen’. I sat outside with my friend Denise and we watched (and heard) lots other people reach the same conclusion. Although the very many that stayed seemed to absolutely love what they heard.
We gathered our things and headed through the woods, excited to see Snapped Ankles, who had been one of my absolute highlights in previous years. We got to the Boat stage early but it was already packed. It really wasn’t the right space for them.
I squeezed in enough to just about see but it wasn’t anywhere near loud enough because the speakers were facing outwards from the sides of the sunken stage. It was quickly clear that this wasn’t going to be a fun experience so I gave up and waded back through the crowds. As I did, the volume increased but my view and interest diminished.
After the disappointment in the Boat stage I wanted to get a good view of Porridge Radio (in the Garden); I’d heard good things.
They were fun, forceful, lively. The singer’s vocal delivery (and perhaps overly simplistic lyrics) reminded me of Amanda Palmer, which is no bad thing. As with so many of the bands, they were loving the huge stage and packed crowds.
I can’t now remember if I moved from my spot but I was back close to the same place for black midi. Their stop-start, aggressive math-rock blues was an incredible live spectacle. I couldn’t imagine listening to it at home but I was transfixed for the full hour and ten minute live set. Their drummer was one of the most physical players I’ve ever seen, the technicians spent most of the gig resetting his moving kit and taping up slipping mic-stands.
I did toy with the idea of seeing Fleet Foxes but I’ve seen them before and couldn’t imagine how they’d command a large, outdoor crowd.
Instead I went into the sweaty, claustrophobic crowd in the Big Top to witness Battles. It was perhaps my best decision of the three days. They were, and I don’t use this expression often, awesome.
Two, now middle aged, men from New York – an exceptional drummer with a stupidly high cymbal, and a geeky guitarist with a keyboard sampler and loops, producing the most incredible dance music.
I was exhausted and in my tent by 00:30, ready for five or six hours of constantly broken sleep. I’m not sure that camping is my thing.
Saturday 3rd September
Sniffany & the Nits were the perfect wake-up call. Three minute songs played with such ferocity that they fit within two minutes each. A front-woman filled with such nervous energy that she kept sniping at her band (it was true that the gig started late because the guitarist lost his plectrum).
And The Heavy Heavy were the perfect antidote to that shouty punk. Dressed in denim they sang with the harmonies and played with the guitar twang of the deep south. I was terrified for them when they kicked in with a cover of Janis Joplin’s Piece of my heart, but they even (just about) pulled that off.
I’d not planned to see California-born, Oregon-based Margo Cilker but I was pleased I did. In my pre-festival notes I’d written ‘dead-dog country stories’. I like that genre but Margo was much more.
She spoke of years on the road, travelling across the US and the Basque country. Her songs reference a listless inability to settle – as soon she starts to like a place she has to move on. She grew up in a religious household and hinted at a far from happy childhood – ‘I sure as heck was never brought to places like this when I was growing up’.
Her complexity added a lot to the context of her songs, I’ll definitely be checking out more of her music.
From there I caught the end of the set billed (by the ‘middle aged man’ behind it) as “electronic music inspired by urban planning and postwar housing estates”. Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan is the latest project from Gordon Chapman-Fox. Moog music performed in front of the ghosts of promotional films from town planning promises and unfulfilled dreams. I loved it and so did Gordon, judging by his taking photos of the crowd at the end.
Last year I’d really enjoyed The Umlauts in the Big Top, this year they’d progressed to the much bigger Woods stage.
I still loved the music but maybe they need to be a little less self absorbed and more focused on the audience than on creating footage for their socials and archives. Or maybe that’s exactly what they should be doing when they are programmed on far too big a stage, in daylight.
I stayed ’til the end because I didn’t want to miss their excellent song (and energetic performance of), Boiler Suits and Combat Boots.
Back at the Garden stage I was surprised and enthralled by Alabaster DePlume.
There was a lot going on in his performance. A hugely talented (and very musical) jazz saxophonist, he breaks off, drifts into spoken word poetry, and leaps into the air whilst telling us that living is difficult and we’re all doing brilliantly.
He tells us he’s recently lost a friend and that’s made him angry. His next song is dedicated to the jazz trumpeter Jamie Branch, who I’d seen perform on this same stage a year ago, and whose death had been announced recently.
At the Boat I found a performance that perfectly suited the stage. Traditional Irish musician John Francis Flynn performed muscular folk songs with a penny-whistle and acoustic guitar, whilst another musician put down their guitar and blasted through a clarinet (or maybe soprano sax) with such ferocity that none of us could tell if the distortion was deliberate.
And in the Tipi was the very antithesis of folk. Lynks performed in a combat material gimp mask and matching hat, trousers and braces. He was backed by dancers in bras (the ‘Lynks effect’) who gyrated and bit into cucumbers.
This was camp of the highest-energy, played to backing tracks and performed with zeal. His standout song, Silly Boy has been playing in my head ever since… “Poor, little, straight boy, nobody cares that you’ve watched Pulp Fiction”. That last phrase was available on merch from the front after the show.
I hadn’t learned my lesson so I was back at the Boat to try to see Jockstrap. I watched them sound checking but by the time they came on the crowd was too deep and I was at the side with the man mixing the sound on his iPad.
So I went to the Woods stage and caught the end of the set by Perfume Genius. I’d been worried that his songs would be too earnest for me. But seeing them performed live, with sincerity, was very moving.
As soon as he’d finished and the crowd began to thin, I made my way to the front, ready for what was, for me, the main event… On my way, I was almost knocked over by a man rushing the other way, head down in the dark. As he passed me I looked back and realised it was Pixies front man, Frank Black!
I bloody love Pixies. Like many people, Doolittle, Surfa Rosa and Come on Pilgrim are records that defined my youth. I thought I’d missed them playing live after original members Frank Black and Kim Deal fell out in 1989/90.
They came back together with new, less thrilling music but I thought they were probably past it so didn’t pay them much attention.
In 1991 the were headlining a(n unusual for then) one day festival at Crystal Palace. I was there for Cud and Ride but the bands were just too far away. literally too distant.
It had been an underwhelming and disappointing day, and then the Pixies appeared and Frank Black screamed ‘You’re miles aways, you’re miles away..’ and I was absolutely hooked; they were mesmeric.
Pixies split properly in 1993 so I thought I’d never see them again. But they reformed in 2004 and I’ve tried to see them whenever they return to England (pre and post Kim Deal finally leaving the band). I’ve never got to stand so close.
I stood directly behind the people pressed against the front rail. I was beside a father who had first seen them when he was fifteen, and his daughter who was fifteen now – she’d been holding her place at the front since the early afternoon.
Of course Pixies don’t have the urgent anger or sense of danger from those early days but they were still brilliant and the crowd (most of whom weren’t yet born when I first saw them) loved every beat, including the new songs. It was a visceral experience; that crowd was very lively at times.
Pixies are living legends and I am so pleased to have been there to witness this show. And, judging by the smile on her face, so was Paz Lenchantin (fake Kim Deal) on bass.
Filled with adrenalin, I went with my friends to the silent disco. It was fun but my heart wasn’t in it and I just couldn’t cool down (a combination of the close, stormy weather and the heat of that crowd). I sat, watched and listened to snatches of Brit-pop tunes being sung by the children of that crowd from the early 90s. And then I slunk off to bed, shattered.
Sunday 4th September
My final day began with Stephen Durkan & The Acid Commune in the Big Top. They were somehow hugely charming. As I arrived the band were riffing over Durkan seemingly saying whatever came into his head as he paced the stage like an expectant Glasweigan father in the maternity ward.
Durkan explained that this was a unique event that we should savour (or we might have recorded it and if so, “well done you, it can become part of your personal brand”); the bass player shattered the illusion by telling us they were doing it because they didn’t have enough material to fill the time. It was a perfect way to prick the pomposity of the moment and made me like them even more.
From there I went to see The Bug Club on the Woods stage. Joyful, innocent, jangly garage pop is how I’d describe their sound. They were lots of fun with plenty of catchy songs, filled with humour in the tradition of so many Welsh pop acts. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone have as much fun playing bass as vocalist Tilly was having, bouncing around the stage like a cross between Suzi Quatro and Angus Young.
I went to the Big Top for three songs from the slowcore, whispering vocals and hard crescendos of Deathcrash. There was lots to like about them.
I’d seen the drums and guitar duo Lee Paterson last year. They were/are full throttle rock that I enjoyed a lot. But they seemed to have lost a bit of their spark. The Big Top crowd had shrunk from last year, the band had run out of merch (“we’ve got a few cassettes”) and vocalist/guitarist Jack Blenkinsop had lost his set list. I love what they do but it felt like they might be tiring of it, or maybe they were just having a bad day.
The Lounge Society were next in the Big Top. It was busy and they were urgent, tight, occasionally funky and the lyrics were peppered with rural life.
As I wandered out, I caught the end of the South African band BCUC. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much dancing and crowd engagement.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Ryley Walker. Having seen them, I’m not sure what I did see. I’ve Googled him and he looks different in every photo, and seems to play completely different styles of music at will (he has supported both Richard Thompson and Dinosaur Jr).
He’s a hugely gifted guitarist and seems to be a hugely complex character. When I saw him, he was in a three-pieces jazz fusion line-up. As he said ‘we’ve been listening exclusively to late 80s ECM records’. Perhaps that’s why he’s sporting a mullett. It was difficult not to like him, his banter and his music; I’ll definitely be exploring more of his catalogue.
Willie J Healey (and his band) were full of enthusiasm and humour. My friends have watched him grow, in Oxford, from a child performer to a local celebrity (he was supported last year by a little known band called Wet Leg). I can see why he’d be fun in a local venue but I’m not sure I’d travel too far to see him again.
I feel like I should know a lot more about Kurt Vile than I do. I did really enjoy his set. Or rather, I felt very reassured by his voice.
Scalping were completely new to me but I’ll definitely be checking them out again. They play in silhouette, back lit by disturbing computer generated simulations and science-fiction imagery. And their music is relentless, like the driving industrial beats of The Chemical Brothers, all spliced together.
The drummer must have been shattered, providing a constant back-beat to the samples and loops. And was that the ex Lazarus Kane keyboardist I saw through the darkness, on guitar?
I could not have enjoyed it more. It took days for my ears to stop ringing and for the smile to go from my face.
It was all very exciting, three years ago, when End of the Road announced that they’d booked Bright Eyes. Their enigmatic singer-songwriter Conor Oberst had been the darling of the indie music scene on the mid 2000s but I’d not heard much from him or them since.
Three years on, their spell seemed to be broken. The crowd was half the size it might have been at the Woods stage – perhaps because it was Sunday night and people had gone home, maybe because of the predicted thunderstorms, or maybe people had read reviews of their recent live shows.
Oberst seemed, to me, to be under the influence. He was repeating himself and launching into rambling speeches about how he kept being promised that his next album would make him a star, but circumstances kept preventing it from happening.
I thought about staying… I really wanted to see Yard Act (in the Big Top later) but it was later and I had a long drive home. So I left Conor to his ramblings.
As it happened, I was in for an even longer journey home than I had assumed. Dramatic lightning, torrential rain and motorway closures meant my drive was much longer than planned, with an added trip around the back-streets of Surrey, looking for a fast charger for my car. But that’s another story and, once again, I’ve already got far too carried away and written far too much.
It wasn’t a great end but it was a great festival and Pixies were definitely worth the wait. I’ll see you there next year, whatever the line-up.