Review: End Of The Road Festival 2017
By the time the final hardy survivors drag themselves away from Larmer Tree Gardens following a final day of persistent spirit-sapping rain, End Of The Road Festival 2017 has been an undisputed success, packed with eclectic musical delights.
Organiser Simon Taffe celebrated the festival’s 12th birthday by finally bagging two headliners that were on his initial wishlist – Lucinda Williams and Bill Callahan. And despite the grim meteorological conditions, the final day’s bill rewards those who stick around, with the reunited The Jesus & Mary Chain closing the show. Once again, Taffe has put together a stellar line-up that mirrors his connoisseur’s record collection and impeccable taste.
The compact nature of this beatific site, fringed by shady woodland on the Dorset-Wiltshire border, makes dashing between the main music stages trying to tick off all of Sunday’s highlights an almost-realistic task. New Zealander Nadia Reid, Girl Ray, Marika Hackman, Julia Jacklin, Waxahatchee, Perfume Genius, Foxygen and Deerhoof are but a few of those acts, before the troubling triple-header headline clash of the Mary Chain/Bill Callahan/Japandroids.
Saturday night’s main attraction, Father John Misty shows why post-Fleet Foxes he’s one of the biggest solo acts in the business, producing a cerebral debut headline performance overflowing with natural charisma, rapier wit and biting social commentary, backed by a chamber orchestra. The artist previously known as Josh Tillman, immaculately dapper, saunters onstage and opens with the six-minute Pure Comedy. The lead single from this year’s album of the same name is a work of unparalleled, acerbic lyrical genius and his booking is a major coup for End Of The Road.
For the next 90 minutes, Tillman strides triumphantly across his stage, jumps onto the drum riser, drops in a few British-specific weather jokes and actually appears to be having a pretty good time. In a recent catalogue of highly compelling performances – not least topping the bill in Glastonbury’s John Peel Tent – this is one of his very best.
Preaching to his adoring flock, Father John draws heavily from his last two albums – the exceptional I Love You Honeybear and 2017’s more verbose follow-up. He’s a consummate performer and has the biggest crowd of the day on the Woods Stage – despite the competing draw of Ty Segall and Gold Panda – enraptured throughout. Bigger stages await.
Kicking off Saturday on the shady slopes of the outdoor comedy stage, Amy Annette leads a quartet of comedians including the hilarious Joe Lycett, in a fascinating podcast debate entitled What Women Want, focusing on the myth of the ‘Beach-ready body’.
Tyneside singer-songwriter Nadine Shah and her excellent band light up the Garden Stage with a set of intelligently crafted indie-pop songs – not least the excellent gothic single Holiday Destination. Pixx, meanwhile, defies a mystifying comparison in the festival programme to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, showing she has more in common with Grimes et al with 45 minutes of on-point electro-pop, chorus-heavy guitar and a concoction of organic and electronic beats.
In the Big Top, the choreographed multi-instrument electronic brilliance of Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth – aka Let’s Eat Grandma – and the dreamy neo-soul of Nick Hakim entice a goodly number of people to seek shade from the afternoon sunshine, offering a mesmeric couple of hours that seem to make time stand still – or perhaps that’s the five-year-aged cider brandy from the Cider Bus…
Canadians Alvvays are bursting with melodic dream pop wonder. Their Phil Spector-esque wall of sound is an infectious sonic canvas for singer Molly Rankin’s bittersweet romantic sketches. The lead single from their self-titled debut album, Archie Marry Me, provides one of the stand-out singalong moments of the festival and is the highlight of a set packed with three-minute blasts of powerpop drawn from the debut and this year’s follow-up Antisocialites. It’s damn-near impossible to resist liking them.
Building up to Father John Misty’s headline set, over on the Garden Stage Virginia’s Car Seat Headrest present a welcome change of pace in a bill stacked liberally with Taffe’s personal passion for gentle country and Americana. Their wiry alt-rock guitar onslaught and thoughtfully-crafted sprawling song structures provide the perfect setup for Saturday’s headliners.
Friday brings another tricky headline conundrum. Louisiana legend Lucinda Williams‘ towering Southern voice hangs enchantingly over the Garden Stage crowd, her raw and honest country, folk and blues-rock tales drawn from a 40-year career. She doesn’t exactly exude bonhomie and unbridled joy at being here, but sounds as good as ever she has. She gets the nod over Canadian Mac DeMarco, who nonetheless draws a healthy crowd with his shambolic indie-rock, ironic cover versions and crowdsurfing antics.
The day’s first acts on the Woods Stage bring a pair of truly brilliant performances. Canadian Daniel Romano, backed by a trio of cranked Marshall stacks, delivers a visceral opening blast of noisy alt-country to blow away any lingering cobwebs. Keith Richards-like slicing guitar riffs and mid-60s Dylan-style vocals abound and his band are tight when they need to be tight and loose when they need to be loose. A thoroughly enjoyable start to proceedings.
Romano is followed by the engaging Charleston, South Carolina husband and wife duo Shovels & Rope, who make a tremendous noise for two people, vintage guitars, rattling drums and Cary Ann Hearst’s honey-coated soaring voice proving a real joy. Meanwhile, in the Tipi Tent, Hiss Golden Messenger member Scott Hirsch provides a more intimate and becalming, yet equally delightful take on Americana.
Ryley Walker and his band’s outrageous virtuosity is one of the undisputed highlights on the Garden Stage, with head-bending time signature changes, phenomenal guitar playing and a drummer whose mastery defies belief. An extended version of Primrose Green is bafflingly brilliant and the infamously eccentric Walker’s on great form, thanking the UK for “pies, mushy peas and beers the size of my fucking arm”. Amen Ryley.
The Big Top is in a state of hushed reverence as New Zealand’s Aldous Harding shows why she’s regarded as a rare talent spoken of in the same breath as Joanna Newsom and PJ Harvey. Her odd mannerisms and apparently crippling shyness contribute to the allure of this fragile and compelling gothic folk talent and barely a sound is uttered from a respectfully captivated audience as she recreates the brilliance of this year’s Party album, released on 4AD.
Back on the Woods Stage, Real Estate unload a catalogue of effortlessly breezy melodic pop songs for a sizeable audience, but their soporific performance doesn’t hold the attention, before another nightmare clash sees the tea-time crowd divided between Margaret Glaspy and experimental jazz troubadour Michael Chapman.
Early birds arriving on site by Thursday night witness a huge snaking queue outside the Tipi Tent trying to catch Japanese noiseniks Bo Ningen, while Slowdive are smashing it on the Woods Stage. Once they’ve warmed up and Rachel Goswell has taken off her gloves, they unleash an immersive triple-guitar shoegaze assault that reminds all present why their self-titled comeback album has been one of the success stories of 2017. In a climate of ill-advised reunions and legacy acts out purely to pay the bills, they really do sound better second time round.
As we wander from the Woods Stage to the Cider Bus, past the glowing embers of half a dozen fire braziers, and on through the enchantingly lit glade that harbours myriad hidden delights, a happy punter tells Long Live Vinyl that End Of The Road is “the best festival in the world”.
Over the weekend, we hear that same message from at least three other festival-goers and ponder why that is. It’s not by any means the biggest on the calendar, nor does it boast the most prestigious, diverse or expensively assembled bill.
The answer lies in the little details. It’s in the care and attention poured into the public art that proliferates around the gardens; the enchanting woodland trails packed with esoteric delights such as a fortune telling cat, a library stacked with books and a recording studio where you can cut your own record; the genial onsite post office team and wonderfully attentive stewards; the peacocks that pick their way nonchalantly through the Garden Stage crowds; the disco ship; the Rough Trade record shop and of course the discerning ear-to-the-ground knowledge and love of Taffe’s programming.
No wonder so many people call End Of The Road “the best festival in the world”. Who are we to argue?
Photography: Rebecca Leach