End Of The Road festival 2018, set on the rolling hills that zig-zag along the Dorset/Wiltshire border, provides an eclectic curtain call at the end of this seemingly endless balmy summer.

End Of The Road Festival 2018

Across four days, the immaculately pretty Larmer Tree Gardens resonate to stellar headline sets from Yo La Tengo, St Vincent, Jeff Tweedy, Vampire Weekend and Feist. Yet this cherished gem of the festival calendar, the brainchild of Simon Taffe, is about the minutiae.

Where else can you share a sack of wine with Texan troubadour Josh T Pearson, stand alongside Ezra Furman watching Richard Dawson’s exploratory medieval folk, dance in the shadow of a peacock wing to a silent disco until 3am, share the table tennis thunderdome with a gang of strangers and stumble upon secret sets from some of the bill’s big hitters in a tiny drawing room deep in a shady wood?

Friday night headliners St Vincent threaten to steal the show on a bill where refined understatement is often the watchword. Annie Clark looks and sounds every inch the modern-day pop megastar in red PVC dress, rotating mannequin-like on a platform and firing out filthy guitar solos like this generation’s Prince, all the while deftly negotiating the line between the considered artistry of her early material and pure pop. We leave the Woods Stage with her hit Pills from 2017’s Masseduction wedged firmly in our frontal lobes.

St Vincent at End Of The Road

Clark has myriad contenders for the crown of festival highlight, though. Kieran Leonard and his excellent band kick things off on Thursday with a set of inventive time-signature shifting songs in the intimate confines of the Tipi tent, while Yo La Tengo prove themselves an archetypal End Of The Road headliner, drawing from a 30-year catalogue in a multifarious, enchanting performance that ends in an extended free-form take on Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.

The following morning, Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly has a lengthy queue snaking away from the Tipi tent for a restorative folky 45 minutes, while over on the Garden Stage Daniel Blumberg with the assistance of a virtuoso band clad in black, proves far more challenging – double bass and angular violin stabs competing with blasts of harmonica and searching guitar lines. Mute Records artist Blumberg’s beautifully downbeat compositions are an affecting and at times uncomfortable listen.

Big Thief at End Of The Road

Big Thief perform twice on Friday, delighting with a poorly kept stripped-back secret set on the Piano Stage before an appearance on the Garden Stage that highlights their headline potential – Adrianne Lenker appears to struggle with a muddy monitor mix and the emotional magnitude of the occasion, seemingly overwhelmed when addressing an expectant crowd and disappearing into a lengthy discordant guitar excursion, but she possesses a spellbinding voice and is an expert guitarist. Shark Smile is one of the anthems of the weekend during a fascinating show that’s at times as fragile and tenuous as a dragon fly’s wing.

Hiss Golden Messenger at End Of The Road

Hiss Golden Messenger are consummately good. Shielded behind sunglasses, they parade majestically through the American Songbook, Phil Cook dazzling with his slide guitar and harmonica playing and MC Taylor’s vocal as smooth as Southern honey. The outstanding, Dylan-like Biloxi is kept tantalisingly short and sweet, Taylor apologies for recent American geo-politics before bringing out Nashville singer Erin Rae for the last portion of a set that underlines the dextrous brilliance of these musical scholars from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Lucy Dacus also apologises for Trump before a muscular run through of Yours And Mine shines from a supreme, jagged alt-rock set on the main stage by one of America’s brightest emerging talents.

Josh T Pearson at End Of The Road

On the same stage, Texan Josh T Pearson is absolutely hilarious and becomes the hero of the weekend, announcing the contents of his set in advance, telling a series of brilliantly filthy jokes and revealing to around 5,000 people the time and location of his secret set the following day. His songs from this April’s superb The Straight Hits album are uproarious and triumphant, while Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ is searingly affecting. He finishes with a cover of Mojave 3’s Yer Feet, but we see plenty more of Josh over the weekend.

Saturday is topped by Vampire Weekend‘s kaleidoscopic afro-beat infused performance on the Woods Stage, but it’s a day illuminated by a catalogue of other acts, that range from the pastoral beauty of Julien Baker‘s fragile folk, Gwenno‘s ethereal Welsh and Cornish fairy tales and Gruff Rhys‘ thoughtful balladry to a trio of bands who deliver an injection of expansive psych-rock and suggest that End Of The Road’s line-up has never been more diverse.

End Of The Road Festival 2018

Flat Worms unleash a visceral post-punk assault that sounds like The Fall via California in the Big Top and Hookworms‘ grandiose dancey explorations and yelping vocal exultations fill the same tent later in the day, benefitting from a much clearer mix than at their Blue Dot appearance earlier in the summer. Oh Sees are even more explosive, two drummers centre stage and John Dwyer an effervescent presence as the Garden Stage becomes a seething mass of crowdsurfing and flying beer. The place goes mental as one of the most exciting and prolific acts on the live circuit show that in their 20th year their hard-rock sonic experimentalism remains as restlessly pioneering as ever.

There’s no danger of End Of The Road petering out into a weaker final-day line-up, as Sunday crams in a dizzying array of talent and several fiendish clashes. From across the Solent on the Isle Of Wight, Plastic Mermaids get things started with an enlivening blast of melodic alt-pop that veers into post-rock and back with a seven-piece choir wrapped in shimmering gold. It’s a perfect accompaniment to a sunny Sunday lunchtime and their colourful psychedelia evokes latter-period Arcade Fire.

Richard Dawson‘s medieval folk tales unfurl from the Garden Stage, captivatingly weird and wonderful and bookended by a pair of a cappella selections as Ezra Furman looks on.

John Luke Roberts at End Of The Road

Deep in the woods, the Comedy Stage offers respite from the sun and an excellent-line up across the weekend, with a live recording of satirical news podcast The Bugle, Laura Lexx, the absurdist brilliance of John-Luke Roberts‘ 24-Spice Girls joke and Bobby Mair’s on-the-edge take on depression among the highlights.

David Thomas Broughton treats the Tipi tent to a wry, challenging and rewarding set, providing a self-deprecating commentary on his own performance, sharing behind-the-hand jokes about his own lead guitar player, removing his trousers and scrolling through his phone – while reminding all present that he has a singular voice and intelligent askew lens trained on the ridiculousness of modern life.

Japanese Breakfast at End Of The Road

Japanese Breakfast are more orthodox, filling the Big Top with summery melodic pop before outside on the Woods Stage Ezra Furman, with his resplendent white semi-acoustic guitar, reminds everyone that he’s a stellar performer deserving of main stage billing. His serrated voice cuts through some at times pedestrian songs, and as the darkness gathers he gets better and better, culminating in an on-the-nose cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight and his triumphant anthem to otherness – Suck The Blood From My Wound.

Idles leave nothing in the tank with a furious display in a packed Big Top on the weekend their second album, Joy As An Act Of Resistance, is released. They drag up a member of the crowd to play guitar, drummer Jon Beavis charges around the stage manically smashing one of his cymbals, crowdsurfing breaks out, and their breakneck charge through a set of vital lyrical assaults sounds frighteningly colossal. Mother and Danny Nedelko arrive early in the set, Well Done is roared back from the tent and they close with a vicious version of Rottweiler, Joe Talbot thanking the baying crowd for supporting new music. Impossible to follow.

Exhausted, we stumble away towards the Disco Ship via a pint of hot n spicy cider, a round of splat the badger and one last dance at the Silent Disco with half an eye keeping watch for Josh T Pearson. Only at End Of The Road.

Review Gary Walker
Pictures Becky Leach