by Isobel Wise and Tobias Moore
With the world hurtling back to reality at an alarming pace, the mere thought of heading to a festival in search of finding a place to unwind may seem an alien concept to most. Yet as we headed through the gently lit archway of trees and into Larmer Tree Gardens, the home of End Of The Road festival, it felt as though a weight had been lifted from our shoulders. As someone that was yet to attend a live show since their reopening, we were cautious to dive in head first, yet EOTR proved to be as far from overwhelming as it could have possibly been. Despite hosting thousands of music lovers for the weekend, it must be noted that those behind the festival went above and beyond to keep on top of everyone’s well being. Rather than fields of chaos, what actually arose was a haven of like minded individuals – simply – there for their love of music, and music alone. There was a sense of appreciation in the air, for artists and staff across the board: a sense of respect that had been taken for granted prior to the pandemic.
Freshly filled with vegan sushi, a stall that, judging by it’s queues, gained cult acclaim over the weekend, we headed off to the first headline of the weekend. But while Stereolab opened the festival, it was Katy J. Pearson who truly set the tone for it. Whirring the crowd into a storm of frenzied excitement through hit songs such as Fix Me Up and Tonight from her album, Return, the band offered a perfect kickstart to the festival. Playing a cover of Willow’s Song from The Wicker Man, and bringing out legendary producer, Ali Chant, for her final two songs, Katy and Co filled the stage and laid the foundations for the rest of the festival.
After retiring our cowboy hats and grabbing a healthy serving of hummus, it was to the Tipi stage that we next ventured. The Play End Of The Road competition winner, and an artist whose explorations in sound have gained traction in the underground electronica scene, Margate based, BABii, delivered something as eye-catching as her silver tinsel trousers. Climbing onto the stage and performing the whole set while propped up on her knees, BABii sent the audience into overdrive through an array of pounding bass lines and glistening synth hooks. But it was the eeriness within her vocals and her charmingly awkward crowd interactions that left everyone eager for more. Exciting, innovative and full of intrigue, while comparisons to the likes of Grimes and Purity Ring are great at painting an image of her sound, the qualities and potential that BABii possess are distinctly unique. And if she can force the crowd to dance like they did at half four on a sunny afternoon, then we can’t begin to imagine where she could transport them to in a late night rave.
Feeling suitably worn out by the electric antics of BABii, it was in the presence of the evening’s two headliners that we found ourselves. The first of which was none other than Damon Albarn. An artist who needs no introduction, there was a sense of curiosity clinging to the air. Whispers of will he, won’t he circled around the camp, and the array of Gorillaz and Blur jumpers that gathered hastily at the front fence indicated the anticipation for his set. Featuring a band that most of whom play with Gorillaz, despite Albarn’s natural showmanship running the show, there were many acts of selflessness within the set. From tributes to the late and great, Tony Allen, to an anecdote praising the dedication of drummer, and Ezra Collective member, Femi Koleoso, it was clear to see the respect that Albarn had for his contemporaries. And the acts of kindness did not stop there – for while it would be understandable for him to be a little tired of playing his previous hits, he treated the crowd to a few numbers from his Gorillaz and Blur days – noticeably a beautifully textured rearrangement of On Melancholy Hill. Full of charisma, nostalgia and dashings of melodeon, while the set may have felt one song too many at points, the muffled muttering of ‘I bloody love this band’ followed by many a childlike grin suggested it was not only Albarn and his band who were enjoying themselves.
Seductive synth lines, pithy lyricism and a distinctive baritone, the Holy Trinity of one, John Grant, graced the Garden Stage on Friday night. The Icelandic-based singer filled the crowd with a carefully considered set – delighting fans with tracks from Boy from Michigan and his much-loved back catalogue. Moving through an arresting selection of songs from his latest record, Grant then enthralled his audience with a rendition of Black Belt – the snide diss track from his second album. Those that had chosen Grant over Hot Chip (a brutal clash) were rewarded with a moment to dance and let their hair down.
Yet it was through the reimagined takes of his most adored songs that Grant’s set transcended from great to sublime. Tracks like Marz and Glacier were redressed in their festival finery; the former, a meticulous detailing of a confectionary shop menu – made even sweeter with the synth it donned. Queen of Denmark, the titular track from Grant’s debut, was also embellished for the occasion. As Grant prolonged the pause between each verse and crashing chorus, the musician conducted an essay in catharsis, throwing us into a crescendo of release – ‘Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?’ As he left the stage to much applause, Grant proved a festival favourite, maintaining his status as the ‘GMF’.
Moving into Saturday, and after discovering that the Secret Sessions would be taking place on the Piano Stage courtesy of The Line Of Best Fit the previous day, we awoke eager to discover what stripped back treats awaited us that morning. As the midday sun shone down upon those that had survived the parties of the previous night, a small audience convened at the Piano Stage. Set out like a living-room diorama (think mismatched furniture, garish lampshade, patterned wallpaper), the stage had a uniquely charming character, and the day’s first set seemed wholly appropriate. Anna B Savage was up first with Corncrakes – a mesmerising affair that was only eclipsed by its second recital at the Garden Stage on Sunday. William Doyle then followed, turning from onlooker to performer, as he rose up out of the audience, praised Savage, and launched into a new song. As the set concluded with Doyle, Savage, and Laurie Nankivell of Squid performing a cover of Radiohead’s Nude, the show proved one not only of talent, but endearing camaraderie.
Following on from such a set was always going to be hard, and perhaps even harder when the band in question were renowned for the energy, and particularly the rambunctiousness, that they bring to their live shows. But sat, crammed onto the small stage, Lazarus Kane performed a collection of songs that showed a side to them previously unseen. Full of humour, the band’s reinvention of their songs was refreshing, and the set shone a particular light on Molly Shield whose warm and eccentric vocal style was reminiscent of a certain Joanna Newsom.
With the heat blaring, and familiar faces popping up all around the site it felt as though the daylight hours of Saturday passed us by, and just as quickly as the laser like pop melodies of Jane Weaver bounced from ear to ear, we found ourselves awaiting one of the main attractions of the night and a personal favourite of ours, Sleaford Mods. As we awaited their entrance to the stage the crowd were on edge. Wondering just what Fearn and Williamson had up their sleeves.
A stage lined with jolting vertical strobelights, the performance was just as immediate as the lighting that accompanied it. Raw and direct Williamson’s delivery is one that divides opinion. But for every ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ comes five or six deftly woven lines of social commentary that could not feel more relevant or better articulated. For some, Williamson may just appear ‘too aggressive’, but the role in which he plays in modern music is far more significant than people care to give him credit for. If the wordsmith were to present himself how the media dictated, perhaps he might receive the scholarly acclaim he warrants. But, then again, isn’t that why we love him? His integrity, transparency and overarching commitment to the cause.
As he twisted and turned like a caged animal, bandmate Fearn swaggered with his typical irony. There were many moments when a wry smile crept onto the face of Williamson – strutting around like the peacocks that call Larmer Tree their home. You could tell after many years of struggle and hardship, Williamson was truly appreciative of moments like these. A balance of hard hitting beats and definitive narration, the combination of Williamson’s sharp tongue coupled with the, at points, almost psychotic body movements made for an enthralling performance. It felt like a masterclass in showmanship. ‘This country is not mine,’ he roared to the sea of riled up faces, ‘lightsaber’ pointed to the sky, he rallied the crowd with his frequent cries of ‘End of the Road’. As the set drew to its conclusion and Williamson reminded us that ‘it’s gonna be alright,’ as well as providing an honorary showing of his vibrant orange boxer shorts, the Sleaford Mods sent us off into the night with a feeling of gritty hope burning strong in our stomachs
As we closed Saturday night and the rumours of the Giant Swan secret set had become the festival’s worst kept secret, we found ourselves in conversation with two Irish folk who reiterated our love for the community of music we find ourselves in. Our discussion traversed our mutual appreciation for Sleaford Mods (prior to seeing them live, they ‘just didn’t get it’), and we also found ourselves discussing their love for the Irish acts on show, and why so many artists find themselves flocking to the Irish coast. As we parted ways, with plans made to look out for their own festival in years to come, we felt thankful. It was a real testament to EOTR and its ability to build a community.
And as Sunday appeared, so did the line up we had most awaited. Starting the day with a trip to the Garden Stage to see Anna B Savage, we waited eagerly to witness what she had to offer. And it was nothing short of a spectacle. A lesson in how to hold a crowd, Savage’s ability to capture the audience with just her voice and six strings was deserving of great applause. Dressed head to toe in a hand painted ‘bargain that she got off Depop,’ her ability to flip with such ease between personable crowd interactions and the dark depths of her album, A Common Turn was endearing. She felt like one of us.
With melodies moving at her will, she was never afraid of the silence – cutting, chopping and twisting her music to fit her needs and desires. Renowned for the power in her voice, Savage not once over relied on it, keeping her vocal beast at bay, before then bellowing into action. The control she showed was generational.
Offering a run through of her album, as well as a cover of Nick Drake’s Place To Be, which she described as ‘a bit less miserable than me,’ Anna’s renditions had the audience on tenterhooks. As she wound through the last notes of I, and her emotions became increasingly visible, the effect of her songs on the crowd was clear for all to see. With tears leaving the eyes of nearly all in sight, as she wept we wept. Recounting the sets of Bon Iver and Conor Oberst, who’d performed on the stage on which she stood, it was clear to see the experience was as surreal as it was sincere. As fans of both of these artists, to us she never once looked out of place.
Wiping our tears, we moved onto our next set. It was unclear whether the unbridled frenzy William Doyle played with was out of frustration or mere showmanship, but the result was electric. Joined on stage only by his instruments and MacBook (circa 2012!), Doyle played beneath the starry canopy of the Big Top – a setting that seemed befitting for an album so unworldly in tone. The dense yet somehow always delicate layering of And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright) entranced the audience; ‘I’m always dimming the lightswitch,’ building to a one-person choir that eclipsed the studio recording. Lights threw a criss-cross of illumination upon his fuzzy guitar solos – delighting onlookers and paying ode to the stretches of darker moments on his new record, Great Spans of Muddy Time.
As the sun began to set and we entered the final night, it was the turn of Little Simz on the Woods Stage. Fresh off the back of her fourth studio album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Simz provided a set to reinvigorate the crowd and push them through the final hours of the evening. Succinct, sharp and full of energy, her performance was one clearly developed with the crowd in mind. ‘I’ve never been to Salisbury… but can I take you to North London?’ Simz asked, and she did just that. Firing through fan favourites such as Venom, 101 FM and Selfish, she treated us to the perfect blend of tracks from her albums, new and old. New single, I Love You, I Hate You, a track poignant in its reflection of her relationship with her father, invited crowd participation – and proved that when handled with consideration, the integration of material from across a career can be triumphant. This showcasing of awareness for her fans permeated the entire set; as teenagers danced, children smiled, and old men revelled in their ‘discovery’. With a set catered to deliver to herself, band, and audience alike, everyone had fun as Simz excelled as a face for all generations and stood out as a clear leading light in British music, not just hip-hop.
And just like that, End of the Road came to an end. Feeling tired, achy and completely fulfilled, we said our goodbyes to the people, peacocks, and the place we’d called home for the weekend. Festivals seem unique in their ability to conjure communities, and End Of The Road was no exception. Where else would you get asked to give a round of applause for the state of a toilet? Working under extremely difficult circumstances, those behind End of The Road managed to deliver the festival of our dreams, and ensured we’d be heading back to relive it all again next year.
If you’d like to support us by subscribing to our zine, click here – it’s just £6 a year for four copies (inc p&p).