Words: Lloyd Bolton | Photos: Parri Thomas
Epochal artists old and new, Jenga parties in the woods, and parents doing shoeys, End of the Road has all the best bits of a British music festival.
“End of the Roooaaad”. Jason Williamson’s elongated address to the festival last time we were here ran through the collective consciousness of the campsite as we set up on Thursday afternoon. This was our pick of the festivals this summer, the flagship full-weekend commitment, and amid the excitement and the opening of the first box of Country Manor, there was also a nervous sense of pressure on ourselves to have a great time, having built up to this event all year. It quickly became evident that there was no cause for worry. End of the Road always delivers the best of the weird, not only in music but also in its extracurricular delights.
Thursday’s highlight was Sudan Archives, a unique pop star playing a blazing set, violin-in-hand. I enjoyed standing in a crowd of 6music dads trying to mask all discomfort as she excitedly announced, “This next song’s about titties!”.
That night we made our first attempt at cooking dinner, which for the weekend would be pasta with Sainsbury’s ‘hidden veg’ tomato sauce. It was not inspiring, but it sure did keep us going most nights. Not being particularly interested in Khruangbin, a few of us hung back at the campsite after dinner, content with the occasional wah-wah waft from the Woods Stage. We sipped our drinks and exchanged confused remarks upon hearing a surprisingly extended instrumental covers medley, which spanned The Sugarhill Gang, Tom Tom Club and MF Doom.
The festival redemption arc of the hangover is a mysterious and charitable thing. Though I could hardly lift my head all the way up first thing, a cup of coffee and a wander round in the fresh air of the site had me feeling myself again in good time. I was able to enjoy the surreal sight of a yoga class backed by black midi sound checking ‘Welcome to Hell’. After debuting our camp lunch option: powder soup and Kingsmill 50/50 (insert Jockstrap joke here), we arrived at the first true gem of the weekend. In the sweltering heat of direct sunlight at the Garden Stage, Naima Bock played a tremendous set drawn mainly from her new album ‘Giant Palm’. I have been captivated at each set of hers that I have caught this year, with performances distinguished by a careful attention to dynamics that exalts a fantastic set of songs.
From here I went on to the tail end of a set from fellow part-time Broadside Hack, the captivating Aga Ujma, singing beautiful songs to her harp. This was the day for delightful softness, Mess Esque being another highlight, who made me want to be in a band even though I’m already in a band.
We enjoyed ourselves, but there was a constant lingering distraction. The question on everybody’s lips: Who would we each pick in the battle of the duality of sofboi, Fleet Foxes or black midi? I opted for black midi, having seen both before and finding myself more in the mood for latter group’s unpredictable rowdy playfulness. Our campsite divided almost completely equally, and both groups seemed happy with their selections. I knew I had made the right choice when Cameron Picton shouted out Alexander Mitrovic mid-song during an adapted version of ‘Speedway’.
By night, this festival is always about the woods. Everything strange happens in these woods. By day it is lost children and old dudes on good trips all climbing trees. By night, all manner of happy weirdness ensues. After catching Audiobooks and Beak>’s equally fantastic after dark sets, we set forth, having missed the best of the silent disco, seeking adventure. We happened upon a games area, complete with table-tennis, bowling, jump rope and giant Jenga. What by day is a nice wholesome area for kids to play becomes the heart of the sesh by night, complete with vinyl DJs. My companions and I found ourselves involved in a precarious game of giant Jenga, inheriting a leaning tower badly constructed by those before us. We surprised ourselves, keeping the game going until that tower rose above our heads and accumulating several extra players as we went. A crowd of at least twenty people had gathered by the end, oohing and aahing as brick after brick was pulled and replaced. The tower fell, as it must, but Jenga fame was forged that night for us bold players. The rest of the weekend we were pointed out, recognised “from that game of Jenga I was telling you about”.
As a late riser, I enjoyed waking up each morning to the podcast of chatter round the campsite as the soundtrack to the estimation of the extent of my hangover. Impressions of Jeff Barrow, enthralled accounts of the Fleet Foxes set. First up on Saturday were Sniffany and the Nits, who felt a little out of place. I stood with coffee in hand at the back of the giant Big Top tent, missing seeing these in a quiet Windmill with room for Sniffany to writhe about on the floor. More appealing in this context was the following act, Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan. This was one man and his analogue synths, playing IDM tunes to a backdrop of footage of said development plan hypnotically tripled up. It was like watching the ultimate End of the Road Dad make it big time, complete with rock-star points skyward at crucial moments in the music.
After this was The Umlauts, synonymous with the party at any time of day. Their new tunes, which the band reportedly developed to sound like the outside of a club, elicited hip-shakes and head bobs as the music insists upon its grooves. Catching up with the band afterwards, we compared where the group are now versus when they started out playing live last year. They seem to feel a stronger sense of what the band is, especially on a stage. Ollie accounts for the success of the group’s evolution to the sound on the forthcoming EP ‘Another Fact’ as a product of this new self-assurance in the group’s identity. They now know what ‘The Umlauts’ looks like, how it operates. With this confidence, their set blends the old songs with the new and exudes joy at every turn. Closer ‘Boiler Suits and Combat Boots’ slides into focus with the aura of a modern classic, commanding all in earshot to boogie.
Continuing on the party trail, we headed to the Tipi where Lynks took the stage showing off a look they described as ‘gimp fisherman’: a camo bucket hat/gimp mask/waders combo. Lynks (and, of course, backup performers Lynks Shower Gel) always delivers. This set felt particularly special, with new songs going down equally well as familiar favourites in a full Tipi tent. Fans will be glad to hear that ‘How to Make a Béchamel Sauce in 10 Steps (with Pictures)’ has made its way back into the setlist, complete with choreographed displays of said pictures. Grove added to the frenzy coming in to feature on collab hit ‘BBB’ and by the closer ‘Str8 Acting’, the whole place was in sweaty rapture.
The rest of the evening was a relay of unmissable music. I dipped into Perfume Genius swooning around the main stage for a couple of songs before heading to get a good spot at Jockstrap. They were incredible as ever, previewing the ingenious now-released ‘I Love You, Jennifer B’ between highlights from earlier releases. The pair came off stage to a crowd still howling the “AA EH OO EE AH” of ’50/50’.
From here I left the vast majority heading for Pixies to catch The Magnetic Fields in the Garden. My decision was immediately vindicated by ‘Born on a Train’ floating through the trees. This into ‘Come Back from San Francisco’ was too perfect. My tastes were indulged as the group played only my favourites from the seminal ’69 Love Songs’ (including ‘A Chicken with its Head Cut Off’, ‘The Book of Love’, and even ‘The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side’) among selections from across their catalogue, including a more recent highlight, ‘Andrew In Drag’.
Rounding off the night’s music, I caught the end of Pixies’ headline set. I am informed that after an opening run of hits, the group ran through some lesser known cuts from more recent albums. I arrived in time for a slowed down ‘Wave of Mutilation’ (apparently the second rendition of that song on the night), and the brilliant ‘Here Comes Your Man’, before they closed reprising a rarity, their cover of Neil Young’s ‘Winterlong’.
Saturday was the big party night at the camp. Those who had turned in and missed last night’s now-legendary Jenga shenanigans had some catching up to do. Box wine abounded. My Dad arrived on the scene and, after a sequence of events I still do not fully understand, ended up doing a shoey out of his fresh walking boots. Refreshed and overexcited, we headed to the inevitable silent disco, kicking up stones to ‘Ra Ra Rasputin’ and ‘Greased Lightning’ and congratulating ourselves on collectively having enough cash to stand the £10 deposit for each set of headphones.
Sunday started quietly, and not just as a result of last night’s antics. I was witness to a tremendous deathcrash set in the Big Top. This tent stage can be forbidding in its intensity when you are on the fence about the band playing, but when you commit to an act, the sensory deprivation of its all-consuming blackness embellishes the experience. It befit deathcrash’s soaring intensity, as it did later for Scalping, with their futuristic hellscape visuals and relentless live action techno.
Mid-afternoon we caught a three-song secret set from Lucy Dacus at the Piano Stage, the last of a great weekend’s worth of intimate performances nestled in a clearing in the woods. In this format, with a restrained backing band, her songs shone, with their beautifully crafted lyricism spotlighted. Hailu Mergia stole the show on this final afternoon. Every song went on minutes longer than it could have done as trailing organ solos noodled on, but I was all for this playful indulgence. When the group came to ‘Wede Harer Guzo’, the only song my group knew, we were beside ourselves, and joyfully yelled along with the ‘la la la la la la’ refrain.
In this crowd, I also spotted and accosted H. Hawkline, here to play as part of Aldous Harding’s backing band. ‘H.’ (Huw) is ridiculously underrated and has long been one of my favourite artists, and there was no stopping myself from blurting out praise for ‘In the Pink of Condition’. I am glad to report that new material and attendant live shows are not as far away as one might imagine.
Knowing that he is also a massive fantasy football fan, I also asked about his team. We compared our fortunes over this season’s opening gameweeks, his saving grace being captaining Haaland every week. His team also represents a couple of fellow Welshmen, Danny Ward and Neco Williams, and despite the need for an emergency GW2 wildcard, he is second in the Cardiff musicians mini-league.
The next time I saw him, he was up on stage as part of the set I had most looked forward to all weekend. Aldous Harding did not disappoint. She is one of the great artists of our generation and with each release she draws us deeper into her unique bizarre universe. Having not seen her since the ‘Party’ tour, I was interested to see how the fierceness of her more intimate shows, in which she seemed to stare in turn into the soul of every member of the audience, might translate to a big festival stage. This difference was not as dramatic as I expected. The conviction of her performance style makes her wholly absorbing in this setting as much as any other. The tone was set by her commanding pose throughout the set, part judoka, part marionette. Songs from new album ‘Warm Chris’ sounded even better live, sung with a tender humanity. The sombre slowness of ‘Imagining My Man’ and ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’ left me feeling raw, emotionally hollowed out. This was a truly amazing performance and a perfect endnote for the festival.
From here it was just a question of finishing the box wine, hustling free beers from a friend on the bar staff (they needed to get rid of their stock!), and chasing the last embers of the night, winding up at a frenzied piano stage singalong of which ‘Uptown Funk’ is about all I remember. Dog-eared and happy, we packed up next morning and headed home. End of the Road is always a joy, offering the best balance of live music and late-night activities and all manner of surprises across the weekend. I still can’t get over my Dad doing a shoey.