A cursory wander around End Of The Road’s beautiful site at Larmer Tree Gardens in Wiltshire brings home a stark truth: EOTR is unique in being a gently thoughtful festival. Someone will apologise just for moving into your path – not physically bumping into you, but merely for being temporarily located somewhere along a potential intercept vector. “Sorry” becomes the weekend’s go-to word. You gently shoulder between punters at the bar. Sorry. You buy a burrito but don’t want that extra guacamole. Sorry. You forget to lock the AndyLoo when having a wee and there’s a soft knock on the door. Oh! Sorry! Sorry, sorry, sorry. Elton John had it dead wrong.
Those of (even) more delicate sensibilities can relax by taking a twilight walk to a library in the woods, near gorgeous illuminated art installations that nestle amidst leaves stamped with song lyrics – the most damage done to anything, barring our livers, over the weekend. By far the most ostentatious attendees are the preening peacocks perched on rooftops, sat silently and seemingly judging the clientele milling around apologising below. EOTR could just as easily be called Under the Radar.
Where the festival’s considerate nature really comes to the fore, and where it also makes no apologies, is in keeping things simple. Its main focus – essentially its sole one – is music. That sounds facile, but in a festival market at saturation point, with boutique events spouting about the experiential (unwind sipping artisanal chamomile beer in our hemp jacuzzi!), it’s now genuinely refreshing that this is a forte. Sure, there’s a small comedy stage - which remains unreachable all weekend, thanks to strict capacity enforcement coupled with a great bill - a cinema, and a smattering of fun workshops for the kids, but it’s all about the communal musical spirit. Crowds are there for bands. Bands are there to play. Both adore it. What’s inescapable is that EOTR’s reputation for curating a lineup that’s as esoteric as it is impeccably chosen is now enviable, having been steadily built over its 10 previous iterations.
At times during 2016’s weekend it feels unparalleled. Saturday afternoon’s downpour makes no odds to those rammed into the Tipi Tent - they would’ve been there for the duration anyway thanks to the programme. A beguiling set from Lucy Dacus, a young songwriter from Virginia making her UK debut and for whom the word promising doesn’t do justice, precedes New York’s Frankie Cosmos, who admit it’s the biggest crowd they’ve faced. They may be a big draw for those who’ve gone past knowing whether they're wearing technicolour bum bags ironically or not, but the set is still a big deal and draws heavily from Next Thing, the best lo-fi album of the year by a street. Basia Bulat follows with a set of gloriously good-time, golden soul-folk, the Canadian singer/songwriter playing the only autoharp of the weekend. Then there’s Martha. Arguably the UK’s best live act currently, they turn in a juggernaut of a set of shredding, urgent, pop-punk during which the fervent audience fire back every lyric. And that’s just late Saturday afternoon. If I could meet the booking team I’d shake them by the hand, apologise (obviously), then hug them.
The lineup’s quality causes a bit of an existential crisis for Bristol’s Big Jeff, who noticeably doesn’t know where to put himself. His unmistakable shock of hair is spotted bouncing around seemingly everywhere, his wristband-laden arm aloft. He’s down the front for the fried fusion spectacular of GOAT on the Woods Stage. He also witnesses Throws being excellent in the Big Top, blending spoken word atmospherics with chiming, momentous funk (also, more bands also need to look like an uneasy collection of an accountant, a woodsman, and an Adrien Brody impersonator) before zipping off through the crowd, keen to see the weekend’s next gem.
Of course, he’s at the Bat for Lashes Saturday night headline as Natasha Khan arrives in a wedding dress to showcase new concept record The Bride. With an austere set up – there are only four in the band inclusive of Khan, who concentrates on her reliably excellent vocals – and new, ornate, downtempo material about a tragic romance there’s a concern that the crowd, slightly thinned by the persistent rain and wind that shears across the site, will stick with it. A canny mix of old and new seals the deal, although ‘What's a Girl To Do?’, ‘Laura’, and ‘Daniel’ do most of the work after an opening salvo of new material. There’s also an on-stage proposal between two members of Khan’s crew that feels almost inevitable (she said yes). The audience head off to the wedding reception at the Forest Disco in a genial mood.
EOTR’s crowd – a mix of families, greying festival survivors toting cans of cider, prodigiously bearded hipsters in yellow rain slickers being prodigiously bearded, and kids on a late post-A Level escapades – are well balanced. Even better, they’re uniformly attentive and open-minded. With the schools about to go back, there’s no middle-class family influx a la Green Man, so there’s limited tripping over toddlers in the dark while parents chide little Rupert for wandering off. LADZ also tend to have fulfilled their BANTZ quotient at bigger-ticket events earlier in the summer, although a small group decked out as Intergalactic-era Beasties catch the eye. That a gnarled old punk in a Crass t-shirt is stopped in his tracks by Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s spare acoustic set, which includes an Elgar arrangement and a cover of Nick Drake’s ‘Time Has Told Me’, says it all. Clarke’s immaculate voice is also the find of the weekend, captivating for the Garden Stage crowd, and the set is bolstered by her wry between-song wit.
EOTR is just the place to encourage multiple visits, and that’s equally true for artists. Kevin Morby was here last year, and announces his simple intention just to keep coming back until he’s no longer booked during his mesmerising set of fuzzed out indie-rock. Ezra Furman is more demonstrative, in signature style. Not content with simply returning, he’s instead seemingly on a mission to play every stage in every possible configuration. A secret full band show in the Tipi Tent on Thursday is comprised of covers, with suggestions requested from the lucky few in attendance, which precedes Friday’s solo acoustic set on the tiny Piano Stage, which precedes his absolutely blinding Garden Stage headline on Saturday. A tumultuous finale (and a classic bit of showmanship) during his cover of Jackie Wilson’s ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’ sees him physically dragged from the mic, exhausted, before he breathlessly escapes the clutches of his bandmates, rushes back centre-stage, and whips the band on again. Monday was his 30th birthday, so he earned a Sunday day off.
Reputations travel, and EOTR’s now has to the point where it has real clout, far exceeding its size. This year’s trump card is either in tempting bands out of hiatus or convincing them to make international trips just to play. Acts fall into either category so often you become blasé to just how much of an achievement this is for a medium-sized festival; band after band announce it’s either their first show in years, or their first UK appearance in aeons.
For The Shins, it’s both. An EOTR exclusive, they return to play their first proper show in three years on the Thursday night, their way paved by Teleman’s easy yet muscular grooves. This may no longer be Shins v. 1 (or even 2 or 3), but James Mercer’s ongoing preoccupation with pitching melodicism against verbosity has lost none of its charm or vitality. ‘Gone for Good’ provides the weekend’s first eyes-closed-sing-at-the-stars moment, before ‘Caring is Creepy’ is a potent reminder of how they once genuinely captured a zeitgeist, albeit with a nudge from Natalie Portman’s oversized headphones. The two new songs debuted show they could do so again. This is no dispensable Thursday night headline; it’s a real steal. It’s also like walking onto the site and straight into the arms of an old, trusted friend.
Broken Social Scene fly in from Canada for the weekend, and their Sunday afternoon set, their first UK show in 5 years, has such emotion and headstrong propulsion that it feels like a headline despite it still being light. Kevin Drew leads the crowd in primal scream therapy, exhorts us to help each other (in a thinly veiled hint at the damage wrought by Brexit), and stresses the collective power of people rather than idols before ‘Almost Crimes’: "The modern rock star is dead, it's a cancelled TV series!" With a brass section swelling the number on stage to 12, an hour just isn’t enough time to wallow in the set’s cacophonous glory. There’s genuine magic in the air as ‘Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl’ builds and builds and builds, and closer ‘Meet Me In the Basement’ is resuscitated three times due to demand as people hug in the song’s final squall. The joy is real and unbound.
Another commendable feature of EOTR’s bookings, beyond a dependable prerequisite for excellence and variety, is its focus on equality. This, of course, shouldn’t be something that needs to be noted in 2016, but the paucity of female artists booked at festivals elsewhere makes EOTR a beacon. Friday alone has the gentle psych of Amber Arcades, Rhain’s jazzy folk, Dawn Landes’ arresting Americana (even her offhand humming between songs is delightful) and Martha Ffion’s 60’s inspired classic pop. U.S. Girls then concoct a swamp of warped samples as the basis for their experimental art pop, before Anna Meredith turns in a stellar set of her essential Varmints album, her electronica given a hearty thud and dollop of hyperactive fun from the live six-piece classical band, with everyone contributing ecstatic vocals.
Then there’s Savages. They almost palpably ache to be the Big, Important, Deeply Serious Band du jour, and while their intense noise rock may not always work on record, it’s imperious live. ‘Husbands’ has Jehnny Beth in the crowd, held aloft, urging everyone on. She even asks to see our smiles. Honestly. Smiles at a Savages gig; even they seem taken in by the atmosphere. Shura’s rider must be good – there’s a glassy calm to her as she casually shrugs out a set of unbelievably strong, quicksilver synthpop in the Big Top, before Cat Power closes out the evening with an assured headline on the Garden Stage.
The weekend isn’t without a dash of controversy, albeit a storm-in-a-teacup type exacerbated in contrast by the relaxed vibes that permeate otherwise. Joanna Newsom’s directive that no act plays against her Sunday headline means everything barring the silent disco comes to an unceremonious halt at 9:30. Whether prompted by self-importance or an understandable artistic concern that her sound will be compromised, it feels unnecessary: sound bleed is rare and – more importantly – her resolutely baroque approach, with knotty, meandering songs combining harp playing and yelping vocals, is the very definition of an acquired taste. It backfires slightly. Relatively few choose to watch, forgoing feeling their fatigued feet thud in their walking boots for the 90 minutes. Those with a predilection for aural assault instead stock up on The Oh Sees’ awesome, synapse-melting assault beforehand and patiently queue in the drizzle, waiting for the embargo to lift to enjoy Teenage Fanclub’s ersatz headline in the Big Top. But this is a tiny bump at the very end of the road for what is now the country’s pre-eminent festival. Another year, another triumph.
Photo by Sonny Malhotra.