After the last 18 months of rescheduling, re-jigging and an extended lockdown period that saw the early part of the UK’s festival season get swallowed into a black hole for the second year running, the most surprising thing about End Of The Road 2021 was just how normal it all felt. And, for the exemplary Dorset-based festival, ‘normal’ means a fucking great time for all, with ample live music, delicious food, stimulating activities, thought-provoking comedy, parties into the dead of night, and peacocks – don’t forget the peacocks. Even the inevitability of all the stalls being unable to take card payments because of the faint internet signal was met more with humour than frustration; everyone was just so happy to be there, punters, crew and performers alike.
The only real surprise of the weekend was just how warm and dry it remained throughout – an auspicious sign for the future of live music, let’s hope.
Things got off to their usually wonderful start on Thursday night, for those lucky enough to get down early. Two years ago, Japanese favourites Kikagaku Moyo won over plenty of hearts and minds with a stunning set on the festival’s iconic Garden Stage. They returned this time to play the Woods Stage (‘main’ stage), and their naturally expansive sound easily filled up the valley and welcomed this year’s crop of festival goers like a familiar hug of sound.
Those who were in the mood to pack in the music on the first night made a break over to the Tipi to see one of BPM’s recent faves, the hotly-tipped trio Regressive Left, who brought their party-starting punk out in full force. Wearing a ‘Keir Starmer is a wet wipe’ t-shirt, Simon Tyrie bounded about the stage, surfing wave after wave of electronics, supported by his bandmates’ wiry post-punk. Although they only have three songs out so far, there’s plenty more in the tank it seems, and we can’t wait to hear them.
Thursday night is often headlined by a legendary act, and in years past I’ve witnessed the likes of Slowdive and Spiritualized give the festival its official opening. This year it was Stereolab’s turn to take that bow, and they did not disappoint. Things started quickly with an early insertion of fan favourite “Ping Pong”, but the set really started to take off at “Metronomic Underground” where everything locked into place – listeners’ minds included – and a spiritual lift off was achieved. Picking from across their discography with glee, Stereolab were on such fine form that they could’ve played anything and made it sound like an intergalactic lullaby; that they played classics like “Come and Play in the Milky Night”, “Lo Boob Oscillator”, and “Super-Electric” was just divine.
The first full day of the festival was kicked off in fine fashion on the Big Top, where people flopped down to catch a morning movie. Mark Jenkin’s BAFTA-winning black and white film Bait might not have been most people’s choice of an easy start, but accompanied by Gwenno and Angharad Davies playing the score, the result was mesmerising. Fading into subdued atmosphere during the more conversational parts, the duo really came into their own during the film’s more atmospheric and elemental moments, taking hold of the atmosphere and sucking us deeper in. Gwenno’s voice in particular had great presence that really brought the gravity of these moments to thumping life, almost another character in its spiritual and spectral power. Having already seen and enjoyed the film before, I left this time thinking that Bait is a modern classic, and the duo’s performance certainly helped in coming to that realisation.
Mid-afternoon on Friday really showed the breadth and depth of the acts on show at End Of The Road. Dominating the main stage were Modern Woman, a band who have recently put out their single on EOTR Records, and they could not have better represented the festival and label in their forward-thinking take on traditional sounds. London-based Afro-jazz group Balimaya Project were the life of the party on the main stage, drawing in all passers by with their hypnotic rhythms and sheer positivity, creating the first field-wide throw down of the weekend. Vanishing Twin offered glimpses of their majestic forthcoming album Ookii Gekkou with a silvery showing on the Tipi.
My first real heart-wrenching clash came in the early evening when I was torn between Loraine James’ techno bangers and Keeley Forsyth’s sad bangers. With James starting earlier, I opted to go there and leave half way to see Forsyth – but the Londoner’s mesmeric show was too impressive to pull away from. Having seen her performance at Visions just a month earlier, I was blown away but just how much more accomplished it sounded on a big, dark stage with a world class sound and light setup. She had the audience juddering and shimmying away as she slid through drill, bass and footstep sounds, moulding her own productions into a new beast, warping Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” into a ghostly banger and just looking totally at home while doing so. James barely seemed to look up during her hour-long set, but she must have noticed the steadily swelling crowd drawn to her precision synths and hard-hitting beats. The only complaint is that it would have been better served later in the evening, but Loraine James didn’t seem to mind the time of day as she brought the nightclub to the festival and made 7pm feel like 2am with ease.
Arlo Parks was the main draw on the Garden Stage on Friday night, and I’m sure she provided probably the biggest singalong of the weekend, but my tastes took me to the Tipi to see what Danalogue and Betamax aka Soccer96 were getting up to. More or less playing through the highlights of their forthcoming debut album Dopamine, the trio (with added bassist) took us on a sonic quest that turned the tent into a mystical cavern, their synth lines and rhythmic ingenuity tunneling us deeper into this polychromatic sound cave. Make sure to keep an eye out for these lads next month when the album drops.
Friday night’s headline slot on the main stage was occupied by Hot Chip, and a more assured party-starting and crowd-pleasing act there couldn’t have been. They set the tone by launching with a one-two on “Huarache Lights” and “One Life Stand”, and from there a procession of hits followed, each building on that momentum until the peak of “Over and Over”, “Melody of Love” and “Ready For The Floor”. Comfortable in their headliner shoes, Hot Chip concluded their set with a medley of covers, from William Onyeabor’s “Good Name” to Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” (sadly, Joe Goddard is no Ad-Rock), and finishing with a classic festival barnburner, “Dancing in the Dark”. An open-hearted and luminous performance from the elder statesmen of British dance pop, Hot Chip’s set could not have failed to make anyone within earshot grin.
London trio Pozi opened the main stage on Saturday, and while their determined tones probably fell across many still-sleeping ears, they undoubtedly missed out on this fast rising act. It was left to The Umlauts on the Big Top to really kick the day into gear, the group playing only their fourth ever gig but sounding tight and seasoned as a long-running collective – particularly impressive given there’s nine of them. Each of the nine-piece seemed to be having the times of their lives as they careened through the tracks from their recent debut EP, and that party atmosphere transmitted itself easily into the crowd. By the time of their world-beating closer “Boiler Suits and Combat Boots”, The Umlauts were easily jockeying into position of ‘discovery of the weekend’ for anyone who hadn’t heard them before (which was probably the majority). It was a true ‘moment’ for the band – and for the festival.
Rough Trade signees Caroline were up on the Tipi afterwards, and had similarly large numbers with eight members – but sound-wise were completely inverse to The Umlauts. Rather than fill the tent with noise, they bravely and captivatingly guided ears and hearts through their version of folkified mid-West emo, bringing the sound down to practically silence – and they had the audience holding their breath in the process. A glimpse of what will likely be an End Of The Road favourite in years to come as they release more music, this cello, clarinet, violin, and trumpet-boasting octet are just getting started.
Hen Ogledd really embodied the festival spirit in their mid-afternoon set on the main stage, being the only band in the weekend (that I saw) who performed in spectacular costumes; blue gowns and rune-patterned caps that amplified the fantastical odyssey at play in their music. As they took us on their voyage through songs from last year’s Free Humans, it was fun to see how the band worked as a unit; Dawn Bothwell and Sally Pilkington sitting at the centre working on synths and samplers as the band’s brain, while, flanking them, Rhodri Davies and Richard Dawson were more erratic as they shredded on their electro-harp and bass respectively. Providers of the oddest singalongs of the weekend from “Trouble” to “Space Golf”, they may have tested the patience of some viewers as they went deeper down the wormhole in songs like “Paul is 9ft Tall”, but ultimately their sheer lovability was irresistible.
Returning again as conquering heroes on the back of Bright Green Field, Squid got a prime time slot on the Garden Stage in the early evening, and made the absolute most of it. As he mentioned last time they played the festival, singing drummer Ollie Judge remarked on how he had grown up coming to EOTR every year, so to get to play on a stage where he’d seen so many great acts was a real treat (they even dropped in a little reference to Smog’s “Cold Blooded Old Times”, Bill Callahan having played it during his legendary set on the stage in 2017). Alternating between highlights from the album and some scorching new material, Squid absolutely tore through their set, sounding more than simply electrified – it was as if each of the five members had been hit by an individual thunderbolt and were channeling that energy and excitement into their playing, in turn driving it outwards into the audience with heedless abandon. Breathless.
Following them on the Garden Stage is no easy task for anyone, but Anna Meredith and her band managed it with sheer positivity and their enormous art-pop sound. A quartet that manages to sound like 40, Meredith’s merry troupe pummelled and pounded away through their polychromatic bangers. If Squid had torn down the stage, then Meredith and co’s methodic playing was like building it back up again, brick by glorious brick. That is, until they set it ablaze once more with a monolithic (and completely unexpected) cover of “Enter Sandman” that had the whole crowd bouncing.
Headliners for the Saturday night were Sleaford Mods, but, in a brilliant piece of counter-programming, the Garden Stage was given over to Jonny Greenwood and his ensemble. While hearing orchestral film scores might not be what most people want on a Saturday night at a festival, it was bliss for myself. Greenwood set the tone for the night by introducing himself via a slideshow, reading “they offered me a microphone but I prefer to play and type.” From there he guided us silently through the set, silently explaining that his band members were the same collaborators with whom he’d created all his score work, then introduced us to each of the players as they wove their way beautifully through selections from There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread, as well as some of their other material and covers of Olivier Messaien and Luciano Berrio. For the majority, Greenwood remained behind his signature Ondes Martenot, off to the side of the group, watching on with silent appreciation as his collaborators displayed stunning expertise.
Towards the end of the set, Greenwood finally took centre stage and strapped on his guitar, playing through Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint I-III” with mesmerising precision. For those moments, time seemed to move backward; Greenwood still has a youthful appearance that belies his (nearly) 50 years, but as he played so beautifully and with such rapt attention, it was easy to picture him in his bedroom as a teen playing guitar, figuring out how to play “Electric Counterpoint” on his own, the early building blocks towards his illustrious career visible for us all to witness. It was spellbinding, and only topped by the ensemble rejoining to perform the utterly magnificent “House of Woodcock” to close.
While Greenwood’s set would have been more than ample to send us all into a beautifully dream-filled sleep, Saturday night had plenty more to offer. Sorry brought their art-rocking riffs to the Tipi while Romare turned out tech-house in the Big Top. However, we were all just waiting up until 1.30am, when a surprise set from Bristol duo Giant Swan was the crowning event of the evening. While many of us may have been flagging at the late hour, the duo had more than enough energy to fuel the packed tent, as they spent their 45 minutes jumping and head-banging around, throwing beers to audience members. It was invigorating stuff to watch – not to mention their tense techno was pounding away throughout, shuddering into our bones and forcing us to move, no matter whether we had any energy left or not. After that, it was truly time to die in the sleeping bag back at the tent.
Sunday was always going to be a struggle, but the radiant Anna B Savage was exactly what the doctor ordered as she opened the Garden Stage. Playing solo (she’ll be joined by a band on her upcoming tour, she assured us), she oozed her way through spellbinding highlights from her debut album A Common Turn as well as a splendid Nick Drake cover, her voice just as powerful and engulfing as on record (made even more so by her physical contortions to get out the emotion). Between songs she fielded questions from the audience and just seemed to be having a wonderful time, as bright and warming as the sun itself.
Savage’s collaborator and tourmate William Doyle did not have as much luck with his set on the Big Top shortly after. “I hope this isn’t going to be a fucking disaster,” he said at the start, referencing his hiccupping electronic setup, but unfortunately it continued to plague him throughout the set, causing long delays between songs. And yet, it was far from a disaster – the crowd were completely on his side, patient as he pounded away in frustration on his laptop, and rapturous in response to the five or so songs he did manage to play. It may not have been as big of an advertisement for the brilliant recent album Great Spans of Muddy Time that he’d hoped, but it still fostered a sense of unity and goodwill – and no doubt there were some converts in the audience nonetheless.
Back on the Garden Stage the mid-afternoon was reserved for music royalty in the form of Shirley Collins and her Lodestar Band. The 86 year old folk hero seemed to be having the time of her life as she sat in her chair, admiring the beautiful audience under the gleaming sun, and laughed along merrily with her bandmates’ introductions to the various centuries-old songs they played. A great mood was harnessed with the band’s natural grace and humour, and was only accentuated by Collins’ wondrously weathered voice – and the sudden appearance of a backing dancer who frolicked around the stage for a few of their songs. Even the peacocks were impressed, more vocal than at any point during the weekend, perhaps in recognition of Collins as one of their own – a truly majestic presence.
While most will have been drawn rightfully to Black Country, New Road on the main stage, who played a host of exciting sounding new tracks with a smattering of favourites from this year’s For the first time, I left early to see one of the few (possibly only?) North American act to make it across the Atlantic to play EOTR: Crack Cloud. Needless to say, they did their continent proud. Taking up the same slot as Squid the day before, they played a similarly visceral set, the majority of their members stripped down to their bare chests as they roiled and riffed in the afternoon sun. Cuts from last year’s sensational Pain Olympics were rolled out, but so were a host of new songs that signified that Crack Cloud have many more weapons in their multi-faceted arsenal just waiting to be unleashed.
Sunday evening brought with it a three way clash of nightmares, and I found myself wandering between all three. As Little Simz took up the main stage with the pomp and flair of a headliner in waiting, Arab Strap brought their beer-soaked singalongs to the garden stage. Meanwhile on the Big Top were Porridge Radio, who may have been a last minute addition to the bill but drew an excited audience who lapped up their powerful playing as they rocketed through a mixture of cuts from last year’s Every Bad and some selections of new songs that sounded just as ready to be launched onto the airwaves. It surely won’t be long now for more hearty rock goodness from the band.
If the Big Top was fairly packed for Porridge Radio, it was absolutely stuffed just an hour later as Dry Cleaning took to the stage. Riding high off the success of debut album New Long Leg, they spent no time chatting and packed their hour with fireball after fireball, even throwing in a few older favourites for good measure. As ever, the male portion of the band spent the set rampaging and wriggling around, wrestling their riffs and rhythms into hair-raising order, but eyes could not be pulled from the magnetic Florence Shaw. Even as she barely moves and sing-speaks in a near monotone, there is something undeniably magnetic to her presence, made even more attractive by being at the centre of the whirling dervish that is Dry Cleaning as a live force.
Rounding out the headline slot on Sunday night was King Krule, aka Archy Marshall and his band of very talented musicians. Lapping up the last of the festival’s energy, they gaveus plenty to dance to, dropping “Dum Surfer” early in the set to get people amped and then pulling a surprising number of songs from 6 Feet Beneath The Moon. Even for those of us too tired to remain standing throughout, his bombastically bluesy form of indie provided a perfect soundtrack to staring at the star-filled Dorset sky. He even threw in a cover of Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” and did a surprise encore of “Out Getting Ribs”, fully embodying what a good festival headliner should be.
While fuel was running dangerously low at this point, Girl Band were set to play the midnight slot back on the Big Top and there was no way I was going to miss it. It turned out to be a perfect piece of programming as the Irish quartet cranked the volume to infinity and practically blew up the tent, putting rocket boosters on the feet of all in attendance. They started by shoving some new songs under our noses, and once we’d all heartily approved those with physical and vocal encouragement, they unleashed their deranged cover of Blawan’s “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?” From that, eardrums and bone sockets were all haywire, but Girl Band played on, delivering a volcanic eruption with “Shoulderblades”.
Following that, even as secret sets from Black Country, New Road and Horsey beckoned from the Tipi, it was time to collapse into a heap once more, and bid farewell to the one and only End Of The Road. Until next time.