As the British festival season draws to a soggy close, End of the Road is a fittingly named stop for those punters left a bit jaded, over-danced or sick of seeing Jamie XX. Not only is it set in bucolic surroundings - at Larmer Tree Gardens, a Victorian pleasure grounds on the border of Wiltshire and Dorset where peacocks and macaws roam the site - but it hosts some of the finest names in alternative, folk and Americana.
There are endless bars to crawl between, a few select comedy acts to sift through, and winding woods filled with secret gigs and art installations. There’s something in the air, too, whether it’s the ‘lack of dickheads’, as Robin Ince suggests during his late night comedy book club, the heady views of English countryside or the realisation that this is the last chance to enjoy outdoor music until, well, probably next summer.
It all makes for a blissful weekend. And that’s before we’ve even seen Sufjan Stevens.
Here is the best of what we saw during our wild weekend in Wiltshire:
Post-punk from Montreal - the only real way to start any festival. Ought’s 2014 debut, More Than Any Other Day, attracted fans and critics alike with its spiky, sardonic but emotionally nuanced sounds, the effect something like Pavement meeting Joy Division on an uncharacteristically pleasant day. In the leafy arena of the Garden Stage the effect is as strong as ever: singer Tim Darcy sneers and soothes in equal measure over dense layers of guitar and bass fuzz, the band’s songs lurching from measured restraint to explosive in a heartbeat.
Two hits from upcoming record Sun Coming Down translated particularly well to the Dorset stage: ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ is one, a driving, growling march against cosy living as Darcy spits out threatening questions like ‘how’s the family/how’s the wife?’. ‘Men for Miles’, meanwhile, sounds more like an early Talking Heads track, peeling back at times to just vocals, drums and bass, at others a maelstrom of guitars and keys, with shifting time signatures and tempos along the way.
One member of the crowd shouts out ‘you sound like Janis Joplin’, an observation that rings truest (and one that Darcy announces he ‘quite likes’) during older hit ‘Habit’, his strained falsetto rising above all at its furious climax.
Propping up the main stage on a sunny Saturday afternoon are The Unthanks, the brainchild of sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and multi-instrumentalist Adrian McNally. Their updated takes on Northumbrian folk songs are eclectic, ranging from from spaced-out, jazzy arrangements, to gloomy rock-fests, to bombastic, traditional folk romps, complete with tap-dancing.
Their set borrows from an extensive back catalogue, but comes into its own with cuts from Mount the Air, their latest LP. An atmospheric opener - which shares its name with the album - is a brooding slow-build, all slushy strings and mournful trumpets, before a soaring melody bursts through, the Unthank sisters all the while calmly singing for a ‘lost dearest dear’. There’s a sense of easy scale to these bigger numbers which makes them all the more impressive: McNally’s orchestration is delicate and never overblown, leaving the band’s simple, powerful songs to speak for themselves.
Other highlights include ‘Magpie’, a genuinely creepy tale of witchcraft and pagan meddling leant a Celtic swagger by a bass pedal and block harmonies, and ‘Lucky Gilchrist’, whose pounding rhythms are backed up by metronomic strings and aforementioned tap-dancing.
Curly-haired Vermont native Sam Amidon crops up a few times throughout Sunday afternoon, and we catch him briefly on a tiny woodland stage, made up to look like a living room. In four short tracks he shows off his unconventional style, which is wandering, spacious and seemingly made up on the spot. There’s a deep craft here, though, most on show when he takes to the fiddle for some deep cuts from older material.
He later tops the bill in the Tipi tent, home of the weekend’s hidden gems, with a solo set that takes in all of an enormously productive career. ‘Lily-O’, which on record is a spiralling, jazzy take on an old folk tune, is reconfigured as a largely unaccompanied farewell to lost love which has a bumper crowd completely under its spell.
This is the Kit
At one time the alter ego of Bristol-based folkster Kate Stables, This is The Kit now comprises a rag-tag group who have shot to some renown recently, thanks in no small part to Guy Garvey championing their cause. Such recognition has seen the band record their latest LP, Bashed Out, under the watchful eye of the National’s Aaron Dessner, as well as his brother Bryce, and Benjamin Lanz of Beirut and Sufjan Stevens fame.
In the Tipi tent mid-way through Sunday, however, there are just four musicians on stage. For the most recent incarnation of the band, Stables is joined by bass, drums and sparing electric guitar, together creating creeping, personal music. Set highlight ‘Bashed Out’ - from the new album, obviously - is an exercise in restraint and tension, shimmering textures and patience, Stables’ vocals delicate and poised. They’ve been picked out as ‘an act to watch’ by many, especially following tours with Sharon Van Etten, Iron & Wine and The National in recent years; this set makes it easy to see why.
It’s impossible to write much about Sufjan Stevens’ set that will be news to most readers. Gut-wrenching, yes, joyous, yes, and absolutely the product of a musician at the peak of his powers, a thousand times yes. The Michigan native has tapped into a deeply personal vein of artistry with latest album Carrie and Lowell, with songs that lay his soul and own history bare. Though most are updated for an expanded band - with up to four keyboard players at any one time - there’s still an intimate core in each. ‘Death with Dignity’ is still tinkling and gentle, before its swooning big finish, and ‘Fourth of July’ completely spellbinds a crowd with the repeated, dread-inducing chant of ‘we’re all gonna die’.
In contrast to recent dates at the Royal Festival Hall and elsewhere, though, new material eventually takes a backseat to older crowd favourites. Producing a brass group which Stevens "found somewhere at this crazy festival", the set swerves to ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ and ‘Come On! Feel the Illinois’, rendered peppy and joyful as much as they are reflective. ‘That Dress Looks Nice on You’, from 2004’s Seven Swans, grows too from quiet reflection to a full-band jam.
It’s a set that is utterly mesmerising for many reasons - some in the crowd are forced to tears, others to wide-eyed abandon and - tellingly - very few to piss-taking - that is simultaneously faithful to Carrie and Lowell’s stripped-back songwriting and Stevens’ more wild, expansive compositions.
Best of the Rest
Friday is all about the ladies: Nadine Shah wows early birds operatic vocals and heavy accompaniment, Natalie Prass is more energetic and enchanting in a leafy garden and Torres is a dour but effective presence on the main stage. Marika Hackman’s solo set warms an already sunny Saturday afternoon before Festival favourites Fat White Family pump up the Big Top stage, all swagger and energy, to a decidedly youthful crowd, while Sleaford Mods provide the perfect end, spitting vitriol and witty wordplay in equal measure. Surfer rock courtesy of Ultimate Painting and Happyness kicks off Sunday, before Alvvays play their anthemic, washed out dream-pop on the main stage, despite lead singer Molly Rankin’s chest infection. They set the way for Future Islands, who tick off yet another glowering, infectious festival performance, before Mac DeMarco’s mischievous antics charm the tiring evening crowd.
Words and Photography by Laurie Havelock