‘END OF THE ROAD FESTIVAL’ – BLANDFORD FORUM, DORSET 2-5.9.21
With the cancellation of many Sussex music festivals this year including the likes of The Black Deer Festival, Love Supreme, Pride and The Great Escape (which went virtual), the Brighton & Hove News Music Team were still itching to get out there and absorb some festival madness. Thus we recently covered Hastings Rocks (review HERE) and the Victorious Festival in Southsea (review HERE).
We have now spread our wings a little further afield and headed off to the last main music festival of the year, namely the appropriately titled End Of The Road Festival, which took place at Larmer Tree Gardens, Blandford Forum, Dorset, SP5 5PY from Thursday 2nd to Sunday 5th September. This annual festival tends to focus on independent rock and folk music and the first festival took place back in 2006, and after selling out for the first time in 2008, has sold out in advance every year since. The festival was started by two friends, Simon Taffe and Sofia Hagberg, who continue to run it.
The festival has four stages: the Woods Stage, the Garden Stage, the Big Top Stage and the Tipi Tent, as well as a clearing in the woods around the Garden Stage containing a piano at which semi-secret sets take place. There are also children’s areas and workshops, a healing field, a film tent, comedy, a library in the forest and a games area. Late night entertainment usually includes high-profile DJ sets, a silent disco, secret pop-up performances and karaoke. Due to the nature of the gardens the festival is set in, it is not unusual to see peacocks (see below) wandering around the area and macaws in the trees.
So it’s over to our reviewer Mark Kelly to give you the rundown on the 30 acts that he managed to catch…..
End Of The Road Festival: Thursday 2nd September 2021:
Today is my first visit to the End Of The Road Festival and I’m immediately impressed: it reminds me of how Glastonbury was before the TV cameras were let in. There’s a definite happy vibe about the place, and commercialism is kept to a minimum. There is no visible sponsorship, and everything on sale seems to be of a very high quality.
My introduction to the festival is quite low-key, as I only see two artists today – but what artists they are! First up are Kikagaku Moyo, whose existence I have been blissfully unaware of until today! They purvey ethereal psychedelia, and they remind me slightly of The Grateful Dead, but that’s only part of the story. There’s a sitar in there too, so there are elements of Indian music, there are folk influences too. It’s music that you can completely lose yourself in. They sound as if they’re jamming, but they’re not. I could happily have listened to them all night, but before the night ends, Stereolab need to be fitted in.
Ah, Stereolab – the ultimate in Gallic cool. Well, Laetitia Sadier is anyway! I was a little unsure what the current status of Stereolab is, as Laetitia Sadier has solo gigs booked, as well as gigs with the band. I’m advised that the band is now fully operational, and playing the Roundhouse in London in November. There seems little sign of new music however. We do get a cross-section of their back catalogue, a highlight being ‘Super-Electric’ and, of course, the inevitable (and very welcome) ‘French Disko’. This is a brilliant performance. Stereolab are another band that take you somewhere different: somewhere ‘other’.
End Of The Road Festival: Friday 3rd September 2021:
This festival is in a particularly sylvan setting, and the weather is absolutely glorious all weekend. With this in mind Friday commences in a suitably relaxed manner with Jonny Dillon. His set is largely instrumental featuring delicately picked acoustic guitar. He reminds me of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davy Graham, and has the musical chops to warrant the comparison. Johnny is Irish and is very amusing between song patter. He finishes his set with a medley of ‘Life Is A Mountain Railroad’ and ‘Yes, Jesus Loves Me’. This has been an agreeably laid-back way to start the day.
Not quite so laid-back are Mermaid Chunky. Their set is very much a performance, with girls in Victorian style bonnets providing percussion, backing vocals and no little amount of dancing. Saxes, parp, keyboards contribute weird and wonderful sounds. This is art-rock man!
Aoife Nessa Frances takes us back into more relaxed climes. She plays guitar and is accompanied by a keyboard player and a drummer. Aoife is best known for her album ‘Land Of No Junction’, the title of which comes from her mis-hearing the name of Llandudno Junction, a railway station in North Wales. However, today she is mostly playing new music. This is classy, atmospheric soft rock (although she may not like me describing it as such) which is perfect for a sunny afternoon. This music has no rough edges. The last song of the set is by far the best. It has a groove to it that suggests that it could have originated from San Francisco in 1966.
Katy J Pearson entertains us with her 1970s influenced singer-songwriter fare. She also performed a secret late night set, that our photographer Michael Hundertmark managed to catch, see the photo below.
It’s now time for us to go to see Sleep Eaters, who are an alt-country band from South London, although you wouldn’t guess their geographical origins from their singing accents. Their pedal steel player is centre stage, as befits anyone playing such a fiendishly difficult instrument. Their last song is extended into an absorbing jam. I could have listened to them for much longer!
Just Mustard from Dundalk in Ireland, rather slay us with their gothic psychedelic mix, and are definitely worthy of further investigation. We return to the world of singer / songwriters with CMAT (AKA Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson) who has one of the most powerful singing voices that I’ve heard in a long time. Her songs are lyrically powerful too, dealing with the emotional traumas experienced by many young women today. She introduces ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy’ as “a country song”, but her material doesn’t really fit into a specific genre, and is all the better for it.
Bdrmm entertain us next with their powerful angst-ridden, shoegazing post-punk. They’re an excellent live band who are impossible to ignore. However, one of my ‘must-see’ acts of the festival is coming up and nothing can stand in his way. That act is Damon Albarn. He is backed by what is essentially the core of the Gorillaz band. He bravely commences his set with the title track of his next solo album, ‘The Nearer The Fountain’, ‘More Pure The Stream Flows’, which will be released on November 21st. Indeed, there appear to be three or four songs from the new album. I always find it refreshing when an artist plays new material before it is released. It’s a way of road-testing the songs, and also shows that they’re not paranoid about live clips appearing on Youtube before the album comes out.
Damon spends much of the time sitting at the piano. His sedentary position doesn’t stop him being a great frontman. He plays: people listen. I think it’s called charisma. In fact, all of the band apart from the bass player sit. Is this rock ‘n’ roll? Probably not. It’s something altogether more sublime. Apart from the new songs, we get ‘Lonely Press Play’ from ‘Everyday Robots, Go Back’ (a Tony Allen cover, and a tribute to the much-missed drummer), four songs from ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Queen’ (can they ever do anything else without the aforementioned Tony?), and ‘On Melancholy Hill’ by Gorillaz. However, the absolute highlights for me are the two Blur songs that he does: ‘Out Of Time’ and (particularly) ‘This Is A Low’.
It is noticeable that a lot of people leave during Damon’s set. My knee jerk reaction would be to say that they have no taste. However, this set is not necessarily an easy listen. It is certainly not a greatest hits set, and some of the material is either new or relatively obscure. However, that doesn’t stop it being an excellent set. I wish it could have been longer.
Another interesting band is up next: Trash Kit, of whom I was completely ignorant until today. They are a post-punk three-piece who are augmented by a choir for the first few songs. When the choir leaves the stage the band plays a song which seems to be in 5/4, then the choir returns with a violinist. This is complicated music that sounds utterly effortless, with all kinds of audible influences. One of the band introduces a song saying it has a “weird” time signature. I thought they all did!!! This is in no way a criticism incidentally. Trash Kit are a very imaginative and entertaining band.
One band that certainly can’t claim to be imaginative are Hot Chip. I’ll make no bones about it: they are one of my least-favourite bands of all time, and believe me, there are plenty of candidates! I first saw Hot Chip supporting Goldfrapp at Brixton Academy in 2006. I found them intensely annoying then, and I have heard nothing since to change my opinion of them.
They are undeniably a great party band, and as such are well-placed for their headlining slot on the main stage. What else do they bring to the table though? Their electropop is highly derivative, and has been done far better before. To quote the late great John Peel (speaking about Emerson, Lake and Palmer): they are “a waste of time, talent and electricity”.
We are rescued by a late show from Warmduscher, who are a much needed breath of fresh air. They have previously featured members of Fat White Family, and currently include Adam J Harmer (AKA Quicksand) from the band on guitar. Their refreshing mix of garage rock and electro is more than enough to blow the memories of Hot Chip away. Utterly outstanding.
End Of The Road Festival: Saturday 4th September:
We commence Saturday’s campaign with Kiran Leonard. I’ve heard of Kiran, but I honestly don’t know what to expect. I certainly don’t expect what we get, which is unlike anything I can remember seeing. The band troop onstage and sit down. Kiran stands. The first piece (the term ‘song’ seems somewhat insufficient) sounds like a Wagnerian overture. It’s complex, intense, serious and defies classification. It’s the first gig by this particular line-up, but you wouldn’t know it. The band is lost in the music, as are the audience.
The intensity simply doesn’t let up. In some passages they stay on one chord for quite a long time, playing around the chord. So what is this music? It doesn’t fit into any box. The nearest comparison I can think of is The Incredible String Band, but even that doesn’t do this music justice. This is a modern string ensemble playing imaginative neo-classical music. I think….
On a completely different level altogether are Pozi, who pin back our ears with some lively punky stuff. They have an unusual line-up of violin, bass and drums. There’s no guitar! It’s not missed though. Rosa on violin makes very sure of that. Oddly they remind me of Magazine and Wire, whilst some of the bass lines are reminiscent of New Order. I’ve never heard of them before but I very definitely want to hear more.
Next we have a new band: The Umlauts. They are formed of students who met at Wimbledon Art College. They play bouncy electro with a pleasingly deadpan vocal delivery. They have an extensive line-up with two female lead vocalists. I counted about ten members. Interesting stuff.
Lee Patterson are a guitarist / drummer duo who play no-nonsense high octane rock ‘n’ roll. They play an ace cover of ‘Bank Holiday’ by Blur.
Hen Ogledd are not what I was expecting. I had seen Richard Dawson before, playing Northumbrian folk, so I had been expecting something folk-based. How wrong could I be?!! Alongside Richard is Rhodri Davies on harp, together with Dawn Bothwell and Sally Pilkington on laptop, keyboards and backing vocals. This is electro, but not necessarily as we know it. Although there are beats, dance music this ain’t! It’s not designed to be an easy listen. It’s frequently sonically challenging, bordering on industrial. It’s imaginative and exciting. You can’t really ask for much more can you?
Field Music are the brainchild of brothers David and Peter Brewis. They have an extended line-up for live work. The band has a somewhat schizophrenic nature as each album differs from the last. This is illustrated by their first couple of songs, the first of which is quite dancey, whilst the second is quite prog with an unusual time signature. There are also hints of classic rock too. Overall this is interesting music – there is nothing throwaway here. However, it may be a bit complex for a festival audience, which shrinks by about a third during their set.
What can we say about Chubby And The Gang? The immediate thing that hits you right between the eyes is that they are as heavy as Hell. They are clearly the bastard children of a drunken union between the Ramones and Motorhead. They talk a lot about being punk, but they seem to be more heavy rock to me. Singer Charlie “Chubby Charles” Manning Walker is clearly a very angry young man, which means he has a deep store of confrontational punky lyrics. He is also no mean harmonica player, which comes as a bit of a surprise. The setlist is stuffed with standout songs, but particularly good are ‘Someone’s Gonna Die’ and ‘Lightning Don’t Strike Twice’. They also play a surprise show when the headliners have finished, but unfortunately it’s on another stage where the sound isn’t particularly good, which rather blunts their impact.
Sleaford Mods top off Saturday. In some ways it’s a pity that they don’t play with a live band, but on the other hand that focuses the audience fairly and squarely on the lyrics, which are gritty and laced with much irony. They’re angry lyrics, but in places they’re very funny indeed. The setlist is 25 songs long, with almost too many highlights. Jason Williamson frequently asks us whether we’re “enjoying it”, or whether we’re just watching them “making a spectacle of ourselves”. For most of the audience it’s the former. If there are any naysayers they’re being very quiet. Andrew Fearn occupies himself by dancing behind his laptop, from which he presumably triggers the backing tracks which he has created. As a live act this shouldn’t really work, but it does. There are some terrible social inequalities being laid bare here, and the audience shares in the band’s obvious anger, but there’s some brilliantly bitter humour in there too. Sleaford Mods are a band for our times and beyond.
End Of The Road Festival: Sunday 5th September:
Sunday, the fourth day of the End Of The Road campaign dawns warm and sunny. However, there will be no Sunday peace and quiet for an hour or two at least.
The first band to shatter the peace are Oldboy, whose set I’m lucky enough to hear the beginning of as I’m passing the Big Top stage. On entering the Big Top I find a band whose rhythm section do indeed look relatively elderly, being at least in their sixties. Oldboy are what in the old days would be known as a power trio. They rock like a very rocky thing and are more than good enough to pass the time until John arrive.
I previously saw John at Brixton Windmill a couple of years ago, and it seems strange now to see them on a big stage. However, they are more than capable of commanding this stage, and seem to have progressed quite significantly since I last saw them. They seem a tad more melodic than before, and play several songs from their new album ‘Nocturnal Manoeuvres’, which is to be issued during October. So seemingly they have had a pretty productive lockdown.
Next up are PVA who are purveyors of electro but with a guitarist and drummer. Their guitar sound is reminiscent of Andy Summer of The Police. There are shades of Kraftwerk at times.
The Garden Stage is graced by Shirley Collins And The Lode Star Riders. Most definitely a case of the right artist on the right stage at the right time. It would be lazy to describe this as perfect Sunday afternoon music, because that really isn’t the case. The material performed is occasionally quite disturbing.
‘Polly Oliver’ is a case in point. It dates from the American civil war, and details the treatment of African-Americans at that time and since. ‘Sweet Greens And Blues’ was originally recorded by Shirley and Davey Graham, and is about her early married life, which, reading between the lines, doesn’t appear to have been a particularly happy time. Likewise, ‘The Whitsun Dance’ is about women dancing together because their menfolk had been killed during World War One. Shirley remembered mocking such women when she was young, not fully appreciating the trauma that those women had gone through.
A morris dancer appears and then reappears throughout the set, adding additional authenticity to the proceedings. Shirley and her band over-run significantly, but when you’re the grand dame of English folk – why shouldn’t you? This set was living history, and I feel incredibly lucky to have seen it.
Shirley’s over-running does mean that we have to run to catch the beginning of Black Country, New Road’s set. It’s worth the effort though. This genre-defying band starts off with the fittingly titled ‘Instrumental’, which in a way sets out their stall, showcasing a number of differing influences. Isaac Woods indulges in some impressive guitar heroics (including tapping) on an amped-up acoustic guitar. I met the band later and asked if it would offend them if I described their music as prog? They had no problem with this label, which is just as well, as their music is progressive in the true sense of the word. It is constantly progressing, developing and moving on, without at any point sounding like Emerson, Lake and Palmer or any of their cohorts. This band and their music are on a journey, and I can’t wait to see where it takes them next.
I drop back into the Garden Stage to see Arab Strap. Their music is powerful, dark and somewhat depressing. Their songs represent some of the most searching explorations of the human condition that I have ever encountered, but unfortunately I can only consume it in small portions.
Dry Cleaning are one of my absolute ‘must see’ bands of this festival, and judging by the size of the crowd I am not alone in this. The set is quite short which is a shame, but I guess we have quality rather than quantity. The band are all very different-looking individuals. Bassist Lewis Maynard looks like an inveterate rocker, headbanging onstage. Meanwhile guitarist Tom Dowse pogos. Vocalist Florence Shaw appears engrossed as if she’s speak-singing to herself. When she looks at the audience it is with an expression of malevolent confusion on her face. We thank God that there is a barrier between her and us. It’s only when they acknowledge the applause at the end of the last song ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’ with huge grins, that it becomes apparent that this dysfunctionality is all an act. No matter. They have the material to match the edgy stage presentation. Some comes from their debut album ‘New Long Leg’, whilst some comes from earlier singles and EPs. I got the impression that this was the moment that the band collectively realised that they actually are ‘quite good’. Indeed they are, and it won’t be long until they realise that they really are a lot better than that.
King Krule (aka Archy Marshall) is tonight’s headliner on the main (Woods) stage. He and his band are super confident and their jazz-flecked mix of blues and soul sounds all the better for it. Marshall looks and sounds as if he’s been doing this for decades, but he is in fact only 27, and still manages to sound like a South London Springsteen.
Apparently he was very disappointed by the non-appearance of the Pixies, and turns in a very creditable version of ‘Wave Of Mutilation’ as a tribute. There is certainly no lack of attitude here. At the end of the encore Marshall slams his guitar onto the stage and storms off as the feedback howls. Job done.
The final and most perplexing band that I see at the festival are Girl Band from Ireland. The musicians largely get ambient sounds from their instruments rather than playing them conventionally, the bass player playing with a bottle for example. This is fairly inaccessible music and for the first few songs I just don’t get it, whilst being fascinated by it at the same time. Many of the songs stay on one chord for quite a long time, which has quite a mesmeric effect. About halfway through the set I realise what is going on: this is effectively techno music played on real instruments! Eureka!!! It’s a very inventive and quite possibly unique approach.
And so the End Of The Road Festival endeth. Here I’ve been presented the most eclectic and imaginative line-up of artists that I’ve seen for a very long time. I was an End Of The Road virgin, and now my life has changed forever. Considerably for the better I should add!
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