As 2022’s End Of The Road festival opens with a procession from the campfire to the main Woods stage, led by radical trad-folk band Shovel Dance Collective, there’s a sense of cheery optimism among a crowd of easy going, left-field music fans. Punters make the most of the first day’s surprise sunshine by ambling around the woodland of the picturesque Larmer Tree Gardens, which is speckled with interactive art displays and tiny hidden stages. At the Talking Heads stage, on the very edge of the site, there’s an awed hush as Nigerian-American singer-songwriter Uwade performs a solo guitar set.
It’s deeper into the forest that the festival’s most special moments occur – at the miniscule Piano Stage in a buried woodland clearing, some of the weekend’s biggest acts (including Kurt Vile and Lucy Dacus) perform quick and unannounced 15-minute acoustic shows. After word gets out that Stephin Merritt and Anthony Kaczynski of The Magnetic Fields are taking part on Saturday afternoon, a few hours before their second stage headline set, the clearing is teeming with expectant fans. They play only four songs – the 30-second long ‘Castles Of America’, ‘The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side’, ‘All The Umbrellas In London’ and a cover of Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something In The Air’, and from where NME is stood, only Merritt’s left arm is visible, though that only adds to the strange tenderness that makes this one of the festival’s highlights.
Later, in the same area, Perfume Genius takes part in a witty and light-hearted Q&A on topics including the time an audience member refused to hold his hand, the importance of group hugs and his ability to suppress burps while performing if he’s had a steak before going onstage. If he’s suffering from any acid reflux when his set on the main stage comes a few hours later, you wouldn’t be able to tell; his is perhaps the finest set of the weekend, a set which contains multitudes. Dressed in a sharp dark blue suit, he skips and shimmies from great walls of shoegazing noise (‘Describe’) to magical funky pop (‘On The Floor’) to an extended sequence of material from his boldly experimental new record ‘Ugly Season’, during which he dances amid a ghostly blanket of tulle.
There are more straightforwardly brilliant sets too. Jazzy collective Steam Down bring magnetic energy to the Woods Stage on the opening afternoon. Almost exactly 24 hours later, The Umlauts do the same with a bracing set of pumping, pan-European electro-pop. At the Big Top tent, Scalping treat a massive crowd to a blistering set of audiovisual industrial punishment. In the Tipi tent, Nukaluk deliver a slick and punchy mashup of rap, screamo and jazz, and on the same stage Lynks offers a barrage of maximalist queer pop. Opening to ‘Here Comes The Bride’ (the tent bears striking similarity to a wedding gazebo), dressed – in his own words – as a “gimp fisherman” in a camouflaged mask and braces and backed by two frenetic dancers, he offers non-stop delirium.
After dark, most End Of The Road’s post-headliner late-night shows take place at the Tipi tent. All are packed to capacity despite the fact that the identity of the acts playing often remains a secret. On Saturday, dancehall ravers MC Grove – who appeared earlier in the day both with a set of their own and a guest spot with Lynks – is charismatic and hard-hitting, and Audiobooks’ wonky, left-field pop feels entirely otherworldly. Frontwoman Evangeline Ling flits from one voice to another as multi-instrumentalist David Wrench unspools everything from drawling dub to bludgeoning electroclash.
In general, there’s a gentle surrealism to the End Of The Road site – where else would you look up to see a glorious golden-green parrot squawking away in the trees, or a peacock enjoying the soundchecks on a bleary Sunday morning? Perhaps that’s why it’s the experimental acts that are often the most enjoyable. Black Midi’s headlining set at The Garden on Friday night for example, is breathless and bonkers; they’re prodigious musicians, but don’t sink back into pure technical wizardry. They use their skills complement and augment their sound, not drive it. The manic whirligigging freakout of ‘John L’, for instance, is not only a technical marvel, but a surrealist masterpiece too.
On Saturday, at the Boat Stage – the festival’s smallest – Jockstrap attract a packed audience befitting one of the most exciting young acts in the country. Their pop music sounds like it’s beamed from the future, a manic cornucopia that more than lives up to all the hype. Producers James Holden and Wacław Zimpel push the Boat out even further with a set of beefy, beautiful psychedelic noise the following night.
Sets like these contrast with Fleet Foxes’ Friday night headliner show. The group sound fantastic, with deep and rich harmonies sweeping gorgeously across the main arena, but the performance lacks the kind of edge to be found elsewhere. It’s not like a good dose of angst doesn’t work at End Of The Road, mind, as a heart-on-sleeve gig from Porridge Radio goes to show; their performance is so intense that it frays at the edges, a rawness that eventually gives way to absolute catharsis. Bright Eyes take the same impetus but amp up the theatre for their entertaining Sunday night headline set – although it’s a shame their crowd is comparatively thin on the ground.
As main stage headliners, Pixies draw a far bigger audience – by some distance the largest of the entire weekend – for a mixed bag of a show. It might feel churlish, perhaps even a bit regressive, to value their older material over music created after their 2004 reformation, but the gap in quality is stark and it’s undeniable that the classics hit far, far harder to a festival crowd. That’s partly because Frank Black’s vocals barely seem to have aged – he screams and yelps his way through material from their initial run with as much energy as ever before. When they are at their best, they can still be thrilling, but the set feels stop-start.
What is most telling about End Of The Road is that if there are any niggles with a performance, they feel trifling amid the a bright and cheerful atmosphere, which doesn’t let up all weekend. When a musician’s work does sync up with that energy – Lucy Dacus’ openhearted Sunday night, Kurt Vile’s hypnotic psychedelic Americana and Ethiopian keyboard legend Hailu Mergia’s entrancing polyrhythmic jazz, for instance – there is magic in the air.
It is fitting that the Garden Stage should close with perhaps the most magical show of all, courtesy of Aldous Harding. On the surface, her music is simple, tightly written acoustic folk augmented gently by her backing band, but her approach to that sound is utterly remarkable. She is blessed with a serene singing voice – something particularly apparent in a live setting – but boldly undercuts its natural beauty by flickering between different timbres, as if shapeshifting between characters before our eyes. It’s exactly the kind of performance that defines the excellently idiosyncratic End of the Road.