End of the Road review – irony versus revolution in majestic musical battle

Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset
Father John Misty’s show-stealing stagecraft crowned a brilliantly curated weekend of rock-adjacent acts – from Parquet Courts’ prickly postpunk to Slowdive’s shoegaze – under Dorset’s starry skies

‘So how many of you have visited the existential cafe?” Father John Misty, fountain of surrealist stage banter, is working his charms on the End of the Road crowd. “We’ll be there later,” he adds. “I’m doing a seminar on alpaca shaving.” In his previous incarnation as an emotionally fragile singer-songwriter, Josh Tillman would have made a solid afternoon fixture on a woodland stage at this beloved Wiltshire festival. Reborn as Father John Misty, he’s a show-stealer: a theatrical cynic and apocalyptic oracle of indeterminate sincerity. He’s also incorrigibly irreverent, and likely the festival season’s only headliner to introduce a rousing folk-rock anthem with a rambling ode to Gore-Tex boots.

The anthem in question, While You’re Smiling and Astride Me, spotlights Tillman’s penchant for melodramatic self-satire (“You see me as I am, it’s true / Aimless fake drifter and the horny manchild momma’s boy to boot”), though not all his lines land. One effect of his impassioned irony is that, when he really goes for it, all beseeching arms and grandiose postures, you don’t always go with him.

A more grounded take on anti-entertainment comes from Mac DeMarco, whose deliciously nonchalant set smirks at the rituals of festival headlining. “The next one’s a love song,” he says, belching, before No Other Heart. He smokes and swigs whiskey from the bottle, but like Tillman, DeMarco is a high-functioning ironist. He conceals real melancholy beneath performative silliness, and sympathetic listeners will recognise his gimmicks – crowdsurfing halfway across the site, histrionically covering Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles – as sincere bids to fend off ennui with rock-jester antics.

Mac DeMarco at End of the Road festival.
Rock-jester Mac DeMarco at End of the Road festival. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

For those of a loftier disposition, Slowdive headline Thursday with a set that spans decades but happily blurs into an interstellar mush. Their shoegaze dreamscapes feel less like formed songs than celestial matter speeding across the universe, and only a downtempo Sugar for the Pill threatens to lose a crowd transfixed under the kind of starry skies delay pedals were made for.

Their epic majesty stands out at a festival that’s otherwise proudly understated, both in its clientele (save for the odd gilet, ostentatious garb is mostly reserved for the roaming peacocks) and reliably savvy curation. Julie Byrne’s too-brief set – cut shorter still by technical hiccups – is sublime, full of Leonard Cohen-esque guitar figures and melodies that flutter like autumn leaves; Aldous Harding carves out a more shadowy alcove, for reverb-enshrined folk that conjures ornate gloom but few epiphanies.

The unenchanted migrate to the main stage for Parquet Courts, whose sharp and cynical postpunk finds an enjoyably incongruous backdrop in Dorset’s rolling hills. Their “hits medley” encourages moshing teens in novelty shades to conduct a flurry of baptisms by lager, while a ferocious Master of My Craft heralds the perfectly End of the Road scene of beer cans and somebody’s son alternately being tossed into the air.

“Take it from us Americans: don’t let fascism slip into your life easily,” is their frontman Andrew Savage’s closing statement, one of many nods here to the inescapable bleakness of 2017: Sinkane interrupts his afro-rock revelry to acknowledge a “deplorable time for the world”, the peerlessly charismatic Nadine Shah rues rising nationalism (“We’re all immigrants; that’s why you’re all so good-looking.”) and even Kelly Lee Owens, whose recent debut basks in daydreamy techno, urges a tent packed with early-afternoon ravers to “be the fucking revolution – let’s wake up.”

Aldous Harding at End of the Road festival.
Reverb-enshrined folk … Aldous Harding at End of the Road festival. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

In fact, the Welsh producer is the unexpected festival highlight. Trancelike on record, she’s transformed live into a cyclone of hair-flinging yelps and drumstick twirls, with an octopus-like command of assorted drum pads and samplers. She underscores the curators’ considerable aptitude for rock-adjacent bookings: Moses Sumney’s haunted soul stirs Garden Stage denizens from mid-afternoon naps, while Blanck Mass provides bass-loaded, synth-noise enemas to obliterate the Sunday afternoon blues.

The last day submits to torrential lashings of rain, but leave the rescue operation to Perfume Genius, whose intoxicating mix of slow-burning synthpop and PVC-clad fabulousness can make a smoky ballad weigh a ton. Midsize festivals can often give a leg up to would-be superstars, and here the punters’ goodwill is such that, even when straggling waifs fail to impress – the flamboyantly mediocre Lemon Twigs, for instance – it’s hard not to side with them.

The reunited Jesus and Mary Chain still sound like a rogue Phil Spector boyband fronted by a teen Lou Reed – and that’s still a pretty good thing – but the final night belongs to Bill Callahan, the finest and only grandmaster of deadpan country for introverts. Unlike his main-stage counterparts, Callahan is a legacy artist who remains atop his game: his poignant mix of soul and stoicism mingles with commiseration for his drenched fans, as he plays benevolent leader to a field of attentive eyes and ears. It’s a fitting end to a quietly charming festival where cults become congregations.


Jazz Monroe

The GuardianTramp

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