End of the Road review – intimate, adventurous fest steals the summer

Larmer Tree Gardens, Wiltshire
In lieu of glittery students, the esoteric festival’s lineup does the sparkling – from Vampire Weekend’s afro-indie hits to St Vincent’s visceral synth-rock

End of the Road is the sophisticated family camp-out where herds of Pitchfolk singer-songwriters roam wild and inventive alt-rockers scare the peacocks. Out in the woods there’s competitive croquet, grunge bingo and a hidden piano stage where the stars of the weekend play inaudible secret sets. Across the compact main site, meanwhile, a refined esoterica reigns.

The haunting Soccer Mommy is Juliana Hatfield meets Red House Painters. Gwenno twirls, sprite-like, through spectral synth-folk tunes sung in Welsh and Cornish. Julia Holter summons a folk sea-squall. The Low Anthem build cacophonies of sawed violin and clawed guitar, then play a surf-pop song about plankton.

There’s a distinct shortage of glittery students here, but End of the Road’s spirit of intimacy and adventure remains lustrous, perfectly encapsulated in Friday’s headliners. St Vincent takes the Woods stage in a red plastic minidress with a full band line-up, for a set of visceral synth-rock perfectly poised between art and accessibility. Even if it’s intended as a cold satire on traditional rock shows, with its minimal marionette choreography and prowling guitar roadie, it’s an inspired blast; Los Ageless could be ELO’s lost Bond theme, Cruel an AI Abba. Duck across to the Garden stage, though, and Jeff Tweedy is delighting the faithful with phenomenal acoustic outtakes from his Wilco, Uncle Tupelo and solo catalogue. It’s simplicity versus invention; both quintessentially End of the Road, both utterly magical.

Charlie Steen of Shame.
‘Crowd-surfing topless, screaming “bathe me in blood!’: Charlie Steen of Shame. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

Gruff Rhys re-fashions himself as a campfire Bacharach singing lounge pop fancies about climate change and the alt-right as though enquiring the way to San Jose. Likewise Ezra Furman, the fabulous retro pop visionary with the voice of a drunk Muppet, battering 50s rock’n’roll into 21st-century shapes both feverish and touching. Others arrive with subversion in mind. South London’s gristle rockers are here in force: Fat White Family appal Friday with their lascivious rock’n’roll sludge, by turns pervert prom band and homeless Showaddywaddy. Then Shame befoul early 90s baggy rock on Saturday, crowd-surfing topless, screaming “bathe me in blood!” and performing orangutan dance moves that make Theresa May look like a Strictly winner.

With Iceage and woke punks du jour Idles joining the charge on Sunday, a vibrant, grotty new rock scene coheres at EOTR 2018. After that lightning has been bottled, Sunday night repeats Friday’s trick: on the Woods stage, Feist spools out bewitching space folk with such charm that she can sing at someone in the front row to stop filming the set without a trace of diva, while in the Garden, White Denim are busy prising open country rock’s third eye.

Saturday’s Vampire Weekend headline set, meanwhile, ensures End of the Road steals the summer. Fourth album still under wraps – “It’s done,” Ezra Koenig says – they hammer out joyous afro-indie hits like diamonds prised from Paul Simon’s shoes, and, in the likes of Diane Young, unleash force-10 rock’n’roll. A band playful enough to throw in haunted harpsichord laments (Step) and open letters to God sung largely in munchkin (Ya Hey), they’re in their element here, covering Peter Gabriel’s peerless Solsbury Hill midway through Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and inviting crowd members onstage to dance to frantic finale Walcott, one popping wheelies in a wheelchair. An unforgettable one for The Road.


Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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