As Britain’s most reliably brilliant midsize festival, End of the Road has grown up by refusing to expand. Without bland corporate sponsorship or dehumanising big screens flanking its main stages, it is defined by its oddball community, a circus of hedonists, eccentrics and beleaguered parents whose buggies clog paths as toddlers gawp at the peacocks. Hidden sculptures and carved tree trunks give the small site an otherworldly forcefield; the stranger who held forth on avant-garde mixology around the campfire will unfailingly reappear one morning, perhaps during your recuperative stroll around the beekeeping enclosure. It is, for all its twee nooks and middle-class crannies, a winning mix of bacchanalia and earthy mysticism.
Therein lies the EOTR magic, but nobody told Yves Tumor, who prowls the fogged-out Big Top on Friday in a silk stole and thigh-high boots. “I drove down way too many little-ass roads,” Tumor hisses theatrically, turning the sound monitors towards the crowd, “for this shit not to be loud enough.” A primal squall erupts – crashing R&B blown out by industrial beats. After 45 captivating minutes – partly spent thrashing about in the front row – Tumor announces: “Whoever stole my scarf, you better hide that shit because I’m gonna kill you.” They swan off-stage, scooping up the hastily returned scarf along the way.
The headliners hew more closely to the fest’s understated roots. Jason Pierce mostly performs from the side of the stage, as if Spiritualized’s rock hymns had drained his bones and left behind an empty vessel. Courtney Barnett honours her punk raconteur background, helming a grungy trio that electrifies her hyper-observant yarns. And Metronomy’s disco lights and falsetto singalongs illuminate a suitably verdant Woods stage.
Those seeking grandiosity get their neo-soul fill from Michael Kiwanuka, but a detour to a Late Junction-curated stage ups the ante, with technomancer BodyVice and her gagged dancer pogoing around a giant prop of a human spine. Esoterica abounds: cellist Oliver Coates looks like a nervous Edwardian choirboy but, performing in front of a cloaked statue apparently representing death, his modern classical works marvels. Bridging the arty and incendiary is Mitski. She performs conceptual dance around a simple table while belting out anthems for twentysomethings that could start riots. From her poise emerges a latent fury: during Geyser she topples her desk prop, then freezes with longing and violently grapples with the table’s legs.
Sunday corrals rising rockers Fontaines DC, surprise guests Shame and the doomier Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, all young men of great intensity, though none has the flair of on-form Deerhunter, Bradford Cox vamping through cult classics from across the Atlanta band’s career. Squid’s playful abandon is a tonic to their brawnier contemporaries, while Serpentwithfeet’s wispy melisma and baroque R&B exude a more spiritual intensity.
Night descends and Jarvis Cocker, ever the picture of shaggy charisma, tumbles on stage in a stuffy blazer, waggling his arms like a bad magician or an excellent supply teacher. He sashays through anthems old and new, then warns of our return to reality. “But that’s tomorrow,” he says, introducing his 2009 album’s title track: “And we shouldn’t get bogged down in … Further Complications.”
The portal between real life and the dreamland is Lonnie Holley, who conjures atomised jazz alongside a programmer who lays their synths on a Twister mat. The Alabama artist reprehends the tyranny of time, ego and America in a weathered growl, dreaming up poetry on topics such as the Amazon rainforest fire. “We’ll see you in the twilight zone, humans,” Holley concludes. Among End of the Road’s dreamy congregation, it’s as if we’ve already made it.