End Of The Road Festival, Larmer Tree Gardens
2th-5th Sep 2021
Celebrating its 15th anniversary, End Of The Road festival presents the potential of the British music scene in the post-Brexit reality.
It is accepted as part of the new normal that most anniversaries and celebrations scheduled for 2020 are automatically shifted to 2021. Marking the beginning of the Indian summer, the jubilee edition of End Of The Road is undoubtedly a culmination of the busy festival season. Featuring over a hundred bands, the event presents a highly attractive line-up, with marquee names as well as rising artists.
Set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Larmer Tree Gardens casts a spell. Fittingly, the place bears the name of a laurel tree that possibly marked the boundary between Dorset and Wiltshire. It’s here, amidst mighty oaks and blooming rhododendrons, that the owner of the estate, Augustus Lane Fox, receives his guests and encourages them to indulge in frivolous pleasures of countryside entertainment. There used to be a racecourse and bowling green. Some of the original estate’s pavilions, such as the Roman Temple and the General’s Room, have been preserved. These remnants of the Victorian age, as well as peacocks casually strolling around the area, offer a glimpse of paradise – probably an impression that Mr Lane Fox attempted to evoke in his guests.
Although the premises of Larmer Tree Gardens are accessible to the public, there is a feeling that this place speaks to a particular group of visitors. If not the place itself then definitely the festival. Quite a few attendees admitted that they have been coming to the event for years. One of the festival stewards disclosed that this is possibly the reason why queues to coffee shops on the site are so long – “Because regulars prefer to buy drinks from their favourite stalls”. Fair enough. Hypothetically, the proportion of regulars surpassing the number of newcomers also explains why festival programmes cost £10. Few would buy it for that price.
Adjoining the Festival, the camping area seems as huge as Wembley Stadium (actually bigger). It takes roughly 10-15 minutes to walk from the remote corner to the nearest stage. The diffused location of toilets and showers makes navigation slightly loopier. Luckily, the weather doesn’t put spokes in the wheels and the open space of soil and grass doesn’t turn to mud.
However, the boutique festival line-up outbalances any drawbacks of the camping experience. Each venue is enticing, whether it’s a circus-esque Big Top, military tent-looking tipi or remote summer-camp-like Talking Heads.
Opening the festival on the main Woods stage, Japanese Kikagaku Moyo are among the few foreign collectives at the Festival. While their records evoke associations with contemporary 70s stylists, e.g. Tame Impala and Khruangbin, their live performance reveals other facets of the musical kaleidoscope. Featuring a sitar and several peculiar exotic percussion instruments, the collective creates a whirlpool of psychedelia peppered with oriental motifs. Their diligence brings to mind Ryley Walker – fair enough, Kikagaku Moya collaborated with the American songwriter earlier this year.
It’s now tradition that End of the Road begins with an immersive performance by a venerable band. The earlier editions in 2019, 2018 and 2017 kicked off with Spiritualized, Yo La Tengo and Slowdive respectively. This year, the open-air has Stereolab on the first day’s bill. Clearly happy to resume the festival routine, the band generously lavishes sonic layers of the earlier material from Refried Ectoplasm and Switch On Part 1. Although not on the initial setlist, Super-Electric is performed – a 15-minute cathartic dive into the buzz produced by Tim Gane’s guitar and keyboards. Lætitia Sadier refers to the experience of getting back to playing live as “overwhelmingly exciting”. The pleasure is, indeed, mutual. Other songs bring up the retrospective view on the band’s creative span over the late 90s up to Margerine Eclipse.
Peacocks wander around the festival area as if they are keepers of the place. Walking near to the Garden stage, they contribute to the escapist feeling and provide the music with fitting vibes. Aoife Nessa Frances and her band perform here, facing the lawn encircled by perfectly shaped bush trees. With her name revealing Irish origin, she plays songs that seem to emerge from the depth of folklore mentality. The wistful tunes are enveloped in alluring sonic texture with a twist of psychedelia. Soft drum patterns and immersive sound of keyboards add absorbing quality to the music.
On the smaller Talking Heads stage, John Francis Flynn introduces Irish folk in its purest form. Playing his double flute, he hypnotises the audience. Sedative pastoral scenes with grazing sheep at the back of the stage seem to illustrate the minimalist folk soundscape.
With its country and folk background, the Festival provides a fitting venue for like-minded artists. The legend of traditional English music, Shirley Collins, performs with the Lodestar band at the Garden stage. Sitting amidst her fellow musicians and cooling herself with a fan, the singer has the grace of a royal. She keeps calm and carries on with gentle smiles and jokes to encourage her band when the soundcheck goes longer than expected. Once everything is sorted, they start with May Carol. Its cascading melody flows as if it were a rivulet, changing course to a darker instrumental part and then going back to the initial verse-chorus structure. The subtle string arrangement and velvety alto vocals of Collins invoke spirits of the land. The true meaning of folk music – magic in action.
In a similar vein, Jonny Greenwood, Kat Tinker and 12 Ensemble spin the thread of music, seemingly possessing supernatural qualities. Three Miniatures From Water is occasionally interspersed with oriental ringing sounds of tanpura and dripping-water-like piano. A master of ethereal soundscapes, Greenwood also co-curated the film programme at the Festival. One of the films featured on his list is Midsommar, a hugely overwhelming folk horror with a sinister yet brilliant soundtrack by The Haxan Cloud. “This film got under my skin narratively as well as musically – it is a perfect film to see in the woods late at night”, comments Jonny in liner notes. Well, he’s got a point.
Playing at Big Top, Mancunians W.H.Lung create a different kind of tension. With pulsating arpeggios and frenetic rhythmic patterns of their new track Pearl In The Palm, they elicit dance movements from the drowsiest spectators. By the end of the set, one might wonder whether the circus tent is about to explode.
End Of The Road seems to aim at a wider target group by presenting acts of a different calibre. Uniting artists of various scales, from Damon Albarn and recent Mercury winner Arlo Parks to stylists like Jane Weaver and Field Music, the Festival offers an unbeatable line-up. Predominantly British, it displays the great potential of the local music scene. At a time when international tours are suspended due to Brexit or COVID, this event looks and feels reassuring.
All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found in her author’s archive.