Larmer Tree Gardens, Wiltshire
Words: Danny Wright and Thomas Frost
Occupying the last days of summer – from the end of August to early September – End of the Road (EOTR) is a meticulously-curated, high-quality event that usually marks the end of a long season of festivals. The energy is different in 2021, however, as EOTR celebrates its 15th anniversary and festival season has just begun for many people. Celebration, here, is the prevailing mood, mixed with a desire to soak up the beautiful surroundings of the Larmer Tree Gardens (which come with its in-house residents: the Larmer Tree peacocks). It’s a beguiling setting made all the more potent by the sheer bewilderment that we can do this again.
Musically, EOTR effortlessly meanders from lilting afternoon strings and song to gnarled punk in a compact festival site that makes watching a large programme of music quite simple. In equal measure, you can while away an afternoon in the woods and listen to talks from some of the performers, indulge in some tarot, play a variety of games or catch intimate and unscheduled performances. It’s all incredibly pleasant, aesthetically varied and captures a spirit that is matched by the unflinchingly sunny weather across the weekend.
We’re eased into the festival on the Thursday night with Stereolab performing a career-spanning set; their mix of lounge-pop, punk, motorik rhythms and avant-garde pop culminating with a dizzying run of Super-Electric, Rainbo Conversation and John Cage Bubblegum – all of which underline what a superb band they are.
The Friday is about jumping between stages. There’s the life-affirming tales of Katy J Pearson, the twisted post-punk of Modern Woman and the melancholic poetry of Arlo Parks. But it’s left to veteran indie acts to see us home: Damon Albarn’s set of slow-burning solo tracks and minimalist, introspective new songs mean the crowd take a while to warm up; but a sparse, heartbreaking Melancholy Hill, a sublime Out of Time and festival stealing This is a Low serenade us as the sun dips behind the horizon. When you need a party, you’re in safe hands with Hot Chip. And they oblige with a seamless set of bangers that barely allow you to pause for breath. Every song bounces, ready-made for nights like this. There’s the anthemic Positive, an elastic version of Ready for the Floor and they also throw in a blistering cover of the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage before ending with an emotive rendition of Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark. “It must feel good to be around people again,” says guitarist Al Doyle, surveying the crowd. It really does.
Squid steal the show on Saturday. The stunning setting of the Garden stage lends itself to the fragility and wonder of Jonny Greenwood’s headline set of film scores and the bizarro synth-cum-tuba-pop of Anna Meredith (complete with a Metallica cover). But the location is more aptly suited to the new Warp upstarts, who play a set that leans on latest album Bright Green Field, but borrows from their numerous EP releases to date. Jerking from pop-hooks to jarring blasts of synth, to tracks that build to their often very noisy apex – drummer and lead singer Ollie Judge, an EOTR regular, beams throughout – this feels like the kind of stage on which they now belong. Equally as noisy, The Comet is Coming provide a much-needed blast of main stage energy before we head out for the night. Soundtracked by Auntie Flo’s Big Top DJ set – all techno classics and Afrobeats – we finish the night with the techno-punk distortion of Giant Swan who are special unannounced guests and promptly rip the place up.
Sunday’s haze is permeated by a series of some of the best vocal talents around, from the post-punk barbs of Billy Nomates, to the inert growl of headliner King Krule – whose main stage set showcases a musical universe that has exponentially expanded. Earlier, Little Simz provided, if any more evidence was needed, what an integral part of British music culture she has become, her back catalogue standing tall in the Sunday sunshine and flanked by a full band; an act who seems to grow in stature with every release.
The weekend climaxes with Dry Cleaning in The Big Top; Florence Shaw’s incredible narratives are brought to life in the live arena with her unflinching, sardonic lyrics taken from the group’s brilliant debut New Long Leg.
Finally, there’s a much welcomed return from Dublin noise makers Girl Band, who cap the weekend. There’s a sigh of relief from the group – relief that the festival actually happened. As a result, they capture an excited and respectful reverence from the audience – including the peacocks.