In its twelfth edition, the ever-expanding Dorset festival End of the Road opens out to include a Thursday evening line-up for only the second time. Obviously we miss that in its’ entirety due to 'travel issues' but are assured that, as could be predicted, Slowdive are immaculate (though some of us still harp on about that last glimmering Halstead solo record) and Bo Ningen a hefty, ever-challenging beast of brilliance. Probably.
Friday glistens under what we believe to be the earth’s solitary sun and our intrepid crew sample the earthy delights of South Carolina duo Shovels & Rope who either traverse the boundaries between trad country and multi-instrumental warped discord or dig a familiar White Stripes filled ditch for themselves depending on who you talk to. As we seem to be talking to me let’s go with the former. They are gracious, tenacious and tuneful plus they shake hands at the end which is classy as fuck.
British folk/prog ledge Michael Chapman, now 76 and still rocking out on the regs is first to suffer, if only slightly with the often drifting, muffled sound of the otherwise beautiful Garden Stage. His scratchy, low vocal is often sadly lost in a mix that only includes the vocal and a guitar, which is not ideal. He plays masterfully, however; intricate, winding, sliding blues and mesmeric acoustic runs that call up Dylan, Drake and whatever was playing in the background when Mark Kozelek invented fingerpicking. His humour is old school and endearing. He departs with 'It would have been really weird without you'. Strong observation.
In the warmth of the Tipi Tent little Welsh genius H. Hawkline pulls jerking, peaking melodies from a (figurative) magician’s hat while the crowd stare open-mouthed at the pure pop-psychedelic wonder in front of them. Renaissance man Huw Gwynfryn Evans (for it is he) massages lo-fi into high art and closes with recent single ‘Last Thing On Your Mind’, a tune so powerful and early-Smiths-B-Side-y as to buckle grown women at the very knee. The very knee.
We shall not dwell on Parquet Courts who remain the post-punk equivalent of the last drip of piss you simply cannot shake off. Instead we laser in on Atlanta’s Omni over at the delightfully dark Big Top, tossing out Minutemen-lapping lashings of punk-funk and understated jerk-rock under the guidance of former Deerhunter chap Frankie Broyles. It’s cool, dark-shirted stuff and apt to induce head-bobbing of the highest order.
Real Estate, back out in the open twilight of the Woods Stage are just bloody lovely indie turtles, aren’t they? Like getting a full body massage from Teenage Fanclub while The Shins feed you a really, really nice bag of sweeties, Martin Courtney’s retro beauts softly slack through their shining set bringing gentle delight to indie-kids both middle-aged and old.
The brutality of the headline set scheduling comes into play as we face a direct clash between Mac Demarco and Lucinda Williams. Like finely honed Navy Seals of rock we split the sets catching the first portion of Demarco’s off-puttingly slick jam and the latter part of Williams’ full-throated country rock-out. Demarco’s show opens brightly with an early offering of the remarkably ingratiating ‘Salad Days’ but it becomes clear that this show is engineered for the big stage and begins to lack in the ramshackle charm that made him so endearing in the first place. Sometimes getting better doesn’t necessarily make you, er, better. Over the way Williams belts out beauties like ‘Ghosts Of Highway 20’ solo acoustic (prefacing it with the statement that 'Not everyone from the South is a bad person'), which is so evocative as to feel a little like time travel and takes us on a career tour that, while occasionally veering into MOR, always stays the right side of honest and true.
Xylouris White is an entirely different kinda creature. Dirty Three master drummer/percussionist Jim White and laouto player/vocalist George Xylouris combine to bring an intense and intensely unique sound to the packed Tipi Tent - acoustic post-rock? Math-world? Straight up jazz? It’s impossible to put one’s finger anywhere but on the bafflingly brilliant beating heart of this overwhelming duo.
Before well-deserved bed we get a secret solo set from Swedish wonder Jens Lekman. Earlier in the evening he treated the masses to a full-band run-through of delights including ‘Hotwire the Ferris Wheel’ and a barnstorming, almost brave closing cover of Boyz II Men’s ‘End Of The Road’ (it was awesome, obviously) over at Garden Stage, now in more intimate surrounds he kindly gifts us ‘The Opposite Of Hallelujah’ and ‘Your Arms Around Me’ in delicate, stripped down form. His voice does that thing where it enters via the ears but makes its way directly to the heart. There may be tears. There may be hugs. It’s time to sleep.
Tulsa’s John Moreland is Saturday’s breakfast. We bask in both the sun and in his stoic, sad alt-country with songs like ‘3.59AM’ and lines such as “I’m thirsty but the holy keep on pissing in my well” that define a kind of spare, solitary, beaten but still fighting attitude that makes his music a wet-eyed inspiration.
Brunch consists of Tides Of Man whose triple-prong guitar post-prog (say it three times fast) recall Coheed and Cambria as often as Tortoise (in a good way) then a cheeky Piano Stage Q&A with an out-of-character Alex Cameron and of course his business partner and saxophonist Roy Molloy. Cameron offers 'it’s just who I am when I’m on a stage' regarding his musical persona, which is none too edifying, but later goes deep on the analysis, talking about how his real life experiences informed that persona and the moral standpoint the characters in his songs take. It’s good to have in the back pocket for his full band performance on Sunday…
Bill Ryder-Jones, despite being a founding member of The Coral, has a good deal to offer this afternoon - highlights like ‘Wild Swans’ from A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart and his fumbling humour (mistaking a cry of 'rock on' from an audience member as 'fuck off' being a delightful example) are charming, but ultimately it’s all a touch too predictable to be truly lovable.
Alvvays are borderline perfect aren’t they? They are though, seriously. Songs from their brand new album Antisocialites snuggle against flat-out bursts of brilliance from their debut and the likes of ‘Marry Me, Archie’ and the vaulting ‘Adult Diversion’ make for an early evening of pure pop that confirms Molly Rankin as an indiepop songwriter able to balance plaintive lyrics with joyous melody in a way rarely seen on the scene.
While Band of Horses are being proficient and tuneful in equal measure at the Woods Stage, Car Seat Headrest treat the keen Garden Stage crowd to the longest soundcheck in the history of humanity before powering through a set that’s hugely improved on their live outings of the past. Slimline bedsit-rock is transformed into a muscular, heavyweight proposition that, while making for a more immersive live proposition, may lead to occasional bouts of actual jamming. The 'hits' are present and correct (if elongated and treated to AC/DC endings) and the band get their End Of The Ro-ment - while inflatable killer whales dance and dive in the crowd a kid makes it to the stage, an occurrence so unexpected in this scenario that security have literally no idea what to do with her. Despite the band being rather dour, this is a fuck-ton o’ fun.
Father John Misty headlines a major festival for the first time tonight and does so in the style of a rock legend so inimitable that it’s impossible to believe that’s the case. Without wishing to digress into discussions of what he means, whether Father Post Irony is an act, whether all his songs sound pretty much the same on purpose, it’s enough to say that he is a legitimate pop star and not for any of the usual reasons - complexity, depth, purpose, strangeness, sexiness and silliness in fair measure combine to make up this lithe, lyrical faux-loser belting out apocalyptic anthems like ‘Bored In The USA’ and a beautifully reworked ‘Nancy From Now On’ to a genuinely adoring crowd. ‘Nothing Good Ever Happens At The God Damn Thirsty Crow’ stuns, ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’ soars and encore closer ‘The Ideal Husband’ takes it to the absolute fucking hinge as Tillman writhes and emotes under white light. To think - he’s only three records in…
Eat a dick, Sunday. It’s been pissing it down for hours and reticence to hit the outdoors quickly becomes a determination to see as many bands as humanly possible despite the sub-optimal conditions. An Australian with a bin-bag full of cans of Stella, soaked to the skin as he hands them out to friends like a booze-hound Santa serves as a sight enough to spur us on to festival victory.
Night Flowers play awkward, excellent dream pop with a utilitarian edge to a couple of hundred hardy, windswept types, tossing out brilliance like ‘Glow In The Dark’ with its beachcomber riff and lullaby vocals and ‘Embers’ which reimagines Cheap Trick’s ‘Surrender’ as a Miss Black America blinder. They shut up shop with the addictive, apt ‘Cruel Wind’ and everyone on site, hearts warmed (particularly by ever-grinning and waving Zeb, the first of today’s delightful drummers), heads into the Big Top for a burst of Toot Ard who offer a warming, welcoming take on cool jazz, reggae and dub that sees a tent of soaking people seeking solace transform into a dancing group of newfound fans.
Rolling Blackouts C.F further the tradition of uniquely Australian pop bands like The Church and Go-Betweens interweaving triple-vocalist melodies with chirping guitar lines. Bleak but beautiful, ‘Colours Run’ sounds like an established Eighties anthem and the disarming ‘Fountain Of Good Fortune’ reminds us that there’s still much to draw from what is often treated as a stagnant pool of inspiration.
With Nadia Reid’s Tipi set inaccessible due to bastards wanting to get out of the rain, we’re reduced to Timber Timbre making the best of minimal attendance at Garden. They do their southern gothic thing extremely well - a rumbling, sometimes alarming blend of David Lynch-isms and locked down blues that suits the anger of the skies.
We venture into the forest once more and have our fortune told by a stuffed cat. It’s a secret so don’t ask.
Momentarily, Alex Cameron is on fine form flying through hilarious hits like ‘The Comeback’ and ‘Real Bad Lookin’ (“Who the hell are you to tell me I can’t leave my kid in the car?”) and there’s clearly a crowd connection here that surprises - for a career built on a character doused in lounge-lizard failure, Cameron (whichever version of him this may be) sure seems to be a popular guy.
Alison Crutchfield & The Fizz offer delectable tracks from her recent Merge record Tourist In This Town alongside Swearin’ classics like ‘Kenosha’ (Yay!) while we negotiate a place to sit that doesn’t involve a piled-high wheelie-bin falling on our heads. It’s a precarious, emotional set for us all.
The Spook School, from Edinburgh, are simply one of the best bands you’ll see right now. Somewhere between CBBC and Revolution DIY they’ve created a kind of empowered, empowering and utterly masterful strand of pop that explores gender and sexuality in an intelligent, genuinely fun and playful way. Their drummer brings the enthusiasm of a TV presenter to a rock show that amuses and engages the whole room. At once brattish, intellectual and tuneful this 'bloody queer band' as they refer to themselves this afternoon are an exquisite, provocative delight. Happily they’ll be back around on tour with Diet Cig soon so you’ll have further chance to sample their treasures such as the charged ‘Burn Masculinity’ and the mournful, hopeful ‘I’ll Be Honest’.
With no let-up in sight weather-wise and the underfoot conditions deteriorating by the minute we trudge across site to Waxahatchee, the collective Crutchfields stamping ownership on the fest with many a tender lyric and shuddering melody. It’s outstanding to see this band climbing up the bill and dominating a huge stage with such style and though it’s at times hard to watch (stupid, stupid emotions) it’s an immeasurably satisfying experience.
King Khan & The Shrines straddle the space between Rocket From The Crypt and James Brown - a space you never knew needed filling until Khan, resplendent in ass-less lycra took to the stage for a set of soulful garage rock that once again revives the remaining crowd.
Perfume Genius has moved on pretty considerably since the days of playing brief but beautiful solo sets at small London churches and tonight he’s in full performance mode backed by a superb band that punctuates his every lyrical and physical nuance. ‘Hood’ remains a suburban anthem of alienation and lust, rousing even as it breaks hearts and closer ‘Queer’ is, evidently, the only kind of arena rock musicians should be allowed to make - vast, self-important and thunderously powerful. It’s a headline set in all but name and proves a spectacular Sunday peak.
Bill Callahan, low key, lo-fi legend brings out Smog classics like ‘Dress Sexy At My Funeral’ and the miraculous ‘Let Me See The Colts’ as an extremely drunk man screams at the top of his voice, overwhelmed, occasionally able to utter a garbled version of the words ‘Bill Callahan’ and ‘Smog’. Cool. Callahan, sparkly of shirt and sonorous of tone mines emotion with subtlety and approaches tunes with an admirable hesitation that draws a die-hard audience ever closer to his excellence.
The Jesus and Mary Chain are something else. ‘Head On’, ‘Far Gone and Out’, ‘Some Candy Talking’ and ‘Just Like Honey’ are starburst highlights in a set of psychedelic sonic boom. We declare them the shoegaze Ramones, no, the Beach Boys Nine Inch Nails, no….something else. Something other. Something legendary and truly spectacular. They’re dead good.
It’s left to the incomparable Japandroids to wrap things up for us at the Big Top. Despite egregious sound failures (half the speakers in the room refuse to ignite for more than 1/3 of a solitary song) this pair of Springsteen obsessed speed-punks dive headlong through a set of youth anthems so brilliant, so fuck-you stupid as for it to be impossible not to dance, to smile, to raise your fist in dumb, loving, rock n’ roll optimism. ‘Young Hearts Spark Fire’ is still the best song to experience live over the last few years and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.
While neglecting to purchase any fresh bread from the on-site artisan bakery or enter the healing zone may seem a festival failure to some, we slump into sleep sated purely by awesome music, wonderful company and, of course, the occasional fortune telling kitty. Well played once more, End Of The Road, well played.