End of the Road Festival 2016 review, best bands and what we learnt from Larmer Tree Gardens

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Bill Ryder-Jones performing on the piano stage at End of the Road (photo from End of the Road Facebook page)

As End of the Road Festival goes from strength to strength, Getintothis’ Paul Higham presents his top picks from this year’s festival.

Last year End of the Road Festival celebrated its tenth anniversary with an eye-catching array of talents within its line-up. This year felt, on the face of it, slightly underwhelming by comparison. Animal Collective, Bat For Lashes and Joanna Newsom didn’t, for some, have the same allure as Tame Impala, Sufjan Stevens and The War on Drugs.

Yet the festival continues to sell-out each year and justifiably thrives. In many ways entering middle age has helped. It has self belief and a sureness, an outward confidence that is reflected in the trust and faith its devotees place in it. So what if the headliners don’t immediately appeal, you just know that there will be many sources of pleasure lower down the bill.

It is this feeling of trust that makes so many return year on year. They have long since by-passed initial teething problems, adolescent identity crises have been overcome and End of the Road now proudly asserts its own identity and vision.

It has long since foregone any feeling that it is an Americana or Folk dominated festival. It caters for the broad spectrum of musical tastes – although perhaps more dance oriented or electronic-based acts would serve only to further enhance – and always feels impeccably curated, with both care and sincerity. Where with some festivals the line-ups make little sense giving indication that they have been thrown together in a blind panic at having to organise a festival, with End of the Road you sense it is the music that the organisers themselves like and love. It is an invitation to share in someone’s musical discoveries and long-held loves.

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Animal Collective headlining the Woods Stage (photo by Sonny Malhotra from End of the Road Facebook page)

The consequence is that each stage has its own feel and character, reflected in its situation and the performers. It is helped that the Garden Stage is one of the most beautiful stages on the festival circuit. Placed amid a sea of verdant foliage and Victorian follies, it is the perfect place to lounge and enjoy the music. Equally the Big Top has become the go-to stage for the louder and gnarlier acts, a home from home for all things experimental. The expanded Tipi tent has sacrificed some of its previous intimacy yet allows more people to see the quieter and often quirkily idiosyncratic acts cherry-picked by the organisers.

The recurring criticism is the Woods Stage. Necessary to allow the festival to expand it feels out of character and its size and location means the sense of communality between artist and festival-goer is diminished. In a straight fight the Garden Stage wins out every time, which meant that the jitterbug psychedelic experiments of Animal Collective were passed over in favour of the sublime charms of Cat Power, who excelled despite obvious nerves and initial uncertainty. Her cover of Nico‘s These Days proved a stand-out, spine-tingling Friday-night-beneath-the-stars moment.

Whatever quibbles over the merits of the headline acts, it is noted that this is a festival that strives to put female artists on an equal billing as their male counterparts. Selection seems based on merit alone, proving any suggestion that male headline acts are needed to sell-out a festival to be entirely anachronistic. Booking Bat For Lashes, Joanna Newsom and Cat Power to headline exemplifies the festival’s confidence but, crucially, offers a template that others can follow. Let’s hope the trend catches on and female acts are given a billing commensurate with their musical talent.

If there was one major moan at the festival it took aim at Joanna Newsom. Not wanting to dilute the memory of her breathtaking performance at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall earlier this year we had long decided to forego her charms in favour of ensuring a prime spec, front and centre, for Teenage Fanclub. Yet for many the frankly ludicrous decision to effectively switch off the festival in favour of Newsom was a step too far.

No other acts were allowed to play at at the same time as her. This meant that the explosively violent set by Thee Oh Sees, the best of the weekend by a stretch and then some, obliterated the Garden Stage at too early an hour while The Big Top was left eerily empty and faraway DJ sets were cancelled. This apparently was at the insistence of Newsom herself and resulted in even the music at the Cider Bus (a focal point of the festival and a place to mill, congregate and make merry) falling deathly silent. When queuing for a late-night pizza at the exceptional Pizza Tabun it was remarked that the usual music had been turned off, “blame Joanna Nuisance” came the wisecracking reply.

Yet in the context of a terrific weekend this could only really be described as a minor quibble. Music started early this year, with the expansive Woods Stage opening on a Thursday night for performances by Teleman and The Shins, a treat to see the latter who had not played live for a few years, yet it was barely noticeable in a well-received performance. In the Tipi tent Yak served up a mighty racket that made us, only temporarily, forget that they wear their influences all too visibly on their sleeves. In the first of many weekend performances ultimate showman Ezra Furman entertained with a rambunctious covers set featuring cuts as diverse as Madonna‘s Like a Virgin and Bruce Springsteen‘s The Promised Land.

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Ezra Furman playing a secret set on the piano stage (photo by Rachel Juarez-Carr from End of the Road Facebook page)

This year festival organisers had handed over responsibility for curating the Big Top to Loud & Quiet, Line of Best Fit and Uncut and in many respects this was where the more unusual and eye-catching acts played. Notable performances from Throws, Weaves and Pacosan proved that the festival remains capable of unearthing some choice acts.

Throws are formed by Tunng co-founders Mike Lindsay and Sam Genders and dextrously blend electro-melodies with strident guitar pop. This was a left-field masterclass in weird and strange alt-pop that, having been set to tape in Reykjavik, owed much to its Icelandic setting. Weaves were one of the more unusual bands of the weekend. Hailing from Toronto theirs is an artful blend of post-punk with elements of soul and jazz thrown into the mix. Vocalist Jasmyn Burke is possessed of a commanding presence and uses clipped delivery to great effect that complements the band’s rounded yet angular delivery that strongly alluded to The Telescopes.

We only caught the very end of Pacosan‘s set as they opened the festival on Friday morning in the Big Top yet immediately we wished that we’d arrived earlier. The amiable Spaniards fuse electronica and psychedelia into compelling waves of noise that bridges the gap between swirling psychedelia and Eurotrash pop. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

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Garden Stage highlights were never far away. Eleanor Friedberger revealed every ounce of her classy New York cool, refusing to be flustered even when presented with a cake to mark her 40th birthday. Meilyr Jones made all forget the persistent rain that for a time threatened to overwhelm on Saturday with a performance full of panache and exaggeratedly exuberant excess. Sunday afternoon brought, for a time, some much-needed sun that coaxed out the best in Imarhan and Bill Ryder-Jones.

Imarhan proved their Philharmonic Music Room set to be no one-off with a relentless psychedelic onslaught that married the traditional with the modern while Bill and his band just seem to get better. In relaxed and engaging mood, Bill toyed gently with an eager crowd in his inimitably deadpan way as he moved effortlessly between the tender and affecting and the squallingly raucous. Two to Birkenhead showed his band at their very best, delivered seemingly with a fistful of extra fuzz, perhaps in a nod to Thurston Moore who would follow later in the day.

There are some stages that bring out the very best in bands, places that spur them on to deliver that extra ten percent. The Garden Stage is one such place, and in Ezra Furman and Thee Oh Sees, this year it hosted two of the finest performances ever to grace its stage.

The former revelled in his showmanship yet revealed a vulnerability and a fragility while his lyrics embody a heartfelt sincerity as he confronts big issues that matter to a lot of people in attendance. It is often the bond between crowd and performer that makes performances feel special. Here the easily reciprocated devotion felt warm and heartfelt while the theatrics during the spirited encore performance of Jackie Wilson‘s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher when a not really reluctant Ezra was dragged back to continue performing provided an authentic festival moment.

If anyone is yet to see Thee Oh Sees in their current incarnation then you simply must remedy that as soon as possible. The two-drummer good stage set up is as primally visceral as music can be. Where many try to imitate few, nay nobody, is capable of matching John Dwyer as bolts of energy are fired with precision and purpose into an expectant crowd that quickly became a seething pit of violent hedonism. From start to end it was unrelenting, unforgiving and uncontrollable. They are a force of nature, wild and free, and have to be seen to be truly believed.

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Thee Oh Sees headlining The Garden Stage (photo by Rachel Juarez-Carr from End of the Road Facebook page)

A lot of the best things at End of the Road are often in the secret set slots. Usually an opportunity to see bands or acts that have played earlier in the day in the more intimate setting of the Tipi stage, this year was slightly different. The late night Saturday headline slot in the Big Top had not been announced, although it quickly became common knowledge that it would be Wild Beasts. Trooping over after the close of Ezra Furman‘s set, we found the Cumbrians in their best form for years. A new found muscularity has emboldened their live show transforming the big top into a seedy red-drenched den. A perfect marriage of precision and sultry atmospherics this set signalled a startling return to form.

What makes End of the Road so special is its organisation, its care and its know-how borne out of many years’  experience. Sometimes it’s getting the small details right that really matters and the festival time and again does this so well. No queues on arrival or on exit, a relaxed approach to people bringing their own refreshments and sensitive and not overbearing stewarding make for a easy vibe and a trouble free atmosphere. As an aside, although normally blessed with fine late-summer weather this year was atypically wet. Subtle and well communicated changes in relocating comedy stages and DJ sets were all aimed to ensuring the experience was the best it could be. As we said, it is often the little things.

As is customary we end with a top six, but with a difference. It isn’t the absolute best six things from the festival else Thee Oh Sees and Bill Ryder-Jones would surely feature; rather it is six acts we’d like to recommend to you from this year’s festival as warranting further investigation and more than a cursory listen.

An End of the Road 2016 top six

Anna Meredith

Scottish one-time classical composer has turned her back on the rarefied snobbery of the classical music community to follow her populist inclinations. And boy does it look like a good career move. In marrying electronica with glorious techno beats, Meredith makes for a relentless aural assault that feels both dangerously inaccessible and wonderfully vibrant and engaging. It is loud and industrial with duelling cellists competing over thunderous beats and cacophonous tuba all the while sounding glorious in its pummelling intensity. A real treat.

Jenny Hval

Hands down the most off-the-wall performance at this year’s End of the Road, this was as much a piece of avant grade performance art as it was music. Featuring daubs of blood-red lipstick, maniacal hair cutting and flamboyant robe-swishing dance routines it was an acquired taste while offering something of a commentary on feminism, socialism and Hval‘s own distinctive outlooks. This was clearly a difficult set and it certainly divided the crowd, yet for those who remained it was nothing short of compelling and transfixing and ultimately there was a rawness and a humanity pointing sharply to the sincere rather than the affected. Her new album Blood Bitch is due for release on September 30 and will be eagerly awaited.

Shopping

Let’s set the record straight: Shopping break little in the way of new ground. This is a performance mined straight from the early 1980s, full of funkily rhythmic bass-lines, clipped angular guitar riffs and syncopated beats. Normally music of such obvious derivation would send us rushing to the exits in search of something fresh and modern. But not this time. Shopping deliver with such energy and exuberance that makes it feel fresh and vital; there’s an urgent energy and accomplished musicianship that carries the band high beyond the reach of any snootily dismissive sneering. This was a tight-as-a-nut set comprehensively nailed and surely one of the standout sets of the weekend.

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The Garden (photo by Nick Helderman from End of the Road Facebook page)

The Garden

Here’s a question for you all. Has the drum-guitar duo been done to death in recent years with little new to be added? We’re confident that most would answer ‘yes’ and we would be inclined to agree that the once exciting and raw format has become tired and dated. That was before we’d stumbled across California’s The Garden in the Big Top. In perhaps the most ‘alternative’ performance of the weekend this was something we’ve become more accustomed to seeing at the likes of ATP Festival rather than at the more mainstream End of the Road.

Built around the thrill of ferociously pummeled drums, gnarled electronica and malevolently atonal guitar this was a fusion of experimental alternative rock with hip hop that seemed to exist somewhere in the space between Lightning Bolt and The Beastie Boys. At one point the drummer dived headfirst over his kit to perform a ludicrous hip hop dance routine. If it sounds bonkers that’s because it largely was. Yet it was all held together by the strength of performance and, underneath the bluster, the accomplishment of the musicianship. Exceptional.

Phosphorescent

We nearly weren’t going to see Matthew Houck the figurehead of the loose collective of Americana influenced musicians that make up Phosphorescent. Yet at the end of a blistering hour long evening set on the Garden Stage we’re mightily glad we did. While we’ve seen them before and have been longtime fans this set felt like a game changer, as though the rule book had been ripped up and comprehensively rewritten.

Houck has long been adept at melding what is at its core country music with elements of rock and indie, yet armed with a relentless motorik beat and swathes of reverb it seemed like he was intent on doing for Americana what Adam Granduciel has done so effectively for heartlands rock. His richly evocative voice was supremely effective throughout, especially on the delicate Wolves where guitars and vocals were looped to hypnotic effect. It was telling that this set largely eschewed material from breakthrough album Here’s to Taking It EasyMermaid Parade and Los Angeles were notable only by their exclusion. Houck, it would appear, has moved on and is all the better for it.

Field Music

Having gained recognition from the late Prince, Field Music feel on the cusp of much merited wider recognition and performances like this will surely serve only to endear them to a legion of new fans. Beset by a broken down van in a lay-by somewhere on the A34, the Brewis brothers performed largely on borrowed instruments a set with such musical accomplishment and self-effacing charm that brought smiles, dancing and even a spontaneous sing-a-long.

Phosphorescent, waiting in the wings looked on with knowing nods of admiration at the impossible quality of the music being created. The real skill of Field Music lies in their ability to turn music of such technical complexity and virtuosity into something so richly rewarding and human. This could easily descend into the clinically precise, a band to admire but perhaps not love. Not so with Field Music. We love them for their humanity and warm-hearted smiles as much as for their technical prowess and on this showing we’re not alone. National Treasures? If not they should be.

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