Festival Review: End Of The Road 2021

Armed with a list compiled from various YouTube listening sessions at home, we arrived on the Thursday, setting up camp listening to the pleasant retro 70’s vibes of Kikagaku Moyo drifting across the field. We went for a wander, getting acquainted with the many nooks and crannies within the site. There are labyrinthine paths through woods, leading to open glades, like the Talking Heads stage down by a sheep-filled field, and the healing area tucked privately behind the Garden stage, with old architectural follies dotted around playing host to a flock of loose roaming peacocks and large low flying dragonflies. There is a bewildering array of food tents serving anything from pie and mash to pizza, and the usual beer tents and lots of places to sit and loads of places to shade yourself from the sun…and the rain I guess.

First stop – the Tipi tent to check out Regressive Left, a 3 piece who promise so much with their Gang Of Four style electro-pop leanings. At first I didn’t realise they were actually playing as the sound was pretty quiet, which was a shame as this young band have a lot of potential. As it started to get dark we wandered down to the Woods stage to stake a place near the sound desk (best sound!?). The trees, with projections, provided an awesome light show as Stereolab took to the stage. I have seen Stereolab several times over their career, from the more intense “Transient” period through their Britpop acceptance on to their softer MOR stylings, and wasn’t sure how they have fared since their split due to the death of Mary Hansen. Backing vocals were provided extremely ably by bass player Xavier Muñoz Guimera and keyboardist Joseph Watson, however a respectful Mary Hansen sized gap was left between Laetitia Sadier and Tim Gane. The band was tight and loud , the sound was crystal clear and the crowd was large and uproarious as the band pedalled their way through their (rather extensive) back catalogue, concentrating mostly on songs from their “golden” period between “Mars Audiac Quintet” and “Emperor Tomato Ketchup”, replete with blissed out organ and analogue wibbles and wobbles, and the ever so funky bass of  “Metronomic Underground”.

Next day and back on site we chanced upon Modern Woman at the Garden stage (my favourite stage it turns out), and the first surprise of the weekend as I didn’t expect much given the dodgy name and whispers of nepotism over the fact that their single “Offerings” has been released by End of the Road records. However, the Fender Telecaster between Sophie Harris’s hands was wringing out some tasty Gary Lucas/Beefheart riffs, while her voice provided drama and melody in equal measure as the band performed a set of goth folk – part Siouxsie, part P.J. Harvey. Despite the hiccoughing tendency in her voice, the dark strangeness and the atonal violins merge well with the occasional visceral attacks of the music.

Modern Woman

Over to Tipi to catch the start of Wesley Gonzales, who made a grand entrance. I love a good entrance so I was looking forward to this one. He used to be the front man in the band Let’s Wrestle so I guess that’s where he developed his stage craft, as he came on in his grey suit looking a little like a sweaty office worker, while giving it large Jarvis Cocker style gestures, I was thinking this is going to be good, but unfortunately, as the first song died away and he strapped on his guitar it all started to get a bit Joe Jackson, and then descended via New Order’s “True Faith” into Style Council. When the keyboard player, who until then had been dancing around like an Auntie at a wedding, started to sing, we just had to leave. Wandering off to get some food before realising I’d just missed Vanishing Twin (Dammit!) my ears were drawn to something remarkable happening as a voice entered into my brain and started to weave a seduction spell and I just had to follow it back to the Garden stage. Kind of a beguiling mixture of Kate Bush and Melanie, with a childish twang and a playful pithyness, yet a burning baleful yearning, kneading my brain. I’m not sure what the song was that lead me here, could have been latest single “2 Wrecked 2 Care” but when it finished I was confronted with a red haired Dolly Parton, who performed the next two songs in a country and western style, demonstrating a note perfect and very accomplished voice, interspersed with chatty witty bubbly and very confident aplomb. I’m not sure what I just saw there. Was it comedy? Country? Light Entertainment? All sorts of things really, from Wandavision to Lucille Ball, from David Lynch to Bet Lynch, CMAT (Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson) really intrigues me.

Heading further in towards the Garden stage to check out BDRMM.  Now I do love a Yorkshire accent, being the proud owner of one myself, and these boys have it in spades, There’s nothing that new here, but their brand of shoegaze with the loud/quiet/loud soundscapes of Mogwai blend together very well and they appear to have a psychic connection like they’ve always been together, despite still being young. Their set didn’t have a great start however due to sound issues (floor tom too loud, guitars too quiet). It did get better, but the boys put so much energy into their performance they achieved moments of transcendence – like a black mass at a Cure gig.

BDRMM

Arlo Parks was ok for a sunny day. A bit sessiony, a bit Corinne Bailey Rae. The music kind of washes over you and is ultimately forgetful I’m afraid. A little wander around the site brought us in earshot of Damon Albarn performing the very wonderful “This Is A Low”, and I heard later reports that his set was excellent, but I’m afraid we were sticking with the garden stage. Excitement surged through the crowd with the entrance of headliner John Grant, whose presence alone casts a silhouette larger than life, and whose songs shoot straight to your heart and carry you along magisterially. John Grant is both witty and incredibly deep, usually within the same song. Despite the fact that it was a mostly fully electronic set, with acoustic drums (and therefore Budgie) missing, he concentrated more on his early and later songs, and not his (for me) less impressive “Love Is Magic” period disco songs, which, though wallowing in awesome production and still very witty, lacked the depth of his earlier work. Opening with a couple of numbers from his new album “Boy From Michigan”, which is somewhat of a return to form, despite containing the incredibly silly “Rhetorical Figure”. The audience were enraptured as the lights and electronics combined to make a glorious skyscape of sound. “Marz” sounded particularly splendid in this setting, with the crowd singing along to every word. “Glacier” did miss the epic ending that a live drum kit tends to bring to it, but “Queen Of Denmark” and “Grey Tickles, Black Pressures” were magnificent in all their crystalline crescendos and splendid glory, and the time we spent together was over far too soon. All we could do was wander round in somewhat of a grinning daze, strolling past the soul rap stuttering of Warmduscher coming from the Big Top, and avoiding the crowds filing away from the recent departure of Hot Chip from the Woods stage.

John Grant

Saturday is gloriously warm and sunny so what better way to start than Modern Nature at the Woods stage. Having listened to Modern Nature on the way down I was expecting a kind of mellow Krautrock, but live it appears they have eschewed the krautrock in favour of the mellow. What we got sounded like the band from Nick Drake’s “Bryter Later” doing later period Talk Talk…and who can complain about that? Accomplished musicians all, led by the fragile voice of Jack Cooper (Ultimate Painting/Mazes) repeating phrases like ‘do you see it’ over harmonium drones and saxophone solos that approximate babbling brooks and other natural sounds. In fact their music is like a river which leaps and winds and rolls around in your mind, always flowing towards the sea, sometimes calm, sometimes troubled.

Modern Nature

Hen Ogledd followed so we stuck around hoping for more Wicker Man style vibes but, despite the stage set up (a yellow harp!), the presence of Richard Dawson, and the colourful capes, they didn’t really fit the bill. They sounded under rehearsed and under whelming, so off we went to stake our places for Jane Weaver. Now I’ve seen her before and, despite sounding all kinds of brilliant I didn’t pick up on an awful lot of charisma from our Jane, who seemed more like a secretary doing Kate Bush on the karaoke, and new material being played on Radio 6 currently points towards a more pop direction, like Tame Impala. However as the set went on through a series of musical references like Bowie’s “Fame” and Goldfrapp’s “Strict Machine”, she starts to relax and flow and the band clicks into the groove of a motorik beat that moves the whole audience into a grinning mass of shaking heads and tapping feet as “I Wish” begins to elevate us all. She’s created a love-in and becomes more animated wandering about the stage gently pushing out good vibes. She reminds me of a more cosmic Lynsey De Paul, with her high vocals and layers of dreamy pop atop those glorious forever beats. She ended her set with “I need a connection” and by then she really had made one.

Jane Weaver

I was buzzing but staying put because next up on the Garden stage was Squid. We had tickets for Squid before lockdown but unfortunately the tour was cancelled so we never did get to see them. I guess others were in the same boat due to the size of the crowd descending and the building excitement, with some folks even cheering at the sound check. When they hit the stage the crowd went crazy and I witnessed crowdsurfing for the first time since the late 90s! The band were upbeat, tight and on top. A masterclass in minimalist rock, like a snarling Wire, an angry Devo. They were supreme, with shades of Beefheart and the Butthole Surfers, it makes you wonder what they grew up listening to. People have more access to obscure music now than in pre-internet days, so I find it refreshing that bands like Squid and Black Midi seem to have discovered Focus and King Crimson for themselves and even found something in it to mine. The band layer cross rhythms on top of each other like Devo’s version of “Satisfaction”, making unusual pop classics of “The Cleaner” and “Boy Racers”, despite their lack of standard melody and their above average length.

Squid

Just when I thought ‘how can this be followed’, the crowds which had thinned somewhat, came flooding back in, and along comes Anna Meredith to further confound my expectations. I knew very little about her before this except that we had heard her album “Fibs” on the way down and thought it suitably intriguing. With her modern avant-classical background, I was expecting serious art, not ABBA! With a 2-tone stage set and 80s jumpsuits, she came across like mad Lizzie from Breakfast TV and, with between-song banter akin to Carol Smilie talking to a classroom of pre-teens. Musically however it was a different kettle of fish, with the instruments warped and contorted through combinations of effects as these dazzling runs burst forth sounding more like the playground Cardiacs than a composer in residence with the Scottish symphony orchestra. The tuba player played with his tuba on a stand so all you could see were a pair of legs and a big tuba for a head to add to the surreal scene. At times it even got a bit early 90’s rave “techno-techno”. I felt like I was in an avant-garde zumba class as my body felt inclined to move (despite my head’s protestations) as the music bubbled up and up into one giant release after another, like Augustus Gloop being extricated from a chocolate tube by sheer force, again and again.

Anna Meredith

As my brain begged for order and a bit of artistic decorum, it was rewarded by the stage being set for the arrival of the Jonny Greenwood players, a string quartet and pianist accompanied by Mr Greenwood on his beautiful Ondes Martinet, (a theremin that you play with your fingers, handbuilt especially for him). The orchestra played a selection of pieces from his various film soundtrack scores and solo projects, including an awesome violin duet that was both atonal and angry, and beautifully synchronised. Before you run away with the idea that it was all ‘classical’ Johnny played two pieces for electric guitar, accompanied by infinite echoes of himself. The audience was with him all the way, despite the angry stabs of Sleaford Mods banging across the field and sometimes joining in with the hushed semi-classical sounds and attempting to make some noisy mash-up. Mr. Greenwood, with the entire audience on side, was having none of it and continued to display a measured and beautiful performance accompanied by filmed announcements, some of them intentionally humorous, especially during the tune-up periods. A good ending to a Saturday night, going out not with a bang but a glorious whisper.

Jonny Greenwood

And so to Sunday, seeking shelter from the searing heat, we headed for the Big Top to check out William Doyle. Turns out that, despite the industrial fans blowing, it was even hotter inside. Due to technical issues he started late and sadly the gremlins persisted throughout his set making it a stop-start affair. He managed to get through a couple of songs with long gaps in between while he tried in vain to get his laptop working. He’s a bit of a one-man band with loops, laptop, guitar and keys accompanying his fragile voice. He started by saying that he hoped it wouldn’t be a fucking disaster so he tempted fate a little there. The first song “I Need To Keep You In My Life” mentioned the Pennines, which is usually a good start for this Northerner, but his beautiful voice seemed to lose confidence and broke a couple of times towards the end of the song. After several lacklustre attempts he managed to scrape through a very Bill Nelson sounding “And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)” in which he looped his own backing vocals to great effect, and even managed a soaring guitar solo in the middle before the gremlins returned and there were long silences in which the audience began to drift away. It’s a shame because when it was all working he displayed interesting sounds ranging from soaring to sombre, and I really can recommend his latest album “Great Spans Of Muddy Time”. He did mention that this happens regularly so I’d advise having songs in reserve that can be performed without backing and someone with him to help with the tech should it go wrong in the future.

Seeking more shade, we decided to cool off by heading over to the Talking Heads stage set in the woods to listen to a Q & A with Richard Dawson, who had some interesting insights into his creative process, his personal lockdown projects, and his new life in the country. After a very entertaining and relaxing time in his company we headed up to the Piano stage to catch Big Joanie delighting the small crowd there with a surprise set. I was hoping to see Yard Act too, but that would have to wait as I had to leg it to the Big Top to see W.H.Lung. I had heard some stuff by them on the way down and to my ears it seemed very Krautrock inspired and I was looking forward to seeing what he/she/them looked like. I certainly wasn’t expecting Heaven 17, but I’m afraid that’s what appeared to be happening, as a band of curly haired baggy white 80s people danced around the stage like Coldplay doing a Wham tribute If you like D:Ream then I reckon you’ll love them. I managed 3 songs before moving on the Garden Stage to see Crack Cloud. To call them a band is incorrect, they’re more of a collective. Their videos are all guerilla graffiti and political youth, but in fact they’re more of a Canadian Squid, with a shouty drummer and an exquisitely funky bass player. From the opening notes played on a mellotron flute I knew this was going to be special. The band were obviously having fun and the antics of the bleached blonde, bare chested keyboard player were both captivating and delightful as he roamed the stage pulling poses and rocking out. The band performed selections from their brilliant but far too short 2020 album “Pain Olympics”, including “Post Truth”, the incredibly infectious “Ouster Stew” and the post punk Wire influenced “Tunnel Vision”, all with such verve and vigour that the audience couldn’t help but be swept away with the urge to dance. Saxophones bleated and blurted, guitars scratched and scrawped and the band led us a merry prankster dance that was both disjointed and hypnotic, joyful and infectious. Prog Funk Punk anyone?

Crack Cloud

Over to the Tipi stage to see Leeds/Hull band Yard Act – a relatively new band with a clutch of singles to their name and an album on the way. This band are special. If you like The Fall, Joy Division, Half Man Half Biscuit, Arctic Monkeys, John Cooper-Clarke, Dr, Feelgood, Eminem and/or Pulp then you will take this bunch of Northern oiks to your heart. Now as you know by now, I do love an entrance and as the band kicked in a beat reminiscent of The Fall’s lolloping rockabilly, and the guitarist Sam kicking out some fancy fretwork, on comes singer James Smith in an oversized duffel coat and Doc Marten boots, sporting mop top hair and Harry Hill glasses. With a nod to the crowd he proceeds to deliver lyrical epithets painting vivid portraits of regular street life and phrases of snatched conversations and working class clichés hammer into the audience with machine gun precision, as real as an open wound and as funny as fuck, all delivered in a laconic Northern drawl, the band stop/starting to allow for choice phrases to hit home. “Dark Days”, the title song of their latest EP starts the set, which is delivered as a short sharp shock to (smash) the system. Phrases such as ‘Police officers getting their truncheons polished off in the bushes’ and ‘I was shitting bricks at the prospect of existence without you’ smack of a surreal realism while songs about peanut allergies (“Peanuts”) and second homeowners called Graham accosting people on the street (“Fixer Upper”) follow in quick succession, delivered in urgent asides and astute observations, while James gives voice to a thousand disparate characters, welcoming you to an oh so familiar world of Lidl checkouts and ‘Poundshop terracotta frogs’. Meanwhile he gives voice to the dissenters on “The Overload”, ‘I know what that dickhead singer’s like/He’ll end up in the back of an ambulance/With the mic stand rammed up his arse twice over’. While the lyrics are irreverent, witty and sharp, and delivered in such a self-confident manner, the music is tight and doesn’t overpower except where it needs to. This band is the real McCoy. They remind me of Madness in the way that it feels like a gang to which you belong. Expect them to be big. They deserve it.

Yard Act

Richard Dawson is a remarkable man. I first saw him ages ago upstairs at the British Legion in Jesmond, Newcastle supporting some friends of mine. As it happens, I was doing the sound for them, and this little feller stood up on the stage with one mic above his head and a guitar with a big hole in the side and proceeded to entrance everyone with a song about a rucksack. Many years later, on a much bigger stage with a huge crowd in the open air as the night drew in, and the sound of King Krule booming across the field, this little feller comes on stage and launches into an acapella folk tale with many verses and no chorus, about an early 19th century quiltmaker called Joe, and the extraordinary thing was that every word was listened to and every person there was following the tragic tale with a mixture of interest and fascination. I really don’t know of many people who can pull that off, especially one so unassuming. Headlining the Garden stage with just a guitar and a drummer (Andrew Cheetham) by his side he proceeded to crank out a mixture of “Black Mountain Side” open tunings and experimental jams, occasionally kicking his amp to make the reverb springs crash. He enthralled the crowd as he blasted and weaved his way through songs that all seemed to contain something of the ancient and magical, even when he was just tuning up! His voice, sometimes gruff grunting like Dave Cousins, other times soaring and screaming in Jack Black falsetto, ranging from authentic folk to full on metal, telling tragic and comic tales drawn from his life and of those around him, sometimes uncomfortably real. “Civil Servant” for example where the sheer bloody drudgery of work is given vent to, ‘I don’t want to go back to that seething viper’s nest/I can’t listen anymore to the bleating of the terminally depressed’, while he anguishes with screams and burbles about Wetherspoons and DLA. It’s even got a fucking drum solo! “Two Halves” is the tale of a boy, watched on by his disappointed Dad, who fails to score in a game of football only to be consoled with fish and chips on the way home. Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, as is “Fresher’s Ball” about a parent dropping their kid off at Uni and instantly missing them, which had us both in tears. Other subjects range from homelessness (“Dead Dog In An Alleyway”), to depression and paranoia (“Jogging”) to fear (“Soldier”), all delivered in inimitable style, both warm, original and distinctive, before leaving us far too soon. ‘If you’ve been dragged along by a partner or a friend and you’re on the fence this is probably one that will tip you in the other direction’ he says when announcing “Heart Emoji”. Somehow I doubt it. Richard Dawson is quite simply remarkable. He deserves to be a national hero and I hope he soon will be.

Richard Dawson

We were both flagging a bit by now, having been put through a bit of an emotional mangle by Mr. Dawson, and having seen such a plethora of great bands in such a relatively short space of time, and yet there was still more to go. We headed over to the Big Top to catch Girl Band and I’m pretty glad we did. Now I do have a problem with Dara Kiely’s vocal delivery, which does get tiresomely similar, based loosely on Justine Frischmann doing “Connection”, but not nearly as tuneful, and for the first half of the set this was still the case. His looks had changed though. The last time I saw him he was a nice clean cut young man, but now he looked like Kurt Russell after a lost weekend, all bedraggled and bearded, with little or no acknowledgement of the crowd, he strolled around while havoc was being wreaked by the twin sonic slabs of deafening noise attacking the senses from both sides as Alan Duggan and Daniel Fox menaced the stage, hidden beneath sheets of white light and smoke, almost drowning the arena in a palatable sickness of oozing light and sound. At times it reminded me of Whitehouse or Throbbing Gristle – visceral, menacing, disturbing, drenched in noise and feedback and repetition. However, despite these rather extreme conditions, conditions that would have sane people running for the hills, or at least the off switch, it turns out the packed audience couldn’t get enough as the crowdsurfing started and never stopped, bodies rolling over bodies in a roiling sweat pit of joy and ecstasy. It was like a Freddie Mercury fever dream in there! Halfway through, the predictable half spoken, half shouted vocals changed too, becoming more Can-like in their rhythmic intensity, creating drones and mantras that, with incessant repetition began to work a kind of glorious magic in the air that was now awash with lights so dazzling that the band could barely be seen… just a writhing mass of bodies in some kind of pagan cabal… both disturbing and fascinating.

Girl Band

After that beautiful, though extremely intense onslaught, we decided to call an end to a glorious festival, bidding farewell to the glorious site and its happy, trouble-free vibes. The organisers deserve credit for the smooth running of its operation and its choice of acts and, although we didn’t get to see everything there was to see, there was never a dull moment.

Advance tickets for End of the Road 2022 are onsale now – visit the festival website to find out more.

Review by Andrew Wood
Photography by Ali Blair

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