End Of The Road is a festival that keeps its promises. The cultured leftfield shindig – where croquet tournaments break out in forest glades and peacocks roam the trimmed lawns of Dorset’s Larmer Tree Gardens, unbothered by the experimental folk, rock, rap and electronic tomfoolery floating across the site – has been promising a weekend headlined by indie giants Pixies and Bright Eyes since 2020. Covid scuppered that event, and post-pandemic travel issues forced the 2021 bill to become more UK-based. But this year, EOTR puts its music where its mouth is at last, with plenty more curveballs thrown in to keep this crowd of discerning alternative music fans pleasingly off-balance.
The opening Thursday night bill is a brain-rattling case in point. On the main Woods Stage, LA’s Sudan Archives sets out to invent jig-hop, interspersing psychosexual ambient raps (she ends “NBPQ”, for instance, rolling on her back screaming “I just wanna have my titties out!”) with ruined snippets of Irish folk played on the fiddle she brandishes throughout. Even when slapping the butts of imaginary sexual partners.
Then Texan space-age lounge trio Khruangbin appear, gliding in synchronised routes around the stage like models on a futuristic mechanical clock. Their cosmic instrumental jazz-funk conceit soon wears thin, but things pick up when they embark on their first actual tune half an hour in – guitarist Mark Speer and bassist Laura Lee duetting in the style of Tame Impala playing a cocktail bar in Uncanny Valley. The crowd only really stirs, though, when they plough into a collage of recognisable guitar riffs, including Spandau Ballet’s “True”, Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and Dick Dale’s “Misirlou”, like a jazz club jukebox gone haywire.
Headlining the idyllic environs of the Garden Stage (generally home to lustrous alt-folk acts such as Anais Mitchell and Yasmin Williams) on Friday, Black Midi go one further in the mash-up stakes, sounding like someone playing all of Spotify simultaneously inside 80 minutes. Brimstone jazz punk, thrash rock, proggy Afrobeat, flamenco and Elton John piano balladry are just a handful of the clashing genres the London experimentalists hurl at the crowd from a setlist based largely around their “epic action film” of a third album, Hellfire. It’s probably what a brain aneurism sounds like, but at least more fragile minds can retire to the Woods Stage, where Fleet Foxes and their touring mini-orchestra The Westerlies prove themselves, once again, as the last reliable glacial region on earth.
On Saturday, the indie gods themselves descend, making for a scheduling clash of the titans that’s by far the most frustrating of this writer’s festival-going life: arguably the two best live acts on the planet play opposite each other. While the unassuming yet phenomenal Magnetic Fields are conjuring chamber pop majesty at the Garden Stage with a setlist that, melodically speaking, ranks among the greatest played in our lifetimes, Pixies hit the Woods Stage with an unmatchable intensity. “Gouge Away” – their blueprint quiet-LOUD retelling of the Samson myth – gives way to “Wave of Mutilation”, “Debaser” and sublime climate-crisis classic “Monkey Gone to Heaven” in the opening minutes, the crowd howling every word along with lycanthrope-in-chief Black Francis.
Having blasted through a fair chunk of their seminal Doolittle album and plenty more chips from the indie bedrock besides, they cut loose and allow themselves a deep dive into the dark folk territory of forthcoming album Doggerel. “Vault of Heaven” is evil Tex-Mex rock about the dangers of mixing prescription drugs and alcohol; “There’s a Moon On” a lusty tribute to the pulse-pumping effects of the lunar cycle. Come “La La Love You”, a throwaway surf song performed by drummer David Lovering, they’re clearly enjoying themselves, revelling in the song’s corndog whistles and high-school innuendo, bassist Paz Lenchantin even breaking into an excited dance. Legendary tunes such as “Where Is My Mind?” and “Here Comes Your Man” are the big festival singalongs, but kneeling at his monitor – trying to wring as much feedback as possible out of his acoustic guitar during their energised cover of Neil Young’s “Winterlong” – is where Francis seems most in his element.
The British underground hold their own thanks to the electronic melodramas of Perfume Genius, the febrile post-punk of Porridge Radio, and the Dalek rave of Bristol’s Scalping. But the idiosyncratic US poet-rocker has probably the strongest weekend. Kurt Vile and the Violators provide reliably ramshackle slacker country, and the once somnolent indie journeyman Kevin Morby has transformed into a funk-rock showman in a gold cowboy jacket, like a Vegas Hank Williams.
King of the scene, of course, is Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, who’s on particularly unpredictable form during their Sunday night headline set. Oberst is a generally impassioned performer anyway, but it’s probably fair to say he might have had a tipple or two, making their raw, angst-ridden powerhouse songs – be they pomp punk, skyscraping country or fury folk – even rougher around the edges. Oberst misses lyrics, trips over wires, loses himself in rambling speeches about never breaking as big as Taylor Swift, and has a best-mates heart-to-heart with a cuddly toy wolf. But each time a song strikes up, he’s instinctively inside it, tearing open its wounds.
During “Dance and Sing”, the epic slow dance from 2020’s reunion album Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, he squirms and spins around like a trench-coated Michael Stipe, accidentally unplugging his microphone but ranting on regardless. “Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)”, written after the 2003 Iraq War protests, is the sound of slide country howling at the sky; “Persona Non Grata” that of a New Orleans ragtime funeral going off the rails with grief. Oberst’s slurring state even adds fragility to moments such as “Poison Oak”, plaintive and poetic solo songs that billow into emotional cataclysms. “They’re sad and sarcastic and bulls***,” he says of his own songs, ahead of a final, unifying “One for You, One for Me”, closing out, typically for EOTR, the most imaginative and exploratory festival of the summer. He forgot “overwhelming”.