Attending End of the Road is like being in a three day tracking shot, a panoply of uninterrupted sights and sounds until everyone folds up and troops away on Monday morning, leaving nothing but the festival's echoes in its discarded cans.
It has peerless food, a compact site, stewarding with a light touch, miraculously habitable portacabins and is a bastion of civilised revelry that Saturday’s downpour tested, but couldn't dispel. If the art installations are too twee for some, the deftly curated line up is for many the high point of the festival season. 2019’s headliners all put in a solid shift on the Woods stage from the resurgent Spiritualised, to Michael Kiwanuka, Courtney Barnett and Metronomy. But where EOTR excels, and where the real pleasures lie, is in the exciting discoveries lower down the bill and this year, as ever, they were bountiful.
Illinois' Ohtis kicked off the fun on Friday under a mellow midday sun with pleasing Americana on the Garden Stage and its adjacent proscenium arch. The stage is shaped like a whale shark’s yawn, but it always hosts some of the festivals most successful offerings. Israel Nash’s big hearted rhythm and blues wizardry flooded the veins with warm feeling, fittingly as he looked like Tolkein’s Gandalf. Former Midlake frontman Eric Pulido produced a rich, deep sound as alter ego E.B. The Younger. Deerhunter’s eighth album of alt-rock Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? embraces global themes and they were as exhilarating as ever at the Woods on Sunday.The pungent identity of the country’s capital is, of course, never in question and New York’s Steve Gunn delivered a blistering set of tuneful blues and powerhouse rock in the Friday sunlight.
Where many bands have segued between genres in recent times, which is a strength in some, but augurs a crisis of identity in others, this year was notable for borrowing and blending to provide intriguing fusion. None more so than Squid, who married a Mark E Smith vocal style with Miles Davisesque trumpet and bouts of electronica to create one of EOTR’s most arresting sets.
At its weakest the festival can feel like a village fete, but artists are now engaging with our turbulent times and there is an undercurrent of anger afoot after years of tuneful, but lyrically bland folk and synth melodies. None more so than that force of nature, Kate Tempest, who moved seamlessly from the personal to the political. Her rap is sobering, powerful and designed to stop us in our tracks. "The soul has become a closed system” she lamented, but ended on a note of hope after taking us through the mill of environmental catastrophe.
Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson, loped about the stage thrillingly with his customary tics and twitches. He has said elsewhere that their class-infused rants in the tradition of The Jam, about the daily injustices and frustrations of modern life, are not political but just “sounding off”. What is not in doubt is they were high octane catharsis, and delighted a roiling, delirious crowd in the Big Top, beneath its suspended elephant.
Larmer Tree Gardens appeared further twinned with Illinois as Patti Smith’s influence irrigated many of the female acts. Cate Le Bon, the unruffled mistress of cool, coped admirably with The Woods with a fine set of her inventive, slightly off-kilter indie. Kathryn Joseph looked askance at us while on the piano as if she assessing audience concentration levels. Jade Bird’s heartfelt ballads were delivered in a voice that sent electricity through the body like an Astral Weeks Van Morrison. The indie and synth pop of Sasami is one to watch. In the congested realm of the folk chanteuse Jessica Pratt was queen, her pristine voice simply spine-tingling. Stella Donnelly, part Polystyrene, part PJ Harvey, is a winsome Aussie waif with a waspish tongue, and was witty and endearing. She sang of sex, abortion and failed relationships, often explicitly. After releasing ‘Mosquito’, a homage to her vibrator, her Welsh mother said she was really proud of her but “wore a disguise to work”.
Indie troubadours Wire, Fontaines D.C. and the precocious The Beths, all performed their trademark gear switches. The Beths treated the Tipi tent to a further dose of their breezy mayhem in a secret after hours performance. The Velvet Underground influenced Rotterdammers Lewsburg were tight. The returning Goat Girl, one of the best contemporary guitar bands, ingeniously infused jaunty rhythms with a sense of jeopardy and lived up to their billing. But the most seamless chords were the three guitars of Seazoo, as sleek and seemingly effortless as dolphins leaping the waves in perfect kinship.
On the experimental side, TVAM cast an extraordinary spell with their brutal, relentless, pulsating sonic storms, to a backdrop of mesmerising images and opaque statements about the human cost of our technological culture. The bedroom creator of album Psychic Data, Joe Oxley, wants to sweep away the nostalgia he feels is corroding contemporary pop culture. The intimate Tipi hosted Radio 3's Late Junction on Friday night and provided one of the festival's most riveting performances, Natalie Sharp’s Bodyvice. This explored the interface between the body and technology and was inspired by her experiences of chronic pain treatment. It was creepy, disturbing and yet peculiarly moving. Another of the Tipi’s successes were Penya who blended a number of influences to produce a fresh spin on latin rhythms.
This was a year for Afro beats. BCUC's fusion of almost all the tropes of black music brought punters scampering down the hill to join the fun. The Congo’s Kokoko! appeared in yellow boiler suits and fashioned irresistible calypso and African rhythms from instruments assembled from cardboard boxes and tin cans.
Inevitably punters sample at festivals and the constant coming and going along the paths that open up in audiences, like songlines, might be dispiriting for artists. But so many acts were thunderously received that even the resident peacocks were climbing on a roof to get a better look.