Despite hearing so much for so long about the rapidly esteemed End of the Road Festival, before this year I had somehow never attended. Known as a music and ale lover’s festival and for its endearing intimacy, EOTR has now won ‘Best Small Festival’ at the NME Awards two years in a row. With this year’s edition hosting one of the strongest line-ups on the whole festival circuit, my expectations were understandably high. All photos by Countessian Photography.
Arriving mid-afternoon on Thursday to a brief but sharp shower, the campsites are already quite full and the majority of people are already on the move into the arena. Parts of the site remain closed today, but the Tipi Tent and Woods Stage play host to a handful of bands between them. After The Moonlandingz perform a typically whirring and chaotic opening set, Slowdive step out to an impressively large crowd on a chilly opening night. The set is everything you’d expect from the long underappreciated shoegaze outfit – a twirling, rumbling and entrancing blend of tracks new and old. It’s a dreamy start to the festival.
He may be the Friday night headliner, but Mac Demarco has remained more or less unchanged over the years. When it comes to performing his songs, his adroit professionalism and melancholy can’t be hidden behind the jokes and silliness. Tonight’s set is a triumph, not just for the quality of songs, but also for the ever-developing levels of absurdity involved. Featuring belching between every other track, a cover of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” where the only repeated lyric is “making my way down town” and a crowd surf from the Woods Stage all the way over to Pond at the Big Top, Mac Demarco receives as many laughs as he does applause.
Elsewhere, the opening of the illustrious and ever-populated Beavertown bar falls neatly in line with Julie Byrne’s early afternoon set. Her performance is marred by sound issues, but the enveloping intimacy of her songs stand strong. Following up with an early weekend highlight, Kelly Lee Owens’ performance, repeatedly slipping from ethereal to pounding, is one of the few daytime sets of the weekend that sees people dancing to electronic music. End of the Road is admittedly one of the more mellow festivals out there – but the witty and prickly post-punk of Parquet Courts is enough to incite a lager-induced commotion of bodies in one of the more energetic crowds of the weekend.
The site bathed in glorious sunshine, Saturday’s proceedings commence with country singer Courtney Marie Andrews, whose simple but superb songs and sensational vocals entrance a respectfully quiet crowd. Bill Ryder-Jones follows soon after with a collection of songs that drift sweetly between fragile quiet and breezy Pavement-esque rock, before Alvvays take to the Woods Stage and whet the appetite nicely for this week’s release of latest album Antisocialites.
The undisputed highlight of the weekend comes in the form of the compelling Father John Misty on Saturday night. His first festival headline show, Tillman keeps chat down to a relative minimum – aside from the odd reference to visiting on-site “existential cafes” and “alpaca shaving” seminars. His exuberant gesticulation is drenched in melodramatic irony, as is the content of his songs (and almost everything he says) – however, they’re delivered with a genuinely affecting and powerful vigor. Backed by a huge band complete with a string section, the fullness of the sound is as dazzling as the accompanying light show. Beneath the satire and sarcasm, the songs from Pure Comedy display Tillman’s crippling disillusionment in response to recent patterns in modern society. Somewhat embellished or not, his personal performance is genuinely passionate and totally spotless.
After three days of sunshine, Sunday finally sees the festival succumb to the kind of weather you might expect at an outdoor event in September. Constant rain sends people into the tents and gifts Nadia Reid one of the biggest crowds she will have ever had. Nonchalantly rising to the occasion, she jokes with the crowd about the equally bad New Zealand weather and effortlessly breezes through a set that ends in an emotional rendition of “Ain’t Got You”. Playing the last show of a year-long tour, Julia Jacklin’s mid-afternoon set assures she goes out with a bang. A particularly touching rendition of “Don’t Let the Kids Win” even leaves some of the crowd around me in tears. Elsewhere, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever take it upon themselves to up the ante a little, blasting through much of their 2017 EP The French Press including an electric rendition of “Dig Up”.
Across in the Big Top, Alex Cameron waltzes through tracks from Jumping the Shark and this week’s Forced Witness. Cameron’s parodic seedy character portrayal never fails to amuse those who notice his lyrics for the first time. Often shrouded by the effortlessly catchy songs themselves, it’s funny and also quite strange to think lyrics like “’cause the pussy leaves town when the boss ain’t around for the feeding” are possibly going unnoticed around you. The skies soon darken and the weather gets worse, but when Amadou & Mariam take to the stage with their blend of afro-funk and euphoric disco grooves the mood quickly changes. By the end of their 75-minute gig, a small, cold and wet crowd has turned into a buzzing mass of energy. The Jesus and Mary Chain follow with a career-spanning headline set – but it’s the lo-fi alt country stalwart Bill Callahan who leaves the biggest final impression on End of the Road. An exquisitely understated and atmospheric closing to the festival, the understated legend proves without pomp and circumstance that he is still at the zenith of his abilities.