Dorset’s End of the Road festival has a reputation for being a genteel, folky affair, but try telling that to the dude who, in the moshpit for Bristol punks Idles’ incendiary Big Top set, roared along to closing song ‘Rottweiler’ as he poured the contents of a box of red wine onto his own head. There was plenty of oddball pop on offer at Larmer Tree Gardens this weekend – from St Vincent’s theatrical headline show to Vampire Weekend’s joyful UK comeback – but it was the punk and punk-influenced acts that ensured the event really packed a punch.
From the fuggy punk-funk of Brixton rotters Fat White Family to fellow south Londoners Shame’s assured, confrontational main stage set, there was a distinct air of dissent to ruffle the feathers of the peacocks that wandered around the site. The former group – a wilfully obscure eight-strong ensemble who, with their grimy songs about oral sex (‘Is It Raining in Your Mouth?’) and leather fetishism (‘Touch The Leather’), seemed unlikely to be found broadening their skills at the spoon carving workshop – drew an improbably enormous audience.
Shame frontman Charlie Steen, topless and sporting a crop of bleach blonde hair, crowdsurfed to ‘Gold Hole’, taken from this year’s all-killer ‘Songs of Praise’, after he explained: “This has been a pleasure and a privilege and a moment that will burn a hole in my heart.” Their main stage show at the previous week’s poptastic Reading Festival was something of a wash-out, so this was the celebratory late summer set that the band deserved.
Baltimore singer-songwriter Snail Mail (aka Lindsey Jordan) shredded grunge vocals at the Tipi Tent and Sunflower Bean brought New York new wave, post-punk and ‘70s pop to the Big Top. As she introduced the jangling ‘I Was A Fool’, singer Julia Cumming told the audience: “I wanna see backflips! I wanna see jumping jacks! I wanna see sword swallowing! I wanna see firebreathing!” Alas, NME witnessed no firebreathing at an otherwise extraordinary gig. Meanwhile, Manchester’s Duds came across like oddball glam–punks HMLTD covering Madness; with four of eight band members on percussion and another peppering the set with wheezing trumpet solos, this was an inventive cacophony of weird, atonal ska.
And they weren’t the only punks who aren’t ashamed of a brassy parp: Chicago’s Ezra Furman and Copenhagen’s Iceage combined guitar with the squall of trumpet and saxophone to contrasting effect. The Danes’ sound was dense, their set uncompromising; instead of talking to the audience as the band tuned up between songs, singer Elias Rønnenfelt stared them down until a few cheered nervously. Furman, though, had warmth to spare, beaming, “All right, come on queers, I know you’re out there – let’s get into some of this queer shit.” He insisted: “We can imagine a better world – a world of better love and care.”
If Steen and co. represented the new generation of dissenting upstarts, punk hero Billy Childish was here to remind everyone he’s been doing this shit since 1977. Though his second public performance in seven years was billed as Wild Billy Childish & CTMF, he ground out spit-and-sawdust renditions of his most influential tracks from the countless bands he’s formed over the years (including the defiant ‘Punk Rock Ist Nicht Tot’). It was a sort-of parallel universe greatest hits set from a man who’s never come close to having an actual hit.
And then, of course, there was the eccentric pop side of End of the Road. St. Vincent headlined on Friday, her stunning set drawn largely from 2017’s album spectacular ‘Masseduction’. Annie Clark spoke robotically, moving with mechanical precision, reminiscent of disconcerting, droid-like YouTube celebrity Poppy when she intoned: “No matter what’s happening in the world – in our lives – there’s always a good reason to dance.” Her dance moves were so identical when repeated that they seemed pre-programed.
By contrast, Vampire Weekend were less polished, as frontman Ezra Koenig let slip about their delayed, upcoming fourth album. When an audience member asked about the record, he replied: “When’s the album coming out? Oh, who cares? No, it’s done… We promise we’ll come back to the UK and play new songs.” The beloved band’s first show in the UK since 2014 was a colourful greatest hits set, stuffed with the likes of ‘A-Punk’, ‘Oxford Comma’ and ‘Walcott’, their cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’ an indication of its jubilant nature.
Idles’ jaw-dropping performance, however, emphasised that 2018‘s line-up was punk as fuck. Despite the fury of the music, the band’s gigs are often knockabout, lighthearted affairs. Following Friday’s release of vital, weighty album ‘Joy As An Act of Resistance’, though, their Sunday set coursed with purpose, as singer Joe Talbot turned down the audience interaction to tear through breakneck songs about immigration, masculinity and the NHS. “This feels like a wonderful moment,” he told the sprawling, seething crowd. At once genteel and dissenting, End of the Road had its cake and ate it with a hand-carved spoon.