Abigail Morris, singer of The Last Dinner Party, has a burning question: “Isn’t this the best fucking festival in the world?”
It’s Thursday night at End of the Road, the beloved boutique festival that’s been held in the wooded Larmer Tree Gardens, on the border between Dorset and Wiltshire, since 2006. Although her question is rhetorical, and although the party is hardly even in full swing yet, Morris’ suggestion is met with a full-bodied response from the crowd that stretches back along the main Woods Stage.
Emily Eavis would probably like a word with this lot, but End of the Road has long cultivated a reputation as the worst-kept secret on the festival circuit. Despite its cartoonish, dow-nhome aesthetic (epitomized by an art-adorned woodlands walk and handmade-looking signage that looks like it was commissioned by Wes Anderson), the 15,000-capacity weekender has also long outgrown its folky beginnings.
This early-doors show is a case in point. Their confident, theatrical set might channel New Romanticism and ‘80s Bowie, but the The Last Dinner Party look like they’ve just escaped from a ‘70s heist movie, the band flanked by bassist Georgia Davis in a flamboyant flared suit and keyboard player Aurora Nischevi in a matching orange blazer. The quintet have been attending EOTR as punters for years: “This is like playing the Pyramid Stage for me,” Morris announces, “so we’ve peaked.”
That sense of excitement is matched the following day by reformed indie stalwarts Be Your Own Pet, who, exclaims wildly energetic singer Jemima Pearl, come to us “all the way from Nashville, Tennessee… and 2008”. The band supplement indie sleaze classics ‘Becky’ and ‘Adventure’ with politicised newbies ‘Hand Grenade’ and ‘Big Trouble’. “It feels so good to be back,” beams Pearl.
Fellow ‘00s blogosphere graduate Panda Bear, of Animal Collective fame, teams up with producer Sonic Boom for tedious audiovisual self-indulgence in an inexplicably rammed Big Top, before Marie Davidson puts in the graveyard shift on the same stage, showing them how it’s done. She draws a much smaller crowd, but everyone who came to End of the Road in a bucket hat shows up for her grinding, nihilistic techno, which blows away the cobwebs after Angel Olsen’s spellbinding set on the Garden Stage.
Appropriately, the Missouri-born star performs her wistful Americana under an eerily clear, near-full moon. “This song I wrote last night,” she teases, informing the audience that they’ll hear it first. Expectations duly raised, she then thunders into 2016’s grungy ‘Shut Up, Kiss Me’, her signature song.
That bombshell’s not the last surprise of the weekend. A mystery has hung over the late Saturday evening slot on the main stage, which is revealed to be a secret set from none other than indie superstars Wet Leg. It appears End of the Road does worst-kept secrets: one bloke down the front has brought his own chaise longue for the occasion.
“Hello – we are Oasis,” Rhian Teasdale waves to a crowd that seems to account for every punter on site. The singer apologetically explains she’s under the weather so “can’t give you my all”, but looks visibly thrilled to be back at a “special” festival: she and fellow founding member Hester Chambers formed Wet Leg here back in 2019 – atop the Ferris wheel, of course. What follows is a fittingly freewheeling set from a band with nothing to prove. By the time they inevitably close with ‘Chaise Longue’, kooks are dancing on the one down the front.
Future Islands close out the Woods Stage, with frontman Samuel T. Herring answering the question: what if Steve Pemberton became the world’s most normcore rock star? Clad in a black t-shirt and jeans, he nevertheless remains a supremely strange stage presence, lunging and barking his way through the Baltimore band’s emotionally charged synth-pop. He’s mesmerizing even before they encore with a devastating, fuzzed-up ‘Little Dreamer’.
It’s a heavy moment, alright, though precedes a feel-good Sunday scorcher that sees Cameron Winter of recent NME cover stars Geese thank the Big Top’s healthily sized crowd for “staying with us in the sweatiest tent in the fucking festival”. The band’s Southern rock pastiche marks a mini ‘70s revival at End of the Road, as Picture Parlour’s Katherine Parlour graces the Folly Stage looking every inch the rock star in dark shades – indoors! – before she evokes the decade’s raw-voiced wailers, ably assisted by Ella Risi’s fabulously histrionic guitar shredding.
There’s more fretboard showboating from King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard on the Woods Stage, while Ezra Furman hammers out ragged art-punk on the Garden Stage for what, she warns, might be the band’s final show. ‘Body Is Made’ gets a slow-burning makeover that renders its celebration of gender diversity, which Furman delivers through gritted teeth, all the more resonant. “Trans power!” she yells, concluding this magical get-together with a powerful sense of unity.
The best fucking festival in the world? Maybe – but keep it to yourself. This review will self-destruct in five…