End Of The Road 2019 is a festival defined by surprises. The best of these perhaps comes when south London punks Shame perform a stunning secret set in the Big Top on Sunday night, an exercise in giving the audience what they want while testing out brand new material and conveying a band in flux. Frontman Charlie Steen, sporting a bolo tie and speaking with a vaguely Texan twang, does something of an Alex Turner; in the wake of Shame’s American tour, he appears to have adopted stateside clichés and turned them inside out.
It makes for one hell of a show: Steen crowdsurfs before the first song – a new one – reaches the halfway point, then alternates between his ragged howl and addressing the audience as “beautiful, wonderful people”. Bassist Josh Finerty leaps from speaker-stacks like pop-punk never died and Steen spends the last song, the NME-name-checking golden oldie ‘Gold Hole’, standing on the hands of the front row, peering into the abyss of the circlepit that’s formed before him. The new material combines Cramps-y jangle with staccato Black Midi riffs (there’s even a little cowbell on ‘Exhaler’), the meeting point between their south London roots and US flirtation seeming to prove fertile ground for Steen and co.
Other secret shows include an acoustic sets from alt-country NME faves Ohtis and a stripped-back performance from Bill Ryder-Jones; both occur on the Piano Stage, a makeshift living room set amid the light-dappled trees tucked away beside the second largest stage of the festival. Both write bracingly honest songs about inky black subject matter, making these intimate shows (there are about 50 people at each) incredibly powerful.
The Piano Stage is the kind of thing that End Of The Road excels at: it looks great, there’s a real sense of community and, since shows aren’t announced (the acts just turn up) you never know what you’ll get. Now celebrating its 13th anniversary, the Dorset festival has really taken root at Larmer Tree Gardens; it’s the attention to detail that makes it the standout of the summer. A crazy golf course where you putt through a parked car – somehow – a karaoke stage replete with a bath for you belt out ‘Parklife’ from and, of course, peacocks strutting around the site: it all amounts to the blissful, escapist atmosphere.
Yet there are acknowledgements of the turmoil you might feasibly want to escape from. Kate Tempest delivers an astonishing series of seething missives from the main stage on the Saturday night, opening with ‘Europe Is Lost’, her epic about a country in disarray. It’s an austere show – just Tempest and a DJ – and often the songs peter out, leaving her to finish them a capella. It’s kind of anti-stand-up (there’s a cheer when she contrasts crooked politicians’ action with those of working-class youths and sarcastically concludes, “Jail him – he’s the criminal”). But there’s deep compassion here: the line “the point of life is live, love / If you can, then pass it on” elicits tears from the sprawling audience.
Sleaford Mods put on a comparable show, minus the earnestness, in the Big Top. Their dispatches from working-class Britain probably require some familiarity with the subject matter to properly hit home, though they’re laced with savage humour too. The punch-line to ‘B.H.S’, a bitter takedown of bad bastard Phillip Green, says everything about the chasm between us normies and the apathetic super-rich: “Laying on a boat, mate – look at you!” For all they’re often written off blokey, there’s a brilliant campness to the Mods’ live performance: frontman Jason Williamson pirouettes across the stage, twirling his microphone stand, before announcing, “End Of The Road – it’s Saturday night!”, affecting wide-eyed wonder.
It’s Jarvis Cocker, though, closing the Garden Stage on Sunday night, who properly gives voice to frustrations that simmer beneath the blissfulness of this decidedly wholesome festival. His new Jarv Is… project, alternating between original songs that sometimes resemble X-Ray Spex (wiry, punk guitar lines and howling saxophone) and sometimes swing to the more esoteric end of Pulp, receives a warm response from this open-minded audience. They’re rewarded with the Jarvis solo cut ‘Cunts Are Still Running The World’, which closes the show after he’s read aloud an anonymous Instagram post that hails Britain’s diminishing time in the EU as a “briefly beautiful” period of inclusivity and community.
These are moments that stay in the memory, but End Of The Road is a festival that also boasts a different kind of open-mindedness: that which embraces the left-field. Courtney Barnett’s Saturday night masterclass show epitomises this attitude, her grunge-inflected indie anthems roared back at the Aussie star, who easily earns the headline slot she won when Beruit dropped out. “I’m doing good”? she enquires at one point, the response unabashedly affirmative.
Atlanta legends Deerhunter are parallel universe superstars here, too, frontman Bradford Cox cutting an ironically all-American figure – a jockish baseball jacket and black shades – that belies the insular nature of his band’s delicate shoegaze. Their pal Cate Le Bon plays before them, her deconstructed chamber pop also proving that challenging music is welcomed at End Of The Road. The bouncing piano and squealing brass of ‘The Light’ gives way to a cacophony of percussion and howling guitar mid-way through ‘Meet The Man’; there’s a singularity to Le Bon’s music that perfectly mirrors that of the festival: this is a world unto itself and though pesky reality creeps in fleetingly, it is eclipsed by escapist beauty.
It’s a balance that could only be achieved by a festival as well-crafted as End of the Road 2019, a place in which a London punk can parade around in a Texan necktie and make perfect sense and Jarvis Cocker get away with playing just the one obscure Pulp song (‘His ‘N’ Hers’). There’s a tarot card reading session with ‘cardi-ologists’ Litwitchure in the Literature Tent on Sunday afternoon, but you don’t require a gift for the supernatural to know that the future looks swell for what’s inarguably the best-curated festival of the summer.