End Of The Road – Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset, September 4-6
Sufjan Stevens, Tame Impala and more mark EOTR's 10th birthday in style
Nine times out of ten, when someone says they did something because God told them to, the smart money is on that ‘something’ being not especially nice. But here we have Sufjan Stevens on a stage in Wiltshire, recalling how a fiery vision of the man upstairs appeared to him from behind parted clouds and instructed him to come here.
He’s joking, of course, but if God did have to pick a favourite festival, he could do worse than End of the Road. This year, the Larmer Tree Gardens bash plays host to its 10th birthday celebrations, and they’re pulling out all the stops to make it a weekend to remember – as well as Sufjan in his first-ever UK festival appearance, they’ve got top-drawer attractions in Tame Impala and The War on Drugs, both surfing waves of acclaim for their biggest records to date.
On Friday, there are fine sets from the operatically moody Nadine Shah and Ought, whose inventive punk comes gift-wrapped with a singer, Tim Darcy, dripping in nasally NY no-wave cool. After which we make our excuses with the talented but suffocatingly tasteful Natalie Prass, and melt in with the white-heat intensity of Metz, who could nonetheless do with a tune or two to bolster their primordial grunge shtick.
Tame Impala raise the rapidly plummeting September temperatures a notch with opener ‘Let It Happen’, a dreamily expansive introduction to a set that shows Kevin Parker and crew still have a way to go before they can boss stages as big as this one. With the band’s heavy artillery increasingly reined in as the band sets sail for pop pastures new, the music tends to waft where it should crunch, and Parker’s thin tenor struggles to summon the required levels of gravitas to make it all stick. That said, ”Cause I’m A Man’ unfurls with seismic authority, and ‘Elephant’ stomps and swaggers in all the right places, albeit with a brief techno breakdown that almost causes a riot. Early track ‘Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?’ gets a full-on dance remix, further stoking the wasps’ nest of debate surrounding their synth-spangled new direction. But, if the Perth massive fail to find top gear, there’s sweet succour to be found with East India Youth, who cuts shapes on the Big Top stage like an Enid Blyton schoolboy run amok. And in the exquisite, Scott Walker-meets-Eno ache and fizz of ‘Carousel’, he might just have found the perfect set closer.
Saturday brings unspeakable cold and squalling noise from Drinks, a new project from Cate Le Bon and White Fence’s Tim Presley that sounds like it crawled out of the indulgent throes of a weed-fogged jam session. Meanwhile, Fat White Family might sound like Hell’s own Cramps tribute band-in-residence, but they’re an increasingly well-oiled machine these days, and their Big Top performance is a standout from the weekend. Their set offers a jarring segue into Sufjan Stevens, who somehow takes the unpromising raw material of ‘Carrie & Lowell’, his brilliant, harrowing new album inspired by his mother’s death, and turns it into festival manna from heaven. “We’re all gonna die!” shouts someone in the audience midway through, and he means it in a good way.
The cold finally looses its grip on Sunday, and we’re able to drowse in the midday sun to former Woods man Kevin Morby, whose Jonathan Richman-esque vignettes are an understated treat. Future Islands provoke all manner of weird dancing in the Woods Stage crowd – Samuel Herring should seriously consider releasing an exercise video in time for Christmas – and the official programme is brought to a rousing close by The War on Drugs, whose freewheeling take on the Dylan and Springsteen ’80s songbooks is increasingly transcendent. But the festival’s big farewell moment comes half an hour before, when a visibly baked Mac DeMarco leads the Garden Stage audience through a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ as a cake is brought out onstage. Grinning mischievously, he lobs the cake into the crowd, and the crowd returns fire. As the lights go down in a hail of great spongey clods, End of the Road can feel their birthday wishes all came true here.