End of the Road, with its early September positioning, always feels like a musical lap of honour for everyone involved. Artists can see the light at the end of the festival season tunnel, punters get to bathe in some of the best music released each year, and despite the impending autumn, the weather is normally beautiful. 2018’s edition was no different.
Nestled between trails of baby peacocks, real ale tents, pop-up DIY recording studios and art installations, musicians pitch up to ply their wears amidst adulation from bearded and bellied old men and boozy music-loving youngsters who are more into alt-rock and craft beers than the mephedrone-and-bindi types you’re likely to find at somewhere like Reading and Leeds or Boomtown.
Now into its teens, the festival seems to know it place in the world and feels more assured than ever. Understated, the packed bill is actually far more musically diverse than you’d assume on first glance, putting together a line-up that calls on all the far-reaching fringes of indie/alternative music. How many similar sized festivals could claim to host both Tirzah and Iceage on the same stage? While we must wait another year to return to the beautiful Larmer Tree Gardens, we can now muse over who impressed us most this year...
Now, it may seem a little unfair to include a band that only turned up for half their set in this article, but the manner in which Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar had the Garden Stage hooked on his every syllable makes it impossible to ignore the Canadian band’s inclusion. It was perhaps the perfect time for Destroyer to be playing. The songs from their shortened set all seemed so close to comforting, but due to something slightly misgiving, came off haunting.
Their set leaned heavily on last year’s stunning album ken. Opening with ‘Sky’s Grey’, Bejar’s rattling voice bounced off the intermittent trumpet to simultaneously soothe and startle the crowd. Being stood towards the back of the audience was the best way to take in such a spectacle, with the sun setting on the stage and the bright lights flaring with the louder parts of the songs, it allowed for a moment of true extrospection as the festival morphed from day to night as Destroyer moved from warmth to chill. It is just a pity they couldn’t turn up on time. (Joel Burton)
DUDS are, in my opinion, one of the most exciting UK bands around at the minute. The first British band to join John Dwyer of Oh Sees’ Castle Face imprint, the Manchester sextet have been busy carving out a formidable reputation on the UK live circuit following the release of their debut album, Of A Nature Or Degree, earlier this year. They took to the stage looking exactly like what you’d expect a weird experimental post-punk band to look like, serious faces all round and a strict dress code: every one of them adorned grey shirts tucked into grey trousers. Call it a gimmick but this strict uniformity made complete sense as soon as the band jerked into their first song.
MORE: Read DUDS' inclusion in Gigwise's tips for new Manchester bands here
What followed was a series of sharp punches to the gut in the form of chaotic and angular post-punk, like a demented love-child of Devo, Beefheart and Gang Of Four that teetered on the brink of free jazz at times. It was discordant and sporadic but absolutely meticulous and tighter than anything else we’d heard over the weekend. Sharp, jagged guitar hooks were underpinned by a faultless cacophony of wailing brass and frenzied erratic percussion. It was seriously something to behold, even if they probably are much better-suited to intimate basement venues than a huge festival tent. Not that that stopped the crowd from being totally transfixed from start-to-finish. (Jack Palfrey)
8. Big Thief (Secret Set)
When you think of Big Thief, one of the last things you could imagine complimenting Adrianne Lenker’s piercingly beautiful vocals is a techno-esque drum beat coming out of a laptop. The piano stage had never been so packed as when Big Thief’s stripped back secret set arrived on Friday lunchtime. With no room for a drum-kit, the band improvised and allowed the songs from last year’s Capacity to be seen in a completely new light. Beyond captivating the tiny crowd, Lenker and co. also showed just how fast their songs really are with that metronomic, electronic beat underlining each song. It served to accentuate the nervous energy that is apparent only in whispers in so much of their two albums, bringing a chill over us in the audience that demanded us to sit up and pay attention.
Like so many of EOTR’s piano stage sets, there was a palpable connection between band and onlookers. Lenker’s raw lyrics were on display for everyone to witness, drawing you into the story she carves out. Meanwhile, guitarist Buck Meek’s twangy backing vocals acted as a perfect counterpoint, bathing some light on the shadowy threads weaved. This incarnation of ‘techno Big Thief’ may not pop up too often, and it was an honour to witness. (Joel Burton)
At 1:30 on Saturday morning in the small packed-out Tipi tent another one of those mutant South London offspring’s climbed onto the stage, Warmduscher, an incestuous hybrid made up of members Fat White Family, Paranoid London, Insecure Men and Childhood. The bands grimacing frontman, going by the pseudonym Clams Baker, prowled about the stage barking at the audience to tear the tent apart and invade the stage. They erupted into their first song and, from the off, the crowd tried their absolute hardest to do exactly that.
To the tune of sleazy, obnoxious garage-punk the mass of onlookers threw themselves around, following each and every one of Baker’s orders, who writhed around the stage either swinging a mic around like a lasso or armed with the mic-stand itself, dangling it over the audience. Throughout the set, Warmduscher unleashed a riotous, ungodly racket that was ridiculous, arrogant and a bit horrible but, against the odds, absolutely brilliant - so long as you don’t take it too seriously. By the end of their set there was a constant stream of crowd-surfers and people literally running and jumping over the barriers to the side of the stage, dodging the confused, helpless and increasingly-hands-on security just to get a few seconds of dancing on the stage. It was total carnage, in the best possible way. (Jack Palfrey)
6. (Sandy) Alex G
On Saturday afternoon, with the baking hot sun bearing down on a sweaty Garden Stage, (Sandy) Alex G seemed like the perfect remedy for any potential mid-festival lull. He and his band arrived on stage to a cool yet enthusiastic cheer, but before any of his eclectic set set sail, he had an important message for one fan by the name of ‘Owen’. After reading out Owen’s message of praise, Alex declared that this is no joke to him, it’s ‘fucking serious’.
With that wry, playful tone set, the band swung into a career-spanning set in typical slacker fashion. They glided through several lesser known tracks from some of his Bandcamp repertoire, but inevitably the crowd’s loudest reactions were reserved for Rocket singles ‘Proud’ and ‘Bobby’.
While there may have been tighter bands performing over the weekend, it would be hard to find one that was having more fun than (Sandy) Alex G and his band. No moment exemplified this more than during Rocket closer ‘Guilty’. After a whisper in his ear, Alex switched his keyboard to a jazz scat setting for a chorus of ‘boo!’s and ‘bow!’s, more commonly known as ‘the keyboard setting used to piss your GCSE music teacher off’. Where much of EOTR’s afternoon music is good for a snooze, (Sandy) Alex G showed up to wake things up. (Joel Burton)
5. Black Midi
Despite being spotted by just about everyone at the festival throughout Sunday, Black Midi still refused to admit they were playing a secret set that clashed with Ariel Pink’s Big Top blow out. Whether they expected anyone to believe them or not, or whether it was just the band adding another layer of mystery over themselves, is up for you to decide.
What is for certain, however, is that Black Midi lived up to their reputation as one of London’s most exciting new bands. With it being one of the final sets of the weekend, the crowd stood there in a half-pissed, half-tired daze before they came to deliver their sermon at some time past midnight. Within seconds it became obvious that Black Midi play at you, not for you, coming in ever increasing anxious waves trying to engulf and blind your senses before Geordie Greeps vocals barb you back into reality.
They lean heavily on their influences, so much so that a friend lent in and asked if one song was actually a Slint cover, but when a band play with as much static energy it is hard to care. They rattled through their set in which it is hard to remember a moment where the drum kit wasn't being beaten to a pulp, or a guitar wasn’t provoking a jittering moshpit, all the while Greeps’ rambled on about the New York Times. (Joel Burton)
4. Snapped Ankles
Appearing as if they migrated from some deep unknown forest to the picturesque End Of The Road site, were the mind-blowing Snapped Ankles – a group of feral hedges (they were dressed head-to-toe in straggly ghillie suits) who roamed around a small stage littered with all kinds of oddities. There was the band's trademark log-synths, drum kits that look like they’ve been made out of materials found rummaging in the woods, and one person that seemed to just be waving around something that looked like a green lightsabre.
Their krautrock-inflected post-punk freak-outs went down a storm, with more yeti’s charging into the crowd halfway through the set with lone floor-toms and cymbals, beating them within an inch of their life before scurrying away again. Where krautrock was steeped in a sort of techno-utopian futurism, Snapped Ankles seem to take step back and reduce things to their truly primal, earthly foundations. It was euphoric, primitive and the perfect fix for their late-night slot, leaving everyone reeling as they brought day one’s live music to an end. And, as it happens, the festival itself - joining Brighton’s AK/DK on stage for the last set of the weekend a couple of days later. The duo’s synth-mastery and double-drums transforming Snapped Ankle’s untamed woodland post-punk into a whole new dance-y beast. (Jack Palfrey)
3. Vampire Weekend
On first impressions, Vampire Weekend seem like an odd headliner right now. Their last album is now five years old, and Ezra Koenig is currently more famous for his Netflix anime show than his musical output. So I was somewhat apprehensive about what to expect when they came to headline the Woods Stage on Saturday. What was served, however, was a real masterclass in headline fun.
Without the burden of a new album to promote, Vampire Weekend served up a set so packed with songs from their era defining first album, it felt as if I should have been wearing my school uniform. Now without Rostam, the band do not seem to have lost any of their charm or wit, instead bright lights and dancing ensued as End of the Road fell into a carnival mood. Along with (Sandy) Alex G, it was without a doubt one of the happiest and funniest sets of the weekend with Koenig’s wry remarks to the crowd have them eating out of his palm. His vocals sounded particularly Paul Simon-esque, while many tracks played from their first album grooved like upbeat B-sides from Graceland. During Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, the band even got to pay homage to Peter Gabriel with a partial cover of ‘Solsbury Hill’.
Where before there was an air of scepticism, and perhaps a whiff of expectancy to see a band past its prime, now there is genuine anticipation to see what the new Vampire Weekend have in store. (Joel Burton)
2. Mulatu Astatke
In terms of curation, End Of The Road has consistently put together a line-up that pulls from all the esoteric, far-reaching corners of left-field music and this year was no exception. On the beautiful Garden Stage, nestled between oddball pop wonder-kid Alex G and indie crooner Destroyer, was Mulatu Astatke – the hugely-influential godfather of Ethio-jazz – and his band. With its lysergic funky synths, otherworldly saxophones and trumpet swoons, driving string-sections and sublime afro-cuban rhythms, the set was just as exploratory and psychedelic as it was driven by a truly irresistible groove. With the sun beaming down on us, the crowd split into two factions: there was dancing aplenty and rapturous applause at any small break in a song. But there was also people left completely spellbound - swaying in the sun with eyes closed shut, letting Astatke transport them into some other dimension. Which, of course, he obliged. Storming through a set that you never wanted to end, including such classics as ‘Yègellé Tezeta’, ‘Yèkèrmo Sèw’ and the eponymous ‘Mulatu’, Astatke’s set was undoubtedly a highlight of the weekend – it was hypnotic, fun-as-hell and like nothing else the whole weekend. What more could you want? (Jack Palfrey)
Whoever you speak to over the weekend, IDLES were always on the tip of everyone’s tongue and the anticipation could be felt like an omnipresent cloud over the festival. So much so that I went into their set almost hoping that I wouldn’t have to stick them on the top of the list because, well, it feels safe, obvious and to be honest, there’s not much that hasn’t been said about the band before. Caustic. Visceral. Cathartic. Rage-fuelled. Political. Urgent. Vital. An all-out sonic assault. You’ve heard it all before. Alas, to the surprise of absolutely no-one it took all of about thirty seconds for everyone to realise they'd stepped into the rowdiest show of the weekend.
I arrived at the Big Top tent ten-minutes before the band were set to go on and already the tunnels leading into the tent had been cordoned off and huge queues were building up outside, people furious that they were missing the much-hyped band. It’s a good job this lot were a determined bunch, though. Within seconds of the band beginning their set, a swarm of people (yeah, me included) took the initiative and sprinted up to the sides of the tent, lifting the tarpaulin and crawling frantically inside so as not to miss the blood-spitting, tongue-in-cheek punk fury that is an Idles live-show.
MORE: Read our exclusive interview with IDLES here
Only one song in and the crowd had descended into a gyrating, claustrophobic mass of flailing limbs, never-ending mosh-pits, cups launched like projectiles and lyrics furiously screamed back at the band as they powered through a brutal onslaught of a set. There was the finest cuts from their debut LP Brutalism – see: the malevolent stomp of ‘Divide & Conquer’ and the snarling, politically-charged polemic, ‘Mother’ – plus newer tracks from their recently-released Joy As An Act Of Resistance LP including the crushing, aptly-named ‘Colossus’ and ‘Samaritans’, a joyous arms-in-the-air attack on toxic masculinity. The pace never let up for a second and the crowd only got crazier, leaving everyone absolutely buzzing by the time they drew their set to a close. All I can say is, if you ever get the chance to see this band then don’t think twice about it. There’s a reason they’re well on their way to becoming the most exciting and fast-rising rock band to grace these shores in years. (Jack Palfrey)