All the talk was of the weather. We knew that rain would arrive, but when? In the event, the precipitation arrived in earnest on Saturday, but it was not enough seriously to dampen spirits at a bijou three-day event that has become one of the jewels in the festival calendar. Ask End of the Road regulars why they keep coming back and you’re likely to hear the same answer: it’s all just so easy. The environment is pretty, too: peacocks roam the grounds, pausing to pose for photographs, and there’s space to pitch your tent without becoming too intimate with your neighbours’ breathing patterns.
Crucially, End of the Road is also extremely well curated. This year’s gave an exceptionally broad sweep of music, with a welcome emphasis on female performers. The opening day, for instance, offered Anna Meredith. Meredith is primarily a classical composer but here she presented a crossover project with a band that included drums, guitar, tuba, two cellos, and her own keyboards and clarinet. Crescendos, chromatic scales, the repetitive patterns of minimalism: these elements coalesced to form something complex, layered and bold, with hints of Meredith’s native Scotland in the chiming guitars and chords. And the sight of this infectiously enthusiastic performer banging on a drum with the energy of a schoolchild was invigorating.
So too — though in a very different way — were Savages, the UK-based band who performed on the main stage in the early evening. The black-clad all-female band roused the crowd with a bracing blast of precision-tooled noise and hollering. Savages are often described as “punk” or “post-punk”, but here they showed that they owe a debt to heavy metal too, with their changes of pace and churning, cathartic riffs. Rabble-rousing French-born singer Jehnny Beth went walkabout on the shoulders of the crowd — obligingly removing her vertiginously high-heeled shoes beforehand.
Friday’s headliners were an odd bunch: Animal Collective are the Baltimore electronic experimentalists whose music veers from squelchy avant-gardism to bubbly dance-pop. Here, on a stage decorated by three grotesque giant sculptural heads and accompanied by a hyperactive frenzy of lights and projections, the shadowy foursome presented a coherent, expertly segued 90 minutes of music the like of which no one else is currently making: burbly, elastic, chattery, skittish, danceable, undanceable, listenable, almost unlistenable, and with weirdly overlapping nerdy vocals.
Once, for a joyous few minutes, the crowd were dancing and singing to “Flori-Dada”; mostly, this was music for the head as much as the legs. Strange, and memorable.
Much of my first afternoon was occupied with trying — and failing — to get to see Stewart Lee on the comedy stage. The stewards told those waiting in the enormous queues that we had no hope of getting in; but still we queued — a phenomenon that this caustic comedian would surely have had something to say about. On the comedy stage on Sunday, though, I saw Josie Long, who delivered a beautifully crafted piece which veered — inevitably, given Long’s political leanings — towards Brexit. She found fertile ground among this predominantly middle-class audience for her despair over the vote, but also posited the importance of hope and reconciliation. Long is a classy comedian; she can “do” the silly voices, she can “do” the gags, but essentially she is a teller of very funny, thoughtful and well-crafted stories.
Saturday’s highlight — and perhaps of the weekend — was a set from Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop. Beam is the US singer who otherwise goes by the name of Iron and Wine; Hoop is the California-born singer and songwriter who recently collaborated with Beam on an album, Love Letter for Fire. Their duets were exquisite things, their voices dovetailing immaculately, their harmonies close and unexpected; they sang songs of love while the wind blew a parting in Beam’s beard and parrots flying overhead deposited “gifts” on the audience.
Beam and Hoop sang two startling cover versions: “Islands in the Stream”, in a minor key, and Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger”. They were funny, too. “Sorry about the rain,” said Beam. “It’s your fault for living here.”
Goat are a Swedish collective who maintain anonymity behind exotic masks and play music that is tribal and hypnotic. Afrobeat, west African highlife and psychedelia combine in an intoxicating brew. The two frontwomen in their robes and masks sang and danced themselves into oblivion, shamanic go-go dancers surrounded by thumpingly good musicians.
Saturday’s headliner was Bat for Lashes, the singer otherwise known as Natasha Khan, performing here in a wedding dress and bridal veil in keeping with her recent album The Bride — the sorry tale of a woman who is about to get married when her groom dies in a car crash. Much of her set was sparse and rather bleak but Khan redressed the balance with a more cheerful concluding half-hour, including a touching cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy”. Her set also featured a heart-warming on-stage marriage proposal from a friend of Khan’s (“I think we’re alone now,” he said to his partner as thousands cheered; she accepted).
On Sunday, the Malian/Algerian Tuareg band Imarhan got the crowd moving with their hypnotic, churning desert grooves, powered by a deliciously dirty guitar sound, circular vocals and insistent rhythms. A much appreciated early-afternoon sharpener.
Later the same day, the Thurston Moore Group showed just what can be achieved with six metal strings and a plank of wood. Assisted by his ensemble, the former Sonic Youth player wrestled all manner of sounds and noises from his guitar, from delicate harmonics to buzzsaw growls. He is a great guitarist, but not in the tradition of Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck; his skill lies in exploring the textures of the instrument, the way guitars mesh, clash and spiral on tracks such as the stunning “Aphrodite”. Their set, though, ended abruptly after 45 minutes. I’d been expecting, and anticipating, more.