Dorset's End Of The Road Festival is now in its thirteenth year, showcasing a fantastic standard of music across the bill in a wonderful setting.
A baker's dozen is long enough to have worked out any kinks, and come up with a site set up that works. I've become a regular attendee, and this was the first I can remember where it's been dry for all four days. It's been a few years since any major site changes, the addition of a new stage or a change in the car parks or campsites. Whilst set in Larmer Tree Gardens much of the footprint spreads outside the Larmer Tree Pleasure Grounds enclosed by their aged laurel hedges. The field adjoining the gardens was a racecourse, lawn tennis courts and an eighteen-hole golf course when Thomas Hardy visited the gardens in 1895. Fast forward to this weekend and the grassy space is home to festival goers staying in the accessible, boutique, family, quiet and normal camping, and campervan fields. It's also the place to hire a trolley from on arrival to transport gear from the car park to a camping space on the sloping fields (only a fiver if you get there and back in 20 minutes). Wristband exchanges are busy on the opening Thursday and in the surrounds there's a little tailback in the narrow lanes approaching the site, but no long waits beyond people's patiences.
The outer field also houses campsite toilets, water points. and showers. Entering through a wristband check point, lock up, cashpoint, and tobacco kiosk, and you're in the festival proper. This part is a figure of eight. On the larger loop are the The Woods openair stage, and the tented Big Top stage. Opposite both are bars and toilets, the latter has the larger real ale bar, and next to it Rough Trade records, the Merch tent, and a red double decker tea bus beside the pathway into the gardens proper. The rest of this loop has food stalls on either side with fire pits and benches in the middle and on the return walk to Wood Stage are traders and stalls.
The smaller loop of the figure 8 has a large fire surrounded by benches as its epicentre, more food stalls around the outside, some woodworking stalls, an exit to the campsite - where there's a breakfast cafe, a general stall, and a bakery with picnic benches. Back in the smaller loop the remaining space is completed by The Badger Inn inside a tipi, the Tipi stage - once inside the Badger tipi but now housed in its own marquee, and the famous Somerset cider bus with its own tented dance space beside it, playing upbeat or cheesy disco hits all weekend.
There are two main entrances into the main gardens, one from each loop of the figure eight. In the pleasure gardens the grass is manicured, the peacocks roam, the macaws fly above you and it houses more food stalls, more bars, the tree enclosed Garden Stage, art exhibitions in the pavilions, kids activities and workshops in the Wonderlands lawn, a tree canopied comedy stage, and the muraled (pagoda) home to the silent disco DJs, and various ornate buildings. The laurel hedges also contain a croquet lawn, the healing village, woodland library, piano stage (where surprise acts play really quiet sets), art trail, and games area. Further in amongst the Camellias, and Rhododendrons is The Outlands, home to the karaoke stage (always people murdering songs when I pass it), the disco ship, a fairground Ferris Wheel, the literary 'Library' Stage (in a slightly larger tent this year) and the Twin Peaks inspired cinema and coffee shop.
Every year the art trail through the trees changes and it's a must-visit to see what's inside, this year 'fake plastic trees', 'Nebulous' geometric clouds with glowing raindrops, and 'Band Names For Sale' are favourites for us this year, along with a giant badger statue. There's plenty of off the cuff entertainment here, Videopia are back this year with a cast of festival goers remaking Jumanji (last year I remember it was Jurassic Park). One of the good things about EOTR is that it offers the chance to wander or try something new, or sample a workshop, craft something, or in my case get some funky tunes out of a tin can with School of Noise.
There's plenty of good causes and charities, recycling, biodegradable food containers site wide, used tent and camping equipment donation scheme, Drastic on Plastic, Frank Water and Eighth Plate are all in attendance It all adds up to giving the impression this is a festival with its heart in the right place. The site is kept pristine by a team of litter pickers, and some very efficient bin emptiers. Andy Loos toilets are always in good knick (do those festival toilets of legend exist anywhere anymore?), and lighting is minimal but effective, strings of low energy bulbs and trees either projected upon, spot-lit or festooned with fairy lights. The over all impression is one of a well kept English garden.
Crowds are overall hugely respectful, particularly in the Garden Stage, where bands repeatedly thank the audiences for being so attentive. Some are genuinely surprised to be playing or singing with not another sound in the whole area. Similarly at the Piano Stage (think cutaway living room in a box), and in the Tipi Stage. The more rawkus Big Top and the biggest crowd at the Woods Stage tend to have more boisterous audiences. But it's that quiet appreciation that makes this festival a favourite for presenting quiet acts people can hear.
As for the acts themselves, well the line-up this year belied an incredible standard. In four days I didn't hear an act I didn't want to hear more of. Though careful reference to a clashfinder (some people even had theirs laminated) provided on the website, meant I had pretty much already mapped my weekend out for me before I arrived. There were multiple times when acts clashed, so my wife and I had planned to catch a half set of each. Often this didn't work out as we ended up watching the whole set of the first act. There was one act we couldn't see because the tent was full, Hookworms, and one after we'd missed out where we went early to ensure we were inside - Idles, and we were so glad we did, for me they were the act of the weekend.
EOTR always ensure it has a good balance of male and female acts, and always showcases at least one woman headliner. This year there were two on offer, both proved suitable, the heavenly Feist (though really she should have swapped stages with the more upbeat White Denim), and the synth rock of St Vincent, whose opening five minutes of the show with lithe leggy entrance and barrage of lights was a eyeball blazing scoop of pure pop art. I loved Thursday's headlining act Yo La Tengo, dancing away happily, the wife was less impressed. Saturday's headliners Vampire Weekend were on top form and attracted a good crowd of exuberant youth (some even dressed as vampires!) to embrace their anthemic summershot tunes. We opted after a few jaunty numbers for the rammed Garden Stage and the sonic punk rock blast of (Thee) Oh Sees and their perfectly synced brace of drummers. My word! Surely one of the best live acts on the planet right now. Unrelenting sonic noodling with a syncopated back beat - magnificent.
One reason I love EOTR is the number of alt-country acts it likes to invite. This year was no exception Colter Wall's voice was like a shot of Wild Turkey, Texan Josh T Pearson alternated between upbeat and lonesome (warning us which was coming next along the way) and also proved hugely entertaining that evening in the audience more mashed than Jack Daniels. Julien Baker looked diminutive in the cavern of the stage, but the 20 something has an incredibly powerful voice when she let rip. Hayley Heynderickx may not be much bigger but her engaging off kilterness, and on the road tales, won the audience over equally. Julia Holter seemed to be annoyed, possibly because preceding act Julian Wilson's wall of amps had taken so long to set up, I preferred the Julia with the extra n. Red River Dialect were great, Stella Donnelly greater. It was the first time I'd seen Hiss Golden Messanger - loved it. I've seen The Low Anthem a few times now (including at EOTR) again they didn't disappoint, a real highlight for me even threw in a wall of low noise, and a clap along surf-rock song about plankton - really!. Aging bluesman Jim White was another highlight, great tunes, great stories, and a greater voice, plus that depreciating humour that only comes out of southern blues.
There were lots of new acts of different music genres too. Moor Mother late at night in the Tipi was the most surprising trip hop, feedback loops, and lyrics sometimes yelled, sometimes, spat, sometimes whispered - always profound, political, deep and at times dark. Hard but brilliant stuff. Sunflower Bean returned and delighted on a bigger indoor stage, This Is The Kit showcased their brand of folk to a packed audience brilliantly. Nilufer Ynanya is a lady who is sure to break big in the coming years. Boy Azooga were terrific as was A Wesley Chung. Shannon And The Clams sounded terrific with their retro doo-wop influence, and surely their lead singer sounds a dead ringer for Frankey Valli. The Laminanas brought us latino slab rock to blast the cobwebs away. We were just enjoying Gwenno when an urgent call from home meant I had to make a quick exit. Solo act Titus Andronicus was weirdly brilliant, like the rebellious son of Gruff Rhys who himself was a magnificently muddled Welsh genius in the sunset slot playing to long player Babelsberg in full, much to our delight. But it was Omar Souleyman and Shame who share the honours for getting the daytime crowd the most lively, Omar with his Eastern beats and Shame with their manic stage diving antics. For craziness they even outdid Idles who I've already said were just amazing.
There were other highlights like lipstick wearing Ezra Furman and Honey Harper, John Cale in crackling form, Jeff Tweedy in weird genius and a bit laconic form, and the aforementioned White Denim in groovy form. Favourite random act quote of the weekend: "America's got weird, we are definitely the weirdest country in the world at the moment, you may be a close second." All this plus hot and spicy cider, late night woodsmoke fires, silent discos, ringo musical bingo, a wonderful atmosphere and warm weather, T-shirts in September! Festivals are so much easier when you don't have to lumber a coat around, although many lumbered chairs around instead. Festival policy dictates they're kept behind the sound-desks though.
This year was the year of the hard backed book, a freebie written by Rich Shapero, it proliferated the site everywhere. No one appeared to be reading it, pages of it were made into confetti or cut up artfully by audiences. No idea what it was about, but it kept popping up on any flat surface.
We took advantage of the early bird tickets and brought our campervan pass cheaply. This year it seemed to be mainly retirees in the CV fields, and more beaten up vans than hire vans than previous years. Packing up Monday, a nearby mother and her mother who had been sharing a campervan all weekend were saying goodbye to each other. I assumed it was the daughter's van, but no she left to take public transport back to her kids, and their grandmother waved as she drove the van out of the spotlessly clean field. The only thing left where all the vans had been parked around us was the yellowing grass shadows of vehicles.The real ale bar shut down a bit early on Sunday, but the Beavertown bar and their beers is still open, some of their cans are a bit steeply expensive. Plus of course the cider bus beer was usually £4.50 a pint, but cider was suddenly a fiver!? Hot and spicy was £5.50. Has the price of apples risen?
And this leads on to the question of cans. The festival allows patrons to bring in their own drinks. But, what’s with this throwing cans, full opened ones in air in the mosh pit, empties on the ground, and thrown in the urinals, why? It was a low point to see a full can winged into the air to hit an unsuspecting member of the audience. Offsetting that negative is another regular delight about EOTR - the surprise slots and secret sets by acts appearing over the weekend, which included a sneak peak of Boygenius material (the new collaboration of Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus - along with the absent Phoebe Bridgers).
Beer prices appeared to have jumped up by 50p this year, and food prices remained at around £9-10, but portions seemed smaller. It appeared that there were more people eating at their tents this year. They missed out because, oh my, the food vendors they pick for EOTR are just amazing. This year's favourites were the Feral Food Store (dirty vegan delights that fed both of us for £9), Polental - oh my god their mushroom and cheese dish was a-maz-ing, and claw (seemed expensive for crab and chips - but wow filled me right up! Bonus point for never letting a massive queue develop). Of course all the other festival favourites were there like Tibetan, Roaming Rotiseserie (Sunday lunch), The Curry Shed, Wild Meat, Hippy Chippy, Dorshi, Grande Bouffe, Seacow, Happi Maki, Pho Sho, Le Rac Shack, Paelleria, the Juice place, and newcomer this year Pieminster. Plus other we didn't take more cash from the cashpoint for, and coffee shops, tea shops, gin palaces, cafes, burritos, burgers, and a pasta place.
I was approached late on Friday night near the disco ship by some well dressed in their fifties totally three sheets to the wind, they asked if that was that way to the gabber rave party, pointing into Outlands. Instantly some young shirtless, torso painted, sunglass wearing (after midnight) kids appeared and led them off into the twinkling woods. A perfect example of what cross generational appeal this festival has. It still amazes me to see the number of young adults arms in the air with both Reading Festival and EOTR wristbands on, they seem to be having a great time, to me wildly out of place amongst the trucker caps, check shirts, and tweed in their unicorn horns, shiny capes and glitter, but they too are loving it. I wonder sometimes if they're at all the acts I miss having a different festival experience entirely. But, I think we are all sharing one of the last outdoor festival weekends of the summer, all of us together, from retired pensioners to raving teens, amazing! Music crosses generations and so do festivals when they're this well run. Hardly saw a security guard all weekend, when I did they were off duty. Crew from the stewards, and bar staff to the litter pickers, and medical staff to the sound guys were all friendly. Everyone's having a good time, even the people who work at it.
Another great year and with what was a real strong line-up, we definitely hope to be back next year. I kind of wish they did a successful start of the road too, a year seems a long time to wait, but it, like that first annual pint of hot and spicy is worth it.
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