Went for the weekend and it lasted for ever, it's officially summer at last

End of the Road 2021 review

By Scott Williams | Published: Thu 9th Sep 2021

around the festival site

Thursday 2nd to Sunday 5th September 2021
Larmer Tree Gardens, Tollard Royal, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 5PT, England MAP
currently £199 for the weekend (SOLD OUT)
Daily capacity: 14,000
Last updated: Tue 24th Aug 2021

It might be because I’ve not been to a festival in a long time, make that a lifetime in festival weeks, but I think perhaps End Of The Road have, after 15 years, pretty much created a perfect little oasis on the edge of Wiltshire.

There’s Paul Simon’s Graceland spilling from the speakers, I blink, capturing this memory that’s both new and familiar. I’ve just had a mouthful of Cider Bus hot spicy cider (last experienced by me in 2019), the sweet taste fills my mouth  (I can still taste - all good),  the nearby community fire mixes with the delicious smells of the festival food stalls (I can still smell - all good). I open my eyes as the sun begins to set - framing hard sundried shadows with an orange glow, and mist rises like wisps between the tents dotted out across the dried dusty grass fields as the strings of welcoming firefly bulbs spark to life. There’s laughter and applause in the distance, a rousing cheer and the sight of sun kissed people wending their way at their ease in front of me. I join them (I’m part of a gathering - all good) and stride towards the sound of live music (I’m back at a festival - oh so good)…. It’s Sunday, I’ve been here four days, slowly easing my way back into festival life. My wife and I have just left a new friend we’ve met for the first time over the weekend, and we are grabbing a final hot & spicy before seeing tonight’s headline acts. We are blissfully happy, and very emotional, we feel renewed at last by a feast of music, arts, and food for the soul…. The words of Arab Strap’s debut single, The First Big Weekend, still resonate: "went out for the weekend, it lasted for ever, high with our friends it's officially summer" at last, hot tears spill down my sunfrosted cheeks.

Let's go back to the start - a dry Thursday of an impending weekend which, as is September’s want, slowly got warmer and warmer, to the point it was uncomfortable. The acts taking to the stage on Sunday lamented the heat. We had no rain, the grass under our feet dried to gold, and a haze of dust occluded the site from the nearby harvesters toiling in the fields. We bought our reasonably priced beers (around £5) or gins (£10) or Somerset Cider Bus Cider (£5.50) using contactless (some even using rings to do this!) or more often cash (when the signal wouldn’t work) and gathered for a gentle sway to Stereolab. It was clear that the vast majority of the festival had arrived on 'early orientation Thursday', to wander the artworks in the woods, catch a Tom Spearing curated movie or dance in End Of The Road’s highly recommended Silent Disco. Though few admitted it we were all a bit dazed to be here in the midst of what is still, at least elsewhere in the world, a global pandemic, acts usually referred it to as "that thingy".

Yes, the pandemic still had struck here and there - the line-up was still slightly in flux and handy daily line-up signage informed us of line-up changes, while behind the scenes caterers switched staff, some of the billed caterers like the mighty Tibetan Kitchen didn’t show up. On site staffing was minimal with 60 security and 90 stewards taking on the work expected of many more over the four days. Hats off to them all they did a terrific job - many thanks. Service at venders was sometimes slowed by the lack of extra staffing, or the air waving of contactless payment devices, but overall the reduced personnel went largely unnoticed - thanks to the hard work of others.

Luckily, overall the music was a captivating but fairly quiet affair and so the dust was not plumed up by mass dancing sweaty crowds. No, this was a more a sedate sway in a close but comfortably social distanced gap from your neighbour. What Anna Meredith, called “Covid secure dancing” before delivering a great cover of Metallica’s 'Sandman' mixed with The Bill theme tune, to end what had been a stand out set on Saturday - 'Nautilus' at a festival? Oh my!

We've been to this festival before, with such a burgeoning line-up of new talent, this festival is where I often discover my new favourite band. This time it's The Golden Dregs who play early on Saturday (and are brilliant by the way - a British The National) and during the song 'Hope Is For the Hopeless' singer Benjamin Woods supplies lines, like Bill Callahan that stick with me the rest of the festival: "Self-preservation is no answer. In a world where sunshine gives you cancer."

The deep,  sonorous thralling vocal clings to my mind like a shot of American vintage bourbon resonating with the longing, loss and regret of that laconic sound - and that fragment of a song provides fortitude and lessens my worries when the footpaths get busy, or when I find myself in a less socially distanced crowd getting a bit used to being near each other through the second half of the festival. When my self preservation instinct fostered over the last year overtake me - the lyrics supplant the instinct to run to the hills.

With so many great acts to choose from and such a compact site on Larmer Tree Gardens, it’s usually the case that we badger about the site seeing most of the acts appearing - that’s more usually the case when we’ve had a summer doing festivals, and our legs are seasoned for all that bimbling, But we’re not match fit, and so we scale down our festival wishlist - no doubt missing a heap of great acts everyone else would put on their top performances of the weekend. The easiest and fairest way to do this we decide is to take the four main stages and half them - deciding to focus our coverage on the two outdoor main stages - The Woods and The Garden Stage.

The latter having an annoying issue with sound from what was possibly a blown cone in the stage left array. I only notice it as it amplified my own tinnitus at just the right frequency. Moving around the crowd to the sound desk or left side of the stage solved the issue well enough for me to enjoy headliners John Grant, and Richard Dawson. So much so I missed the acts they clashed with Hot Chip, and King Krule, but I did manage to catch up with some Sleaford Mods, after Jonny Greenwood failed to do it for me. I probably should have stayed in the Garden as I ended up in deep conflagration with a daylgo sticker and sharpie wielding fella called Alex who appeared to be espousing his plan for a Logan’s Run dystopian future! Late night conversations with randoms around the fire with a bevy (oh how I’ve missed thee).

The other thing I’ve missed is secret sets, Line Of Best Best Fit present lots here with their Piano Stage guests doing covers and short zippy 15 minute sets, for someone like me who has aged gloriously with the 3 songs then out mindset it’s a real boon. Acts include Big Joanie, Lazarus Kane, Sorry, Golden Dregs, Fenne Lily, Eve Owen, Broadside Hacks, Yard Act, Anna B Savage, Modern Woman, and Wesley Gonzalez- terrific samplers of the music acts coming of age and a few more established acts.

The main stages have no end of talent from the hit the ground bounce of Little Simz, to the groove of Balimaya Project (the audience applaud them when they leave the back stage a while later they were that good), Billy Nomates, Arlo Parks, Squid, The Comet Is Coming - there’s a whole range of acts and musical directions.

There’s also a smorgasbord of caterers - with meals times a clash finder of great food options, we eat very well and more often. Hobbit’s ‘Second Breakfast’ becomes ‘Third Lunch’ etc, priced at £7-£10 with snack portions starting at £3. My favourites being Dosa Deli, Open Sesame (such Persian delights), Dirty Vegan, The Indonesian Curry place, the Vegan option from Le Grande Bouffe, every coffee shop and The Two Tribes Brewery caterers (not just preservative free good beers - no but a proper tasty BBQ too). There’s lots of good real ales about mind, and a smattering of cocktails at £10 on average. Lots of good spirits, boosted even more by a comedy line-up for those of a certain age in Josie Long, and Simon Amstell, and the musical pair from the telly adverts Flo & Joan, plus others of course. There’s also juggling, workshops, life drawing, an art gallery and other crafty things, plus the Healing Gardens - we elect for a treatment session during Squid’s set - that’s hardcore and unrepeatable I’ll wager.

Hardcore? Remember when that was the loos? At this festival they’ve always been pretty terrific - my word though - porcelain at a festival? What next bidets? They were great, okay a few less of them in places, and if you were smart you took your own loo paper but I was impressed, until Sunday night when all those stupid buggers in the campervan fields in hired mobile homes emptied their bloody cassettes down the cubicle loos instead of the actual unmarked (organisers please make it more obvious in future) disposal point and put three quarters of the cubicles out of action - as they gander off home. Knobs!

Talking of leaving, the idea of trolleys at the car parks is still working well, wristband exchange on the ball and it all ran seamlessly, apart from the LED string lights being off in the campsite on the first night. The mass car pack on Sunday went without a hitch with the steady stream returning to fill the site until their planned exodus time. With school starting for many families the next day - the number of children thinned down greatly. A fair few of them appeared tired and tearful by then, overloaded after a year of little stimulus, I know how they feel.

On Saturday I hear a group of twenty somethings discussing how, their friends, who they had assumed were out of it on too much scrumpy, had actually succumbed to the Covid. They had all sensibly bought lateral flow tests. This meant a few of them had been quarantined in a ‘Plague Van’ in the camper van fields. Very sensible, except it really made my sense of crowd safety fritz when I next saw an out of it twenty something, could they be another single jabber feeling rather the worse for wear? I've had it once don't fancy repeating that. My other half also wondered how they would be getting home if their symptoms (they were clearly incapacitated and their friends were bringing them food/drink) continued, what if one of them drove the rest?

around the festival site: End Of The Road Festival 2021

I was left to wonder this, as I hadn’t thought to ask earlier as I pondered whether I wanted go down the new addition to the site the Heater Skelter. I thought I’d save it until it was dark and then forgot - a bit like I forgot to go to Ronan Leonard’s Ringo Musical Bingo - I’ve never missed one in 10 years, I bet it would have been my year! I could have maybe won one of those fantastically quirky shirts they sell as merchandise that the festival sold out of in hours! By the time I got to the Emporium I had to decide if bright orange was my colour. Luckily a group of orange merch T-shirt wearers walked by like some scene from Chorlton and the Wheelies, and i decided no. A little like wearing my face mask, while a few did I elected not to, with the dust at times I wondered whether that was the right call.

This festival is just lovely, I’m so glad I finally got back to it. It’s become one of our firmest favourites on the festival landscape - it’s a Best Fit if you like what we look for in a festival. Quiet crowds where you can enjoy the quiet traditional folk acts - like like Jim Ghedi, or Shirley Collins. Having been able to hear a pin drop throughout an unaccompanied Richard Dawson sung tale of Joe the Quilt Maker, make that mainly for the laid back crowd. We thought if one crowd would be sensible in a pandemic it would be this one, and we were proved right. Well done to all of those who went and respected those of us a bit jittery about the whole thing. Founder Simon Taffe in the programme explained: “I didn’t think that putting on a festival would ever be as hard as it was in 2006.” Highlighting this year they have had to change the line-up four times!

What admiration we all have for the organisers, all the staff, all the artists, and all the musicians for the tireless work they put in to make it happen. It’s a great example of one of the many independent festivals that work so well because so many put so much in for the love of what they do. It was so crucial to so many of us, at a time when the world has a bit gone to shit. We all thank you so much, I’m starting to well up - you create such a beautiful thing. Don’t stop creating the magic, that makes EOTR so special. To have done what normally takes a year in just 3 months is an achievement we are most grateful for…. for as long as you are there we will look forward to you welcoming us at the end of the road. Thank you.

Sorry for all the words, it’s been a while, I never even mentioned the peacocks, thanks for reading.

review by: Scott Williams

photos by: Karen Williams

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