End Of The Road 2023 - The Review

The festival offers up things you didn't now you needed to see

By David Vass | Published: Sat 23rd Sep 2023

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Thursday 31st August to Sunday 3rd September 2023
Larmer Tree Gardens, Tollard Royal, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 5PT, England MAP
currently tier four £235 for the weekend
Daily capacity: 14,000
Last updated: Tue 13th Jun 2023

The last major festival of the year, End of the Road serves as a bookend to those of us who choose to spend a summer under canvas that started with Bearded Theory, an event with which it has much in common. Very much a personal, idiosyncratic vision of Simon Taffe, EOTR relies - perhaps more than any other - on curation of new and little-known music. The festival wins the loyal patronage of its repeat customers by offering up things you didn't know you wanted to see until you see them. It's a little daunting to read through a lineup that is almost entirely unknown to you, until you realise that no one else knows the acts either. Look back on previous line-ups and you might not think this was always the case, until the penny drops that the names you know have only since become famous. Running through the acts seen this year, I can think of half a dozen that will fall into that category. 

In fairness, there is already a buzz about The Last Dinner Party, so it wasn't that surprising to see a large crowd gathering for the opening act on the main stage. They acquitted themselves admirably, and if the audience remained a little muted, it should be said that it had only just stopped raining, turning the sprawling perimeter of Larmer Tree Gardens into a mud bath. For a festival of such a modest size, car parking is a very long way from camping - judging by the 20 minutes it took to reach Quiet Camping close to a mile - and while wiser heads set up a little closer, we all did so in the wet. In a nutshell, I'm sure l wasn't the only one who was absolutely knackered.  

The Last Dinner Party - End Of The Road Festival 2023
The Last Dinner Party kicking off proceedings on the Main Stage

Thereafter, the weather just about held out, but the skies remained as ominous as my socks remained wet. All of which might account for a precipitous dismissal of Wilco as a poor man's Bob Dylan. "You are entirely wrong", quipped my companion, "he's a poor man's Neil Young". Sadly, keen to give the man a fair hearing, we left his company later than intended, and were confronted by a long and winding queue keen to see HMLTD in the Folly Tent. With nothing for it, we sat on a bench, having resolved to write the night off, only to be confronted by the real stars of the show - the people that we have chosen to spend the weekend with. Many festivals claim to be the friendliest, and I can't pretend to have been to them all. But I have been to many, most of which were indeed packed with jolly folk intent on having a good time. For me, EOTR has the edge. Pretty much everyone I met as the night went on was not only warm and chatty, but engaging and interesting. Many return to the festival time and again, their affection for the event as clear as their evangelical insistence that you have to like it too. I can't recall spending a nicer evening at a festival where I did so little, and nor can I recall meeting so many nice people. 

Throughout the weekend, a running joke on the comedy stage was the preternatural good nature of the punters, something an appreciative audience seemed disinclined to take issue with when I settled in to watch Robin Ince compère early afternoon comedy on the Friday. Found at the foot of a precipitous slope, the Talking Heads stage was one that took commitment to join and a steady nerve to leave. Ince is a comedian I have struggled with in the past - he always seemed to be trying that bit too hard - but he confounded my expectations. Perhaps because he had to perform unprepared - filling in for an absent act - or perhaps as a result of the medication he candidly revealed, he came across as warm, insightful and very funny indeed. He also did a Stewart Lee impression that was worth the price of admission alone. Rob Auton followed, ploughing his own furrow with a profoundly silly, yet oddly profound meditation on, well, Rob Auton, proving among other things that water is useful for a lot of things. 

Rob Auton - End Of The Road Festival 2023
The audience getting involved in Rob Auton's performance

Good though they both were, it was time to notch up some music, and that put Horse Lords in the frame. They appeared on the Garden Stage, which despite notionally being second in the pecking order, resided within the stunning setting of the Larmer Tree Gardens, offering an intimate arena that sometimes struggled to provide sufficient elbow room for the very many people wishing to enjoy the excellence of the acts hosted. This early in the day, however, the space was just right for enjoying an extraordinary ensemble of talented musicians mining anything from Krautrock to Steve Reich. 

Keen to explore further a pleasingly disorienting festival site, I dived deep into Effing Forest, where all manner of whimsical curiosities were to be found. Families shooting marbles down ramps, a giant straw and plaster polar bear and wearable bird heads were just some of the wonders I stumbled across. My reward for this exploration was the discovery of the deckchair lined cinema, where The Worst Person In the World was playing to a small but engaged audience.  I can't pretend I spent a lot of time in there over the weekend, but only because I'd already seen what was a superbly curated offering. Anyone falling across A Matter of Life or Death, Performance, The Parallax View, Jubilee or The Shout for the first time would surely have had their whole understanding of cinema turned upside down. 

I can't say that either Bodega or Greentea Peng turned things upside for me, but they both put in solid, credible performances that justified their slots on the main stage. The same, sadly, cannot be said for Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Whether it was nerves, ill-preparedness or a straightforward lack of talent, they were possibly the worst headliner I've had the misfortune to witness in all my time going to festivals. Music is, of course, a subjective matter of taste, but I've admired countless bands despite their offering not being to my liking. This was something quite different The only excitement to be had from their dreary, disconnected run-through of their back catalogue was the risk of being trampled underfoot by the Gadarene rush to the Garden Stage, where I witnessed an artist whose music is no more to my tastes, but is clearly a huge talent. Such was the crowd attending Angel Olsen's set, I had to be content with peering over a hedge, but such was the power and clarity of her voice, behind that hedge I remained until the very end. 

Bodega - End Of The Road Festival 2023
Bodega taking the Main Stage

The day concluded, for me, with a midnight comedy session headlined by Lou Sanders, something that surely shouldn't work but actually proved the perfect sorbet after all that music. She was charming and amusing rather than gut-achingly funny, though in fairness I did watch sitting on a tree stump at the top of a vertiginous drop into the valley of mirth, crowded with folk presumably, like me, too tired to carry on partying on into the small hours.

The following day, armed with an excellent, though cheekily expensive program, I felt obliged to sample some of the talking heads at the Talking Heads stage. The festival is happy to share its music schedule before the festival, and even has, stuck up on poles, huge hand written placards for those passing by. Given that this is the vast majority of what is on, it’s curious they are so coy about the few speakers and comedians on the bill, which seems unfair on them as much as me. Good though it was, I'd already seen Patrick Barkman's talk on Roger Deakin at an earlier festival, but I did manage to see the personable Jeremy Deller chat amiably about his Turner prize winning art. Squeezed in apologetically before the day has started, I suppose the thought is to provide for early risers, but I thought this a shame. Dotted throughout the day it would have been so much better to cherry pick when a break was needed from the music.

Main stage openers, Personal Trainer, had been recommended to me by a precocious 13 year old lad that publishes his own magazine and they proved to be exactly the sort of poptastic group a 13 year old would like - I quickly regretted leaving Mabe Fratti early to see them. Fratti is an extraordinarily talented cellist from Mexico - and right there is a sentence I can't imagine writing about when discussing any other festival. Afterwards I was rewarded with the sonorous vocals of Dublin based John Francis Flynn, who managed to sound both traditional and contemporary, often in the same song.

Mabe Fratti - End Of The Road Festival 2023
Mabe Fratti

Aware how easily I could be seduced into staying put all day, simply soaking in whatever excellence the Garden Stage threw at me, I forced myself to go a wandering.  CVC had a certain insouciant charm, their old school rock antics staying just the right side of posturing. Big|Brave were pleasingly cacophonous in the unpleasingly claustrophobic Big Top. On the Boat stage, Donna Thompson was sweetly measured in her singing, but seemed hampered by drumming duties. In short, all good stuff, but the pull of Avalanche Kaito back at the Garden Stage proved irresistible. Reminiscent of the Comet is Coming, the trio offered up a stunning set that combined technical excellence, daring experimentation, and toe tapping musicality.  

Little wonder I then hung around for Caroline, but what a disappointment they proved to be. I've found it a general rule of thumb that the longer the sound check goes on, the weaker the end result. Twenty minutes late in starting, my presumption was sadly confirmed, as quite the most dreary, self-regarding dirge was imposed on a swiftly depleting audience. That said, in a way they epitomised the roll of the dice EOTR takes when booking acts, and I've nothing but admiration for the gambles taken. On the evidence of YouTube clips I'd seen this was a band I was very much looking forward to. I absolutely get why they were booked. It says much for EOTR's musical antenna that they get it right so often. Bands like Caroline are simply the price we pay for risks taken.  

Not much risk was taken with the mystery act of the weekend, as crowd favourites, Wet Leg took to the Woods stage. I don't really get surprise sets, unless they are really left field oddities. Hours before, a fellow wearing a Motörhead t-shirt attempted to convince me that the unnamed act was prog-rock leviathan, YES. Clearly preposterous, it nonetheless got me thinking. I couldn't abide YES back in the day, but the thought was intriguing. If I was ever to have my prejudice confounded, a surprise set would be the way, and blimey, what a surprise that would have been. Instead, Wet Leg was exactly the sort of act you'd expect, slotted in at about the time you'd expect, having been leaked on social media earlier in the day. What was the point of that? The net result was a crowd that thinned out considerably when Future Islands came on, making a nonsense of their notional headline status. 

Wet Leg - End Of The Road Festival 2023
Wet Leg during their surprise set at the Woods Stage

Fortunately, the compact footprint of the festival allowed me to nip back and forth between stages while this was going on, allowing both Crack Cloud and Arooj Aftab to actually command my attention on the now beloved Garden Stage. The former are a brilliant seven piece group from Canada that I can only assume have an extensive Talking Heads and B52s record collection. They vied with Mabe Fratti as my festival favourite for much of their set, only to be eclipsed by the utterly mesmerising music of Pakistani born Aftab. Singing in her native tongue, and accompanied by harp and cello, the emotional heft of her compositions somehow transcended language barriers, offering up a near transcendental experience. A quite extraordinary experience. Extraordinary in its own way, was Bridget Christie's merciless lampooning of Samuel Herring's eccentric singing style in her midnight comedy slot. It’s a big ask to get people laughing after a long day of partying, but her teasing routine was packed with self-effacing good humour that refused to let you go without a smile on your face. 

Sunday morning finally revealed the beauty of the Dorset countryside surrounding the site, as the sun melted the mist and dew that bedevilled each morning. If also nicely brewed up a grim smell from the compost toilets that had been slowly deteriorating all weekend. There's no reason for compost toilets to be a problem if used properly, but fail to do so and they will punish you greatly. Add to the mix that I don't think I saw them cleaned once all weekend and you have a recipe for what can be discreetly called unpleasantness. I found this puzzling as much as annoying. Why would a festival get so many things right, yet get this so woefully wrong? Why get rid of urinals, when menfolk are obviously going to wee on seats? Why was no one monitoring missing seats, missing locks or missing paper? In short, the loos were disgraceful. I can only surmise they were supplied by someone new. If so, they need to find someone else. 

The Big Top offered something new to start the day - a film with live accompaniment. I greatly admired Mark Jenkins's iconoclastic debut BAIT, so was really looking forward to this, but was ultimately disappointed. The screen was small, the Big Top hot and bothered, and the live score two chaps twiddling knobs. Fortunately, the Garden Stage came to the rescue - yet again - with a spirited performance from Floodlights, a quartet from Australia that defied the lethargy inducing heat with a cracking set that surely heralds great things to come. 

Floodlights - End Of The Road Festival 2023
Floodlights playing the Garden Stage

Compère Russell Hicks very nearly stole the show while hosting the last comedy session of the weekend, going way beyond introducing the acts and embarrassing the front row. The laughs came so quick and so easily that both Esther Manito's and Sophie Duker's more thought-provoking respective routines on age and sexuality fell a little flat by comparison. It was left to Simon Munnery to lift the crowd with some surreal nonsense involving tea bags, teeth, Sainsbury and paedophilia. Perhaps you had to be there. 

Sculpture on the Boat stage showcased some interesting work, but was let down by poor vocals - yet another act that promised much on this intriguing stage that obstinately failed to deliver. It’s not an accusation that can be levelled at showman Lee Fields, a soul single with the requisite big band and shiny suit. Working the Woods stage relentlessly, he provided the perfect afternoon entertainment for a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon. Unable to resist giving the Boat one more try, System Exclusive finally rewarded my tenacity with a thoroughly retro outing for this drum and guitar duo backed by synth sound delivered straight from the 80s. Seemingly on a roller coaster ride now, Fatoumata Diawara delivered another festival highlight, her fusion of Wassolou, jazz and rock producing a unique sound in what was arguably the best performance of the weekend. Which is not to denigrate Aussie rockers King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard - they finally delivered the kind of grand standing main stage headline slot we'd been waiting for all weekend - but though I greatly enjoyed them I would have to concede they are unusually niche for a headlining band. "Is this heavy metal?" I was asked by a doubting Thomas, during a searing guitar solo. "Not really", I replied, "but it’s as close as you're going to get". 

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - End Of The Road Festival 2023
Festival headliners King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

What then, to make of EOTR as a first-timer. It’s obviously a great festival, with the friendliness of those who attend every year its greatest asset. The main stage is a place you can wander up to any time the fancy takes you, while the second stage is a thing of beauty. It's held in a delightful setting compact enough to get around easily, yet labyrinthine enough to still get pleasantly lost after three days. There were all sorts of small pleasures I never got round to and while I barely attended some of the more crowded venues it was only due to riches elsewhere. The uncritical loyalty of patrons - identified by Russell Hicks as an obvious sign of a cult - could be a tad unnerving, but was born out of an inalienable faith in the spirit of the event and the people who put it on. I can’t imagine anyone left the festival without feeling just that bit happier than when they arrived.

Check out all photos from End Of The Road Festival 2023!

Woodsies - End Of The Road Festival 2023

review by: David Vass

photos by: Ian Roberts

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