Words by Adam Turner and Ben Pikssoc
“I remember seeing Sufjan Stevens playing at the garden stage once. It was magical. This woman had a baby in front of me. She was so moved by the performance that her waters broke.” Amy tells me in the queue for steamed buns.
She’s been here before six times. A chap behind, Olly, chimes up, he’s been six times too. End of the Road is that kind of festival. People come back again, and again (and I’m one of them). Drawn in by the wholesome atmosphere, the friendly, music-obsessed crowd and the steady run of emerging acts that are almost guaranteed.
International acts return to this little corner of Wiltshire this year (it was all UK-based artists in 2021 because of covid). The Pixies headline with Bright Eyes, The Fleet Foxes, Black Midi and Perfume Genius. All are – ever so gently – warmed up by Kruangbin on Thursday evening whose soothing tones, as one bloke put it, “make for good background music when you’re painting the house”. It’s a cruel summation but one that’s hard to disagree with. The bands performance is tame but easy-to-watch with the Spanish-influenced ‘Pelota’ getting people moving and medley of classics keeping them on their feet – Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got to Do’, Run DMC’s ‘Get on it’, Warren G’s ‘Regulate’ etc.
Later on, the tent next to the Cider Bus provides the late-night entertainment with a mixture of Britpop classics, disco and Northern Soul. Veterans swing their arms, young-uns jump up and down and couples linger on the outside, tapping their feet and enjoying from a far before toddling off for churros or a crepe. The food options this year – all local – are once again high-quality and well-priced. A range of burritos, falafel wraps, vegan junk food, fish and chips, duck wraps and loads more.
The following day, English Teacher, fronted by Lilly Fontaine, are a surprise treat on the Woods stage. Rolling out tracks from their first EP that most have never heard but thoroughly enjoy. Crowds gather steadily on the perfectly sloped hill opposite the stage. Elsewhere, the Garden Stage is packed out under the unexpected sunshine (the forecast was for rain everyday) as the Golden Dregs, dressed all in white, inspire interest. Mostly thanks to the haunting, slightly Bill Callahan-meets-Matt Berninger vocals of lead singer, Benjamin Woods, who later peddles EPs at the front of the stage admitting ‘it’s probably not the coolest marketing but we’ve got loads to sell’. The Golden Dregs shows glimpses of brilliance but aren’t quite the finished article.
Thankfully everyone’s-favourite-hungover-Sunday-band, The Fleet Foxes are quality later on, back at the Woods Stage. Robin Peckhold’s voice, somehow smoother in real life, floats above the crowds’ heads and hovers like a blimp. With the warming persona of someone you’d love to go out with your sibling, he seems to delight in playing at End of the Road alongside Uwade – a sweet-sounding singer-songwriter who joins the band on stage for a few tracks. Mykonos gets a big pop as does Helplessness Blues, although the full set provides a cosy warm-up for a night spent mooching through effing forest.
Here people wander between tug of war competitions, cinema shows and late-night boogies at the disco ship. There’s something quite special about End of The Road that’s hard to put your finger on. That becomes obvious when wrong turn leads us to the Swanmeister a local choir leader and incredible pianist who has commandeered the piano stage – as he does most years. Somehow managing to harmonise a herd of pissed-up punters to tracks by Bowie, Elton John and Abba under the fairy-lit trees.
Other highlights include Kevin Morby – a performer who is destined for a headlining slot in future years – who glides around the epic Garden stage in a gold cowboy jacket. Harlem River giving the crowd what they want and rounding off a sublime performance. Magnetic Fields are similarly mesmerising on the same stage and Lucy Dacus pulls a similar trick as the sun goes down on Sunday evening.
Triple Dog Dare has that epic ‘going away/last song’ vibe. But Dacus, being the contrarian, plays it first. Jacob Blizzard’s guitar is so stadium big it shouldn’t work at the Garden stage yet it does. When Dacus brings it down for the majestic Thumbs, the silence in the crowd is deafening. Everything culminates in an epic version of Night Shift, that leaves the crowd moved and teary eyed. Thankfully no waters break, and people shimmy off their separate ways. They’ll see each other next year, no doubt.
Tickets for End of the Road Festival 2023 are available now at endoftheroadfestival.com