End Of The Road Festival 2021 review: despite difficulties, this miracle event turns back the clock

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If there’s a single moment when this year’s majestic return of End Of The Road Festival truly reminds us of what we’ve been missing, it comes when Hot Chip guitarist Al Doyle tells Friday night’s main Woods Stage audience how happy they are “to be back playing for you”, before the band move the heaving mass with a singalong of the anthemic ‘Positive’: “We get together sometimes / Talk about how we used to get together sometimes.

Yet this glittering love bomb of a show – an explosive cover of The Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’, a rendition of ‘Over and Over’ so monumentally joyful that the crowd accidentally beats the Chips to the first chorus by a good 20 seconds – also underlines the extent to which it’s beautiful business as usual here at Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset. If the peacocks milling about the estate are glad to see punters back on their patch, they’re far too cool to let on.

Where the previous weekend’s Reading & Leeds Festival, a huge logistical success with around 100,000 music fans in fields at opposite ends of the country, felt like a distinctly post-pandemic version of an iconic annual event – thanks to its rejigged layout and two Main Stages – this 15,000 capacity weekender mostly just feels like… End Of The Road.

On Friday afternoon, folk-popper Katy J Pearson, the hit of last month’s slightly larger Green Man in the Welsh Brecon Beacons, basks in her the impressive turnout for her blissed-out set, marvelling: “It’s poppin’ off!” Hull shoegazers Bdrmm, whose singer Ryan smith moans inchoately over what sounds like a thousand guitars playing underpinned by a Fisher Price drum kit, are similarly enamoured with their Garden Stage audience: “We’re having a bloody great time!” Smith announces unabashedly. Later, on the same stage, Arlo Parks beefs up her folky sound with a few noodly guitar solos, and bows out with the delicate ‘Hope’ because, she says, “it feels right”.

Indeed, even Damon Albarn, a musical legend who could feel put out at playing the early evening slot of a small festival (albeit on its main stage), seems simply happy to be here. Sadly shorn of the mullet that recently broke the internet and made him look like an ‘80s footballer, he delivers a spectral, minimalist showcase of new Iceland-inspired album ‘The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows’, with similarly aching Gorillaz and Blur tunes (including ‘Melancholy Hill’ and ‘This Is A Low’ respectively) thrown in for good measure. Tonight reaffirms just how restlessly innovative he’s been since the heady days of Britpop.

And innovation is what End Of The Road is all about; Squid and Crack Cloud prove themselves the acceptable faces of the jazzy post-rock scene, with punters queuing outside the Garden Stage to see the former on Saturday afternoon and one young fan clutching a knitted squid for the occasion, the festival’s arts-and-craft vibe realized as adorable, self-designated merch.

Over in the Tipi Tent, Drug Store Romeos tap into the gorgeous last gasp of summer outside, frontwoman Sarah Downie donning a straw hat and evoking woozy, idyllic misspent days through the trio’s distinctive brand of hazy, future-facing dream-pop. Just before 11pm, there’s a crush to enter the tent, which becomes a crucible for Sorry to gleefully melt down jazz, rock and indie (though singer Asha Lorenz contradicts the band’s deliciously bratty reputation when, seeming touched and overawed, she continuously thanks the audience “for watching us”). Luckily, the Tipi Tent retains its structural integrity just enough for techno-punks Giant Swan to warp its reality all over again with a unifying 2am secret set.

Even the less genre-busting bands here take an idiosyncratic approach to their respective styles. Dressed in all-white overalls, schmaltzcore contenders The Golden Dregs bely their Droog-like appearance with a sensitive surprise show on the tiny Piano Stage, frontman Benjamin Woods’ Stephin Merritt-on-downers baritone coupled with funereal sax; they sound like the house band on a sinking ship. And oikish noise-rock duo Lee Patterson, in the Big Top, come off as Royal Blood if they got lost in the Upside Down and emerged, furious, with a six-pack of Strongbow and 8000 duty-free Marlboro Reds to power through.

In this, perhaps, they are simply channeling the righteous energy of Saturday’s main stage headliners Sleaford Mods, who – after nearly a decade together and with 11 album-length releases to their name – are still one of the very best bands in the country. They might have glitzed up their usual bare bones set-up (frontman Jason Williamson ranting and producer Andrew Fearn bopping behind a laptop) with a flashing light show, but it’s not exactly Beyoncé at Coachella. Williamson shouts, swears, dances, pirouettes and gurns his way through 90 minutes of pummelling punk-rap about Brexit Britain, class tourism, political ineptitude and pandemic fuckery, then bows out with a grin: “We’re a bit angry, a bit negative, a bit jaded, a bit older – but there is hope, isn’t there, End Of The Road? Onwards!”

Williamson reappears on the main stage to assist Billy Nomates on their wage-slave banger ‘Supermarket Sweep’ midway through her revelatory Sunday afternoon set. She harnesses the power of hip-hop, commanding the stage with nothing but a backing track, bags of charisma and her inimitable future-punk. Her voice is stunning; brassy and otherworldly, like Jane McDonald doing a residency on the Starship Enterprise.

Sleaford Mods at End Of The Road festival 2021. Credit: Getty

And though Sunday’s main stage headliner King Krule continues the festival’s forward-thinking ethos with his jazzy gumbo of indie-punk and rap, bawling about reptiles before a cartoon cityscape, the truly invigorating stuff is to be found on the smaller stages and earlier in the day.

Big Joanie, whose drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone defines them as “a Black feminist punk band”, bring revolutionary spirit to the Tipi Tent, while Dry Cleaning conjure the spirit of a ‘60s New York ‘happening’, frontwoman Florence Shaw shaking a tambourine and intoning about youthful disillusionment as if she’s in Greenwich Village rather than the Big Top. An actual New Yorker, rapper and trumpeter Pan Amsterdam, yells “dirty draws!” and indulges in an even dirtier laugh during his Tipi Tent set, so joyous he should be prescribed on the NHS.

Dry Cleaning at End Of The Road festival 2021. Credit: Getty

Yet the final day at Larmer Tree Gardens belongs to current NME cover star Little Simz, who puts in a masterful, life-affirming penultimate performance on the main stage, instructing the audience: “Look around – you’re surrounded by beautiful people. Take it in.” The lush ‘I Love You, I Hate You’ (from her legend-making new album ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’) already sounds classic, she incites a mass singalong to the dreamy ‘Selfish’ and huge swathes of the audience cheer at her rapid-fire flow on the pounding ‘Venom’. Simz doesn’t quite say, “I’m coming back to headline this thing”, but she might as well have done.

Like all UK festivals this year, End Of The Road has battled unavoidable drop-outs (worldies Pixies and Bright Eyes were previously booked to top the bill), resulting in a slightly modest line-up. In terms of atmosphere, though, it’s as if the last 18 months never happened. This miracle festival turned back the clock and, coming right at the tail-end of this strange summer, did so just in the nick of time. Let’s try that again, shall we?