IT SEEMS CHURLISH to suggest that there have been more spectacular End Of The Road line-ups. Especially since the now-traditional festival season-ender can rarely have enjoyed a more loved-up ambience, with audience and bands alike emerging from their enforced live-music moratorium expressing touching and genuine affection for one another.
While travel restrictions ensured the bill featured mainly UK-based artists, and the smaller pool made crossover with the summer’s other ‘boutique’ festivals inevitable (notably, July’s Latitude, which shared headliners Hot Chip, Sleaford Mods and Damon Albarn, among a number of others) the unintended consequence was a snapshot of the health status of non-mainstream popular music in the UK at this extraordinary time.
MOJO’s five very different highlights certainly gave a good account of that.
(Tipi Tent, Friday Sept 3)
What were the young Romans-Hopcrafts fed on as nippers? Perhaps, with the household run by a former dancer and a jazz trumpeter, it was pure music. One twin – Ben – is the bassist for Insecure Men, Childhood and Warmduscher. Another, Miles, is the singer-guitarist and focal point of Wu-Lu, a revelatory blow-up of heavy psychedelic guitar rock, dub bass, punk and grime with two drummers going at it like the clappers. Lighting a fire under recent releases South and Times – along with tantalising selections from an upcoming third album – they played with a barely-suppressed threat of chaos amplified by the edgy presence of sometime Black Midi guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin. Elsewhere, they layered a lush and gauzy nebulousness over their visceral core – so that, if a song like Being Me was reminiscent of any band of yore, it was AR Kane. The set ended with most of the band topless, sweating, and building to a fearsome intensity. That said, most of their set was like that.
(Tipi Tent, Friday Sept 3)
With vocalist Zia Ahmed sidelined with Covid, US-born, India-raised, UK-based jazz drummer Sarathy Korwar had some rethinking to do before his EOTR performance. But luckily, this is jazz, so busting it on the fly is the main thing. The core of his recent More Arriving album was in sturdy evidence – multicultural beats underlining music that’s pugnacious about the experiences of the UK’s non-white population – but there was a dizzying spiritual jazz aspect coming through with the extra space for baritone sax player (and Collocutor mainstay) Tamar Osborn – epic on the opening City Of Words – plus The Comet Is Coming’s Dan ‘Danalogue’ Leavers on electronic whooshing and squiggling, plus squelchy modal Moog solos from keyboardist Al MacSween (great on Bismillah and the Terry Rileyish build of Indefinite Leave To Remain). They end on the astral plane, issuing the dreamy gusts of Karam. Just the one persnickety caveat: Osborn could have been louder.
(Garden Stage, Saturday, Sept 4)
The scene surrounding Brixton’s The Windmill pub/venue was almost over-represented at EOTR this year, with various Romans-Hopcrafts, Black Midi refugees and wonky pop mites Sorry packing them into the Tipi tent late on Saturday. On Sunday on the main ‘Woods’ stage it was the Mercury-nominated Black Country, New Road’s turn to turn heads, with guitarists Isaac Wood and Luke Mark arriving with presumably real but presumably ironic moustaches and rearrangements of two of their epic post-post-rock bangers, Science Fair and Track X. But it was Squid who took the weekend’s Windmill-associated laurels with their high-intensity prog-pop, now much less reminiscent of the Cardiacs. Singer-drummer Ollie Judge’s Fred Schneider yelp is a polarising instrument, but he no longer looms over the band on the ridiculous drum riser on which he once teetered and what once seemed clever-clever and herky-jerky for the sake of it has gained a more visceral quality. The closing Pamphlets built to a peak of hysteria James Chance might have recognised, and wistful new song Fugue sounded actually rather beautiful.
(Garden Stage, Saturday, Sept 4)
Radiohead’s studious guitarist, plus five top-drawer string players and pianist Katherine Tinker, playing arrangements of material drawn largely from Greenwood’s film soundtracks (notably, here, There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread) does not equal, on paper, a rump-shaking headline act. But with the love-’em-or-leave-’em Sleaford Mods closing out on the main (Woods) stage on Saturday night, Greenwood was not short of an audience, struck silent (eventually) by his rich, powerful, sometimes violent music. No neo-post-punk band MOJO saw at the weekend outgnarled There Will Be Blood selections De-Tuned Quintet and Future Markets, nor was there a melody more plaintive than Prospectors Arrive, with its hints of Radiohead’s Kid A in Greenwood’s use of ethereal keyboard instrument the ondes Martenot. There was even rocking of sorts as Greenwood strapped on a guitar to perform all three movements of Steve Reich’s loop-tastic Electric Counterpoint. Freebird!
(Garden Stage, Sunday Sept 5)
On a folk-friendly Sunday, Garden Stage stalwarts watched Yorkshireman Jim Ghedi’s saturnine, mahogany-rich roots rehousings give way to more traditional traditional fare, as Shirley Collins brought her compelling mix of music and social history, ably backed by her Lodestar Band: old pals with fiddle, guitars, dulcimers etc. plus, on several songs, sprightly morris dancer Glen Redman. With no-one – least of all Collins – pretending that her voice is what it was, the focus was on content, not style, and the journeys that her selections – several from her excellent recent Heart’s Ease LP – have made over continents and centuries. Highlights were Barbara Allen, Canadee-i-o and The Merry Golden Tree – the latter, as Collins related, taped by Alan Lomax and herself on their storied song collecting tour of the American south in 1959. The singer of that version, Almeda Riddle of Heber Springs, Arkansas, had lost a husband and a child to cyclones and had never seen the sea the song was set on. On a weekend that was all about our need to commune with songs and singers, in the flesh, it was a reminder that music at its best is a matter of life and death.
End Of The Road Festival 2021 took place at Dorset’s Larmer Tree Gardens over the long weekend of September 2-5.
Watch Wu-Lu’s ghostly version of California Dreamin’ from their surprise extra set on the Piano Stage.
Photograph: Burak Cingi