D’you know what Thursday nights should all be about? Massive weirdness from androgynous psychedelic Japanese bands peering through luscious waves of long black hair while contorting to make the weirdness a glorious, mental concoction of vintage rock and fuzz, that’s what.
When the brilliant Bo Ningen take to the tipi stage on the opening night of 2017’s End Of The Road Festival, it’s as terrifying and exhilarating as The Ring’s Sadako crawling out of the telly to erase your brain. Their art-rock bashes you straight in the face like early Black Sabbath while their performance is so manic and exciting, there’s no chance sticking to that sensible early night. Just accept the Thursday.
And that’s what EOTR is all about. While steeped in folkiness when it began 12 years ago, it’s grown to one bringing the best in alternative and eclectic music from around the world - diverse, exciting and exhilarating.
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So from the beginning to the end, with perhaps the most perfect of timings and epitomising where EOTR began, is Sunday night with Bill Callahan. After a day of relentless rain, Bill takes to the garden stage - a stage surrounded by rustling trees and a lit-up folly, like something from a brother’s Grimm tale. Hearing his baritone tones warms the cockles of our souls.
The often solo performer treats us to a full band and a sparkly outfit, which is, fair to say, the antithesis of his on-stage persona. But Bill doesn’t need to talk. He plays with such strength and beauty that we’re all glued to the soggy ground and standing in silence. It’s the best I’ve ever seen him; playing a set of classic solo and Smog songs from the past 20 or so years, including 'Rock Bottom Riser' and 'Dress Sexy At My Funeral' to 'Ride My Arrow' from his most recent record. 'Too Many Birds', lifted with the soft, jazz-tinged percussion, is such understated joy that I feel my heart-break right then and there.
As he signs off singing "thank you for this feeling", meaningfully closing the wonderful 'Riding For The Feeling', the crowd explodes into affection bringing us back to reality. No wonder The Jesus and Mary Chain, headlining the bigger woods stage at the same time, is a little thin on the ground. Tearing yourself away from this mesmerising performance would have been near impossible.
Performances with all the love, but a little less of the intensity, came from other headliners of the weekend Mac DeMarco and Father John Misty, both equally the showman, but in very different trousers. DeMarco, returning just two years after headlining the garden, brings woozy love songs and slap stick antics, throwing in a quick crowd surf and ‘cock and balls’ chant between the stoner indie loveliness of 'Salad Days', 'This Old Dog' and even a cover of Vanessa Carlton’s 'A Thousand Miles' (one of those terrible classics you’ll definitely know).
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In much tighter trousers is Father John Misty, the hedonistic alter-ego of Josh Tillman, whose incredible show literally lights up the night sky. He romantically croons songs from his three post-Tillman albums with such vigour, heartbreak and regret, you can’t help but fall for him a little. It’s probably the biggest sound of the festival too, crystal clear and with live horns that cut through many of the other acts of the weekend. It stands out, it’s fine-tuned, but it’s also great fun, mashing self-love with self-hatred in a way only Misty can.
'Chateau Lobby #4' and 'I Love You', Honeybear have people dancing and hugging in the crowd, with the sound of cascading trumpets rattling around the festival site and lights silhouetting Tillman’s spindly, suited presence as he darts from stage left to right and drops dramatically to the floor. After a fleeting moment at Ty Segall on the garden, I rush back to Misty for more. While the fuzzy psych was excellent, Misty’s band provides that euphoric hit of a bigger band and more melodic sound. As amazing at it is, EOTR’s line-up may have lacked a bit of variety this year, which Misty gives on the Saturday at least.
That’s not to say there isn’t still an array of great acts. Teen wonders The Lemon Twigs are one of the shows of the weekend as they channel Wings, Queen, and maybe even a bit of Iron Maiden with extra vintage glam and a hint of synth. Each song is as energetic and incredible as the singer’s skin tight pink trousers and high kicks.
Taking a performance back to its bare bones is Yorkshire guitarist Michael Chapman, who at 76 filled the ‘older folky’ set EOTR often has, but blew the garden dwellers away with his playing. No antics, no glam, no band. The quality of his playing is repeated by Ryley Walker, whose melodies, structure and technique hark back to the 60’s psych folk scene Chapman was part of along with he likes of Roy Harper and Bert Jansch.
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To find anything resembling more traditional folk this year, you needed to hunt in other corners of the site. Penguin Cafe, a follow on and tribute to Simon Jeffes’ Penguin Cafe Orchestra, are found at the tiny piano stage in the woods, nestled by art installations and lovely origami birds, performing such classics as Music for a Found Harmonium (but on piano as the harmonium was broken) as part of takeover curated by Erased Tapes.
Elsewhere adorning the stages by day in either scorching sunshine or absolute rainy carnage - no in between - were excellent sets by Timber Timbre, providing the best hangover cure with their bluesy wooziness; Margaret Glaspy, bashing together 60s-folk influence with edgier melodies; the pretty indie pop of Australia’s Julia Jacklin and gorgeous country folk from Julie Byrne, despite tech issues cutting her short.
But find of the weekend goes to Brooklyn’s Nick Hakim. Dizzy guitar flows over psych grooves in his summery and soulful tunes, with Hakim’s voice sitting somewhere between Jonathan Wilson and Prince, with moves that could give him Future Island notoriety.
An extra nod must go to Blanck Mass, the electronic solo project from Fuck Buttons’ Benjamin John Power. While the rain might have been the reason many of us headed to the covered big top, the brain bubbling fuzzy techno and disturbingly disgusting projections were why we stayed. It’s moments like this that make you realise EOTR still surprises you after more than a decade. That and the butt cheek cut outs of King Khan’s skin tight cat suit. Never forget.
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Words: Gemma Hampson
Photography: As Specified
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