Festival underdog charms with a real family gathering feel...

You’d struggle to hear a bad word said about End Of The Road Festival, and while many others underwent a fallow year in 2016, this underdog has upped its game to deliver one of its best ever offerings yet. It speaks volumes that the first wave of early bird tickets sold out within a matter of hours going on sale the day the festival ended.

Last year, they managed to bag Sufjan Stevens as headliner in an amazing coup but it changed the vibe slightly with a younger, hipper crowd tipping the balance; this year’s headliners - Animal Collective, Bat for Lashes and Joanna Newsom - see a return of the old faithfuls and it’s all the better for it.

It might be the wettest End Of The Road Festival to date, but it really doesn’t dampen the mood. As raincoats and umbrellas replace bare skin and sunnies, the smiles do not dissipate and while many people undoubtedly change their plans and head into the covered Big Top or the Tipi, those who stick with the bigger stages on Saturday afternoon are handsomely rewarded with tight and compelling sets from the likes of New York’s finest indie musician come comic artist Jeffrey Lewis (& Los Bolts), the brilliantly bonkers GOAT and last minute addition, psychedelic folk trio Stealing Sheep (standing in for Omar Souleyman, who never quite made it to the wilds of Dorset this time).

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UK festival exclusive
The Shins were a last minute addition to the bill, so take to the stage as Thursday night headliners, much to the approval of those able to join the party early. The perfect place to deliver their first UK gig in three years and unveil new material - ‘Dead Alive’ and ‘Rubber Balls’. A spectacular set of folk-infused indie sees ‘Gone For Good’ and ‘Caring Is Creepy’ as one of many highlights. ‘New Slang’, made famous by the film 'Garden State' makes an inevitable appearance in the encore, much to the pleasure of those not too familiar with this band.

There’s some chatter about what to expect from Saturday headliner Bat For Lashes and it carries on into the set. Natasha Khan enters the stage in full wedding gown and veil and the programme talks of ‘The Bride’s wedding reception’. The first few songs of the set all come from the latest concept album 'The Bride', telling us a story about a bride who is left at the altar. It’s a tragic story, beautifully delivered by the woman in white. We see a short interlude as Khan invites her friends on stage, facilitating a not-so-spontaneous proposal. But it isn’t until the old favourites kick in that the set really gets going ‘Glass’, ‘Daniel’ and ‘Laura’ cementing the deal as the holy trinity of Bat for Lashes tunes. A stage covered in pillar candles, Khan dancing barefoot around the stage and a never ending supply of beautiful vocals easily justify Bat For Lashes status as headliners.

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The Garden Stage
The Garden stage, which was until 2011 the main stage, predictably hosts some of the most magical moments of the weekend. Set in a Victorian pleasure garden, it’s here you’ll see peacocks wandering around and witness some beautiful star-filled skyscapes. It’s also here that Cat Power bares her heart and soul - playing a captivating set of melancholic songs, including an inspired cover of Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York New York’, ’The Greatest’ and the heartbreaking ‘Bully’.

Phosphorescent is no stranger to the Garden Stage having played it several times before, but this has to be Matthew Houck and co’s finest performance in this setting. After a slowish start, things pick up with a momentous crescendo during ‘Song For Zula’ - an unmistakable highlight of the weekend. The only downside being, it clashed with Savages. One of many inevitable clashes when the line-up's this well stocked.

Another Garden Stage alumnus, Sam Beam (a.k.a. Iron and Wine) is joined by the hilarious Jesca Hoop whose smile-inducing inter-song banter results in some red-faced parents covering their children’s ears form a sea of expletives. In a funny way. This duo are a match made in heaven, Hoop’s husky tones complimenting Sam’s crystal clear vocals perfectly. They particularly impress with a majestic cover of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ ‘Islands In The Stream’.

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The heavier stuff
From the Garden Stage to The Garden band. Every now and then, End Of The Road mixes it up some amazingly bizarre acts and this is one of those moments. The Garden comprise two brothers who look like they’ve had their fair share of blue smarties; dressed as mimes, they jump around the stage like it’s their personal playground - blasting out some post-New Romantic sounds. The love-children of Roxy Music and Future Islands.

Thee Oh Sees, with two drummers, bring a big ole dose of garage rock to an otherwise very folky/indie festival. Driving beats and amazingly high-pitched male vocals combine to create compelling psychedelic jams.

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Newsom-gate 2
End of the Road marks one of a handful of festival outings for the Somerset Cider Bus, the other main one being the little festival down the road in Pilton in June. It’s become synonymous with End the Road and was a very welcome addition this year - not just for the hot cider and banging tunes, but also as the place to be for anyone who doesn’t fancy watching Newsom on the main stage. As the rest of the festival goes into shut down mode once again to make way for Newsom’s performance (a divisive move), a guitar on the bar of the cider bus tempts people with free cider in return for a tune.

Newsom, headlining for the second time complains that the rain is affecting both her harp tuning and voice - but you can’t tell. Joined by her band of multi-instrumentalists, including brother Pete Newsom and the wonderful Ryan Francesconi, the attention to detail on every song is incredible, from intricate strings to three-harmonies of recorder and, of course, her mesmerising harp playing. The ten-minute-plus epics of 'Have One on Me' and 'Monkey and Bear' are met with eruptions of gratitude and love, while 'Divers' and 'Leaving The City' shows off her new sound.

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More than a music festival
Other musical mentions go to secret headliners Wild Beasts and Jon Hopkins, who did a secret DJ set; to Broken Social Scene, whose E Street Band energy and War On Drugs-esque tunes get everyone moving about in the rain; and to country singer/songwriter Dawn Landes, who played End of the Road with Sufjan Stevens, but who nails it on her own here with her whisky ballads. And props to the comedy team for bagging a set from Stewart Lee (inadvertently invoking the largest queues this festival has seen), along with a side-splitting gig from Josie Long.

It’s the little details that cement this festival as the highlight of the year for many and elevate this it from just another boutique festival to a magical weekend with a one big family vibe. From the messages carved into leaves in the woods to the agile responses to the rain, shifting the silent disco from the open air garden stage into the Big Top, a stage which already feels as though you’re walking into Narnia; it’s the piano in the woods, which plays host to some seminal festival moments - including one of three sets from Bella Union's own Ezra Furman; and it’s the familiar faces you see year-on-year which makes it feel like you’re returning home to your festival family.

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Words: Laura Williams
Photos: Michael Parker

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