All festivals have a USP: Reading, for instance, is an assault course marking the end of childhood; Boomtown is a purpose-built warehouse party in the English countryside for those too scared to visit an actual warehouse. Dorset’s End of the Road vibrates between its initial incarnation as a comfy Americana jamboree and, more recently, the UK’s most exciting and diverse medium-sized festival.
Ignore the inclusion of the mystifyingly popular “they’re selling cowboy hats in Urban Outfitters, man” prog stars Khruangbin as first-night headliners: the real gold is further down the bill. Circuit des Yeux’s Haley Fohr sings like an angel, albeit an angel as described in the Book of Ezekiel – a four-faced, four-winged harbinger of destruction with a baritone that could beach a pod of whales and a falsetto that could calve icebergs. At the set climax she unleashes the dream weapon: a cover of Double Dare by Bauhaus.
The revolutionary, dubbed out funk of post-punk also informs clear Friday highlight Wu-Lu. Theirs is a stridently modern sound, converting the cough syrup-thick metal of Deftones into a 1am south London screwface nightmare. When they put guitars down and pick up mics for brutal renditions of Ten and Blame they convert a tent full of bystanders to moshing acolytes. Austro-Anglo-Monacan group the Umlauts inject a wonky sense of fun into Germanic disco (a pop take on krautrock meets the proto-techno grooves of Neue Deutsche Welle) with an array of synth players who owe more to enthusiasm and luck than virtuosity.
Even the festival’s quieter moments have a distinct potency. Channelling the spirit of Albert Ayler and Charles Hayward, the starry-eyed shaman of Stoke Newington, Alabaster dePlume, has the kind of ear-to-ear grin that you would usually associate with a 19-year-old who has elected to have four cans of Stella for lunch. His heartfelt, cosmic banter might irritate some at the Garden stage but no moonraking space cadet could be responsible for the biting satire of I Was Gonna Fight Fascism, his recent single with Soccer96. On the tucked-away Boat stage, whose bookers have excelled themselves, John Francis Flynn’s gorgeous renditions of traditional Celtic ballads comes on like a threatening thunderhead perforated with golden shafts of sunlight: lysergic synth lines, intermittent bursts of overdriven guitar, a clarinet saturated in tape delay and a treated tin whistle disrupt the atmosphere of these old songs without ever diminishing their power.
Pop also lives at End of the Road in wild and adventurous forms. Perfume Genius’s Mike Hadreas is lush, bombastic, brilliant and ridiculous – often within the confines of a single song. As he moves further away from the art rock of his early years, he resembles a particularly compelling Vegas showman gone tropical funk while in thrall to Springsteen’s Born to Run and the Lion King soundtrack. Jockstrap turn in the best set of the festival – what was formerly a chaotic mess of styles now thrillingly integrated into a compelling new whole. They delay the drop on The City – and with it, the gratification – and spin a magisterial take on Concrete Over Water that proves they are among the best we currently have.
Xenia Rubinos goes on stage 25 minutes late – but her 2021 album, Una Rosa, took five years and was worth the wait, and so is this. Unfurling from a giant sheet of bubblewrap, wearing a gleaming metallic Jíbaro dress, bondage harness and a long flowing red scarf representing a bleeding chest wound, she delivers a crisp and funky set of minimalist R&B, vintage synth-pop and bass music, and is symbolic of what EOTR does so well – those wanting an alternative to Saturday night headliners Pixies get a genuine alternative, not just another indie band.
On the final day, a visibly shaken Jana Horn rises to the occasion: the Texan folk singer’s musical partner has been “kept” at customs, and circumstance recasts her songs as sombre, wraith-like dirges full of new urgency and heft. Kurt Vile and the Violators’ post-Neil Young slackerisms make a pretty soundtrack to the final night’s sunset but the real closing stars are Wacław Zimpel and James Holden with a set of bangers that draws from Balearic sax, lap steel, pipes and modular acid. They bring End of the Road to a close with a genuinely ecstatic hoedown, confirming this festival’s status as purveyors of the brilliantly unexpected.