The highlight of my festival year is snuggled away in Dorset, burrowed in the tranquillity of Larmer Tree Gardens. Normally a highly sought-after wedding venue, last weekend the Gardens married a wonderfully curated line-up with art exhibitions and street food for End Of The Road. Offering a curiously harmonious blend of family-friendliness and decadent escapism, for years it’s knitted a reputation as one of the most lauded and quietly popular festivals around. Here’s how I found its 2017 edition.

Thanks for End Of The Road for allowing us to use their house photography for this piece, each photo accredited appropriately.

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Thursday

Bespoke clichés of being “transportive” and “transcendental” – and the incorrigible “wall of noise” – follow Slowdive like a flattering perfume, but they paint an inadequate portrait of the immersion of their live experience. It’s stream of consciousness, a direct and impressionistic affect, which bypasses the audio/visual middle-man. It’s intuitive, like breathing, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re celestially high or sober as concrete; the didactic reverb and caressing bass is inborn. The extracts from their new album were serene, ‘Sugar For The Pill’ particularly baroque, but every time they dipped into the Souvlaki tier the crowd vibrated with a synaptic buzz as wondered eyes told the story words never could. The first act of the festival and it felt like the sun had already hit.

Friday

Remote and pastoral, in the passiveness of an album listen Julie Byrne glows in awed equanimity. Live at the Garden Stage, the soundcheck was protracted and when the set began the vocals weren’t synced properly, but this could be down to the ungraspable cashmere her voice holds. Once fixed her ruminative poesy flowed like the streams of a Celtic lullaby.

In the miasma of The Big Top – a stage generally reserved for electronic acts with some rock crossover guests – was one of my most hyped sets of the weekend. On the back of releasing the best techno album of the year, I expected a horde of Kelly Lee Owens zealots to crowd the stage front, but for the first few tracks – although admittedly the more languid cuts from the record – were received with stiff placidity. This didn’t escape her attention, as she repeatedly, understandably demanded “are you going to dance for this one?” It’s down to her prodigious talent, and adroit reading and provoking of the crowd, that by the end – where she climaxed with her reworking of Jenny Hval’s ‘Kingsize’ – everyone and their proverbial grandparents were ravenous and invigorated by the mesmeric synths and clinical bassdrops. A docile crowd turned fervent by virtue of her vitality. One of my highlights.

Parquet Courts know their audience. The inheritors of the loaded stoner rock maxim wasted precisely fuck all time in shredding guitars and nerves, the punch of the riffs as intoxicating as the fattest roll-up. Plunging immediately into Human Performance’s bangiest bangers they soon diverted into a medley of their “hits” – this being a band who can write the catchiest hooks for songs under 90 seconds – each coyly distinguished by their animated brevity and invention. Like the best rock gigs, the mosh pit spread organically, pandemically, such was the gratification.

Jens Lekman or Real Estate; tough clash, but I feel vindicated with choosing Jens. From his stripped, acoustic rendition of ‘Black Cab’ to his perfectly on-the-nose cover of Boyz II Men’s ‘End Of The Road’, the audience – already fanatically Jens, a bloke beside me was snuffling tears of (presumably) joy during ‘The Opposite of Hallelujah’ – were paralytically compelled. It was a run through of the hits, but intriguingly tweaked and elevated. His band, evidently gifted as a consortium, were afforded their own individual spotlights across the hour, from peppered drum solos to a foregrounded, effervescent piano sequence; but it’s Jens isn’t it. It’ll always be Jens, with his affable sensitivity to the spectators’ needs, his unrepentant sentimentality, his technical purity. An hour well spent.

Last up was Friday’s headliner, Mac DeMarco. With Mac you expect the unexpected, his ingenuous quirkiness at home to a captivated crowd. He played, perhaps surprisingly, a festival set, by which I mean he largely eschewed the deeper cuts from this year’s This Old Dog, selectively teaspooning The Hits among brief, eyebrows-cocked jamming spats invoking Deep Purple and AC/DC riffs. The distinctive clang of his reverbed guitar played exquisitely in the still evening, the taut crowd laughing, dancing and yelling along to the biggest songs they collectively fell in love with him for, notably the veering, pitch-defying refrain of ‘Together’ and disordered sway of ‘My Kind Of Woman’. He, of course, took the piss, sublimating his aforementioned classic rock medley sliding with a ten minute cover of Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’ before reigning it in and grinning widely like the most Cheshire of cats. The absolute pinnacle of the set, and possibly my Friday, was him recurrently, sensually whispering ‘I’m John Mayer’ into the mic. I found it irrationally hilarious. If you could distil the soul of the festival, you’d have the benevolent Jens and the impish Mac as duelling doppelgangers.

The day closed with those prime purveyors of eclecticism, Pond, who alchemically synthesised techno, punk and classic rock for a smooth set under the perspiring blue of The Big Top.

End of the Road 2017

Saturday

The sophisticated, political country rock of Courtney Marie Andrews at the hazily sunshined Garden Stage wafted in the second day, her elegant arrangements and poignant imagery delicately sidestepping any viable first day hangover. Her powered drawl and sobering dispatch acted a jilting wake up.

Now, when asking for recommendations for acts to see prior, the name that habitually popped up was HMLTD; who my only exposure to beforehand had been the shuffle of End Of The Road’s official Spotify playlist. With their androgynous costumes and engrossing stage mania, they were exultant entertainers. Their music was brusquely and thrillingly British, a fusion of post punk, new wave and Britpop flourishes that aligned with the Big Top’s expansive acoustics.

I’ve run out of superlatives for Nadine Shah’s new album Holiday Destination, but the urgency of the message and tightness of the production was truly affecting live at the Garden Stage. Visibly impassioned, she annotated the context and origin of each song, chronicling her compassion for refugees and the misled, demonised 'Leave' voters; and vocalised her anger at the despotic media and political classes. Her magnetic renditions of ‘Yes Men’ and ‘Out The Way’ particularly reinforced her position was one of the most gifted and vital artists in the UK today.

I subsequently popped down to The Woods stage to catch most of Alvvays; the romantic’s stoner band. The vibrancy of their instrumentation and the leisurely emotiveness of Molly Rankin’s voice begged an early evening loveliness, interspersed with digressions into their harder riffs. The hooks populating their new album (released the following Friday) Antisocialites were infectious, and a swarm of communal ecstasy greeted their most popular anthem ‘Archie, Marry Me’; my favourite song from 2014, and one of the most perfect pop songs this decade.

After a brief spell witnessing Band Of Horses wilfully amplify the treble on their guitars for their open-hearted folk rock, Car Seat Headrest barked the Garden Stage into life with their exhilarating hodge podge of classic rock grandiloquence and 90s indie wryness. Bar an interval of covers, including James Brown, it was shrewd extracts from Teens of Denial with fun chord changes and elongations that expounded an already vivacious setlist. The dying light’s immobility was punctured by hundreds disclaiming “It doesn’t have to be like this,” the gargantuan, euphoric refrain from ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’ that approached a religious experience in its zenith.

I lingered in the same setting for another rocktivist throttling; Ty Segall’s relentlessness in releasing albums is matched by the mercilessness of his live show. At last year’s festival, the analagous slot was filled by a similar purge of pounding garage via Thee Oh Sees – the intensity of titanic riffs railing against a dramatic onslaught of swindled rain – but Ty matched this, or perhaps surpassed it. The technical calibre of Ty’s band was awesome in the most literal sense, the punch and the leveller of every riff and crash implying performance art. The crowd bowed rapt before them.

Once more under the hazy blue of the Big Top for Saturday’s closer, and Gold Panda showboated one of the best electronic live sets I’ve seen this year. It mostly comprised abstractions and protractions of his most beloved bangers – prominently mined from Lucky Shiner; fair enough, have you heard that record?!? – and the clear acoustics of the tent precipitated a gorgeous parlance between serene, wistful synths and cavernous techno drones; which operated meticulously, compact and dense, among the fluttering sequences in front of them, the beatific and the stomping in concord.

End of the Road 2017

Sunday

After the fluorescence of Gold Panda and the lung exhaustion from silent disco chantalongs, the tireless rain of Sunday’s finale felt agonisingly apt. As I curdled forlorn in my waterproofs, my vegan curry becoming progressively runnier with each pallid patter, the surf-rock ardour of Melbourne’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever on the Main Stage proved as effective as a dozen Bloody Marys; riffs overlapped siphoned and scrupulous, but always focussed. Headbanging in a hungover downpour, I lost my curry, but regained my flavour for a full day’s music.

The garage psychedelica of Timber Timbre at the Garden weaselled around moody blues and up-tempo piledrivers. They were the only act I saw this weekend who’s work I’d never heard prior, and the refined energy they exhibited live was impressive.

Next up was Crutchfield The First, Allison, at the Tipi, who mined the instant classics from her latest album Tourist In This Town with some callbacks to her old band Swearin’ and I think even some P.S. Eliot, her earliest band with sister Katie. They started that band ten years ago, and her set was a striking reminder striking how plentiful enjoyably scrappy rock Allison has produced in a decade.

It was then a return to the Big Top; where I braced myself for Gold Panda’s demonic techno twin. This was the third time I’d seen Blanck Mass this year; and, for the third time, it was the peak of my festival. I wax lyrical about the primal viscerality of his live set constantly, and I should no longer be surprised by the intensity Benjamin John Power can reach live, but it was the biggest, most open stage I’d seen him perform and yet the penetration of his thwacking production was undiminished. Similarly to Slowdive, Powers’s is music you feel rather than hear, pulsating and internalised, as dissonantly gorgeous as it is sweatily malevolent.

Crutchfield The Second then, as Katie’s Waxahatchee charmed and moved the Garden Stage as once more evening crept upon us. Her new album, Out In The Storm, has been one of 2017’s real growers for me, and its winning melodies and tight riffs, bolstered by her idiosyncratically sensitive voice, took form delightfully among the sustained drumbeat of the rain.

From the overriding dark of the Garden Stage sprang one of this year’s brightest lights, the incomparable Perfume Genius. I’m obsessed with the art which shows strength through vulnerability, and nobody embodies this ideal as exultantly as Mike Hadreas. His set extrapolated largely from this year’s seminal No Shape, save for some compulsory classics like ‘Hood’ and closer ‘Queen’, and he was magnetic, transfixing, lost in the discreet beauty of his songwriting. With his boyfriend and muse Alan on keyboards for the set’s duration, his quiet charisma and exceptional vocals felt imbued with sweet triumph against some of the more melancholic reflections of his past work about homophobia and abuse. ‘Slip Away’ felt truly special, and his dancing was 19/10.

After the soaring cosmic journey of Perfume Genius’s set, Bill Callahan’s seismic baritone and mid-tempo folk was an amicably welcome ninety minutes, its own iteration of cosmic journey spanning Smog fan favourites into jazzy breakdowns of more obscure cuts. Soothing, yet palatable.

After four days of activity on eight hours sleep over three nights, and 24 hours of literally ceaseless rain, I was pretty exhausted; so enter Japandroids, one of the most obstinately kinetic live bands on the planet. Miraculously, their jubilant set inspired one last surge of energy from myself and the flagging hundreds who came to watch them. They opened with ‘Near To The Wild Heart of Life’ while both main speakers were down; and each speaker kicked in at the perfect second for that Offically Recognised Banger’s last refrain. The sixth-gear pace sustained itself through innumerable woah woos and elated riffs and hyper-quotable choruses, before ending – of course – with ‘The House That Heaven Built’, where even the most tired, dampest soul scraped the barrel of exhilaration for the raising of the final, battered, lukewarm tinny to the heavens.

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As facetious as it may sound, I like to think the quality of a festival is reflected in its patrons. End Of The Road is attended by young families and older families, metalheads and ravers, ladsladslads and introverts, Glastonbury pioneers and festival first-timers, the well-off and those who save all year for this single weekend; as one couple I spoke to did. What unites them is an abiding, consumptive – and to my mind peerless – love of music. You hear it in the campsite as neighbours debate Caribou’s best song; you feel it in the bass of the Disco Ship dance stage as Bowie’s ‘Sound & Vision’ is karaoked uniformly; you see it in the eyes of awestruck devotees as their idols ogle the same paella van. The diversity, energy, and passion of its clientele are, in my experience, incomparable in the UK; and they come because of its crowning distinction in consistently curating the best line-up every year. It’s the singular choice for music fanatics on this island.