The sunsetter of the festival season, End of the Road usually enjoys milder weather and a gentler crowd. Its Alice in Wonderland setting comes alive at twilight, when soft pinks and blues light up the woodland and hedges, and the dappled evening sun dancing between the trees gives it a serene, magical quality.
Mellower than Glastonbury but cooler than Wilderness, this Wiltshire jamboree tends to attract a mixed crowd of hippies, families and hipsters – plus music industry types attracted by a carefully programmed end-of-season festival with better weather and an easier drive home than Wales’s Green Man.
Because it happens so late in the year, the organisers might have hoped to have taken less of a hit in terms of the Covid line-up changes than other festivals. Unfortunately, in the months running up to the festival they lost headliners and heavyweights: Pixies, Angel Olsen, Big Thief and Perfume Genius all had to pull out.
But really it’s a miracle that things are running as smoothly as they are, and there are some transcendent moments. Friday is spent bracing ourselves for the festival's harshest clash – John Grant vs Hot Chip. All day you can hear the wailing, the gnashing, the bearded woe. Thanks to the festival's boutique dimensions, a five-minute saunter at least makes it feasible to do a bit of both.
Grant sings three off the bat from his latest album – “Boy from Michigan”, “The Rusty Bull” and “Best in Me” – then looks back to old favourites, serenading a rapt Garden Stage with his muzzy ballads of alienation and longing. For a few blissed-out early risers, his 10am soundcheck is something special, with tiny gaggles sitting almost disbelievingly in the morning sun.
Binning any pretence of introspection on the main stage, Hot Chip simply throw one heck of a party. Their biggest fans may have known what to expect, but no one else did: teasing the crowd with escalating bangers, they keep outdoing themselves. Straight from pumping “Over and Over”’s joy of repetition into every outthrust limb, they run the soulful “Melody of Love” like a warm bath.
Muscular covers of the Beastie Boys and Bruce Springsteen might have been the band's secret weapons, but their popping set peak, “I Feel Better”, is just ridiculously good. It is the sound of a band intent on reminding us what euphoria feels like, chemtrailed by a Joe Goddard DJ set that lights up the woods for hours.
Before all that, though, Damon Albarn is on typically ebullient form at the Woods Stage, routinely jumping around the stage and stepping into the pit to sing directly to the front row. The mood, by and large, is mournful and earnest – but also quite wonderful, as he closes the set with Blur's “This is a Low”, greeted by the crowd like an old friend.
On Saturday, Squid help to plug the gap left by Pixies with a jerky set that gets better and better. In the inky black of the Big Top, Penelope Isles’s hazy Beach House-esque melodies lull the crowd into a trance. And later on, Anna Meredith blasts out “Nautilus” from the Garden Stage with a chugging brass section – a strong contender for the highlight of the festival.
Saturday night’s headliner is Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, who appears with a string quartet to perform a set of music he composed for film, peppered with some obscure 20th-century string arrangements. He completes the set almost without saying a word, introducing the songs using a text overlay on a lilac backdrop. The selections from There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread – all compelling and discordantly beautiful pieces of music – are as close as we get to a banger this evening. In the gloom of the Garden Stage, the occasionally frenetic and frequently uncomfortable string arrangements and haunting synth lines assume a Hitchcockian quality.
It goes without saying that under normal circumstances this might be considered a wildly inappropriate choice of Saturday night headliner. But these are not normal times, and the crowd’s energy remains undimmed.
On Sunday, the sun is out, the tops are off and the warmest weather of the weekend has everyone in abnormally high spirits for what is usually the prangiest day of the weekend. Lunchtime sees indie-folk singer-songwriter Charlie Cunningham deliver a beguiling acoustic set, all understatement save for his expressive dashes of flamenco. But the day undoubtedly belongs to rapper Little Simz, who, having just released her majestic new record Sometimes I Might Be Introvert on Friday, dazzles on the main stage, backed by a virtuoso live band that slides seamlessly from spiky soul and funk to hip-hop beats. New material instantly impresses, with Seventies Afrobeat-tinged floor-filler “Point and Kill”, especially, getting the crowd moving. The 27-year-old’s clever, nuanced reflections on social ills and personal strife round off the weekend perfectly. Don't let the sun go down on this festival: it's one of the highlights of the year.