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EOTR2023 Thurs Folly HMLTD Andy Ford 66273

Petticoats, leather and cowboy hats collide on the first night at End of the Road Festival

01 September 2023, 14:00

This year, End of The Road Festival turns seventeen, an age that feels as if it’s on the edge of everything.

Its gaze is set firmly on the future while still honouring its past as a festival that started as a pipedream of imagine-ifs that became a defining event in the UK’s cultural calendar. With a line-up that draws equally from beloved crowd-pleasers to the most exciting excavations of the underground – not to mention a thoughtfully-curated programme brimming with literature, comedy, cinema and wellness workshops – its only fault is spoiling you for choice.

Taking place at Larmer Tree Gardens, a Victorian wonder which stretches across a leisurely eleven acres replete with ornate architecture, otherworldly forests – and, of course, its famed peacocks - the festival feels as if it is touched by a particular magic quite separate from the world that lies beyond. Its inaugural day, however, is met with a thick veil of rain which lends the grounds a dream-like quality, caught halfway between the real world you left behind and the one that exists her for one weekend only. Even as campers trudge through the sodden fields, their spirit can’t be so easily dampened.

“I appreciate there are no other bands playing right now and it might be raining outside, but thank you for being here,” James Green of Meadow Meadow jokes, the first band to perform at the festival in the welcome sanctuary of The Folly. But their set, spun from delicate indie-folk embroidered with piano, seems to part the clouds and usher in an optimistic interval of sunshine that the rest of the festival promises.

EOTR2023 DAY1 The Folly Meadow Meadow Gem Harris 113
Photo by Gem Harris

Opening the Woods Stage which welcomes the festival’s top-billing headliners is the fabled band of the moment, The Last Dinner Party. After their meteoric ascent with their lauded debut single “Nothing Matters”, ushering in a sound rooted in glorious ostentation, classical overtures and guitar-driven euphoria, they have fast become the band of the moment.

Prairie dresses, two-piece suits and whirling petticoats set the stage of their dollhouse drama, but frontwoman Abigail Morris is the force that brings it all to life. She quite literally mirrors the role of a maestro, conducting with indulgence as she twirls around the stage. They sing of “My Lady of Mercy” and the ever-lingering damnation of a Catholic upbringing, paint a “Portrait of A Dead Girl” in shades of Gothic, and reconnect with the Albanian roots through keyboardist Aurora Nishevci’s rendition of ‘Gjuha’.

EOTR2023 DAY1 Woods The Last Dinner Party Gem Harris 302
Photo by Gem Harris

As End of The Road’s musical engine continues to fire up, you can take a walk through the forest lit by blooms of coloured light and make your way to the cinema with back-to-back screenings throughout the day and into the early hours. Thursday’s selection is curated by the festival’s co-founder Simon Taffe: a stand-out showing includes a packed screening of 2022’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed which documents the life of the photographer, artist and activist Nan Goldin exploring the inextricability of her art and activism.

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Photo by Andy Ford

At nightfall, however, the Woods Stage and The Folly splinter into two very different moods. The former stage boasts Wilco, the enduring alt-rock veterans who never disappoint, but what lurks across the field, in an underworld bathed in bloody red, is South London disruptors HMLTD. The band are resplendent in Berghain-meets-renaissance garb, all black leather and decadence – and that’s before their performance has even begun. With operatic instinct, frontman Henry Spychalski transforms the stage into a seedy cabaret; he pirouettes across the stage, meeting every hit of percussion with a showman’s flourish. It’s relentless, thrillingly camp and tears through mood and sound at a whiplash-inducing pace: doom-laden ballads bleed into strutting grooves and full-throttle bass drops.

It's a brilliant introduction to a festival that acts more like a central star in itself, and worlds-within-worlds are drawn into its orbit. And with the rest of the rest of the weekend ahead of us, it’s a universe that is ever-expanding.

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