Having been lulled into a false sense of serenity by the lush cello-driven shoegaze of Mabe Fratte and the sonorous Irish folk of John Francis Flynn, the Garden Stage is about to be jolted into life. Avalanche Kaito are billed as a Belgian-Burkinabé avant-punk trio, although it’s only the first part of that equation that’s initially visible on-stage: two seasoned art-rock dudes locking into an angular Afro-punk groove. Then suddenly they stop, and a loud voice hollers from deep in the crowd. Frontman Kaito Winse is here after all – he’s just decided to start the set in the audience (evidently he knows this is a band worth watching). Wince eventually finds his way onto the stage, engaging the crowd in gruff call-and-response chants while also playing a mean peul flute. Invigorating.
Caroline have been coming to End Of The Road since they were teenagers and are visibly thrilled to be playing on “the best stage ever”. But that doesn’t mean they’re here to people-please. After a 30-minute soundcheck, the Sussex troupe proceed to play their stunning deconstructed chamber-folk at an agonisingly glacial pace, soon losing at least half of the large crowd who’ve initially gathered to watch them. “When are they going to finish warming up?” wonders one wag on his way out. Unperturbed, Caroline continue to make the slowest, quietest noise that eight people could conceivably conjure up together. Those who do remain are completely entranced – and when the band dedicate a Low cover to the late Mimi Parker, there isn’t a dry eye in the field.
“Hi, we’re Oasis!” yells Rhian Teasdale of Saturday’s not-so-secret guests Wet Leg. But frankly, even if the Gallagher brothers had decided to reform and launch their comeback here on the Dorset/Wiltshire borders, they’d struggle to beat the frenzied reception that greets Wet Leg’s arrival. Quickly proving that they’re much more than one-hit wonders, every song is a joyous sing-aloud riposte to whoever’s twisting your melon this week. And when they do finally play that song, the place goes bananas – not least the people who’ve lugged an actual fucking chaise longue into the moshpit.
Dungen have been kicking around for more than 20 years now, to the point where we’re in danger of taking them for granted. But a terrific set on the Boat stage is a timely reminder of their brilliance. By every available metric – quality of guitar tone, length of flute solo, thickness of cardigan – they are the greatest band at this festival. To call them psych-rockers feels too reductive given the agility of their prog-funk rhythms, the splendour of their three-part harmonies, their dense organ-driven groove. Endearingly, they are also very Swedish, bickering about whether signature song “Ta Det Lugnt” translates as “take it easy” or “chill the fuck out” – a directive that could be aimed at guitarist Reine Fiske who slams his instrument down at the end of a storming set, perhaps frustrated at not receiving due recognition for some of the most blistering solos ever played by a man in a knitted tank top.
Not many festivals would dare to put a drum-less ambient jazz trio at the top of the bill, but Arooj Aftab is simply too good not to be headlining the Garden Stage. Back with her original trio of double bassist Petros Klampanis and (heavily pregnant) harpist Maeve Gilchrist, the spell they weave together is mesmerising and at times almost unbearably beautiful. Thankfully Aftab is quick to puncture any pretentiousness with her usual withering New York humour, instructing the photographers to “make me look hot” and complaining that the roses she usually throws to crowd have been sent “to some other fucking stage!” There are new songs too, which bodes well for that hotly anticipated Vulture Prince follow-up.
Aftab lauds her fellow bandmates’ musical skills as “almost offensive” while defining her own role in proceedings as merely “drinking red wine and talking shit”. She’s right about the first bit, but couldn’t be more wrong about the second; Aftab is simply the greatest singer that most of us will ever see outside of an opera house or an Elizabeth Frazer gig. Even as silent discos and late-night secret punk shows call, you’d be happy for her to keep singing “Mohabbat” forever.
Catch up with all of Uncut’s coverage of End Of The Road 2023 here.