“This must be the largest audience we’ve ever played for,” grins Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, peering out at End Of The Road’s sizeable early-doors crowd, dampened but not disheartened by Thursday’s insidious drizzle. Just the sort of meeting of minds that EOTR was made for. An band of possibly selective appeal – such are their disjointed songs of math-rock virtuosity, blasts of beastly riffs and delicate Björk-meets-Yoko vocals about death and onions – playing to an attentive crowd of sonic aficionados hungry for a challenge.
It’s what has, over its 17 years, made EOTR Britain’s most refined, exploratory and cultured festival; a place the devoted flock to whatever the line-up, an arthouse Glastonbury. And Deerhoof, like Khruangbin last year, act as a means to become re-accustomed to its values.
Stretches of angular post-rock and looping, hypnotic chorus-pedal guitar lines drift from the stage, stilted and chopped to the degree that they often trip over themselves and land face first in a drum solo (occasionally accompanied by a bout of death-themed poetry). Singer Satomi Matsuzaki does can-can kicks in a green party dress, singing about seeing too many seagulls and growing tomatoes from dead onions. At points they go full Townshend, invent crank metal chanson (“L’Amour Stories”), or just muck about for a laugh. As they segue their math-rock version of the Knight Rider theme into Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue”, anyone following along online might assume the wags have got at Setlist.fm again.
It’s been a year of boutique festivals shooting their bolt early – Spiritualized headlined the Thursday night of Green Man, for example – and EOTR wholeheartedly joins in. Wilco top the first night’s limited bill, with Jeff Tweedy in grateful mood, the band quicksilver of motion. Into the gentle Americana of “Handshake Drugs” swoop squealing, hawk-like guitars; over the indie rock regret of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” grows an avant-garde clatter and clamour reflecting the turmoil of the vindictive mind.
Slow-burn alt-country ventures into the cosmic are a speciality. “Bird Without A Tail/Base Of My Skull” moves from bristling folk self-flagellation – Tweedy lyrically beating himself with sticks and stabbing himself with a penknife – into a scorching segment that could be a lap around the afterlife. The languid “Impossible Germany” becomes a storm in Austin. The gorgeous country folk of “Misunderstood” builds to a chest-pounding finale, Tweedy bawling “Nothing! Nothing!” in anguished rock staccato. A howl from the precipice.
After so much atmosphere-building, it’s refreshing when the set shifts into a simpler lane, “Jesus, Etc” sinking into its sweet country pop melody and the beat pop of “Dawned On Me” coming on like alt-country’s answer to – oh yes – “Alright” by Supergrass. “Gonna play some country music for you,” Tweedy says, strapping on an acoustic guitar for the honky-tonk-ish “Falling Apart (Right Now)”, “that what you’ve been waiting for?” If it is, we’re only briefly indulged: before long, “Shot In The Arm” is making chemtrails across the Nashville skyline. Consider EOTR 2023’s gates not so much open as comprehensively breached.