festivals end of the road

Festivals Go Digital: End of the Road

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen many artists take their work online. Here, Caragh Medlicott shares her thoughts on festivals going digital, drawing on her recent experience of End of the Road’s digital event, ‘In the garden of streaming’.

It’s hard to believe that this time last year the idea of a “socially distanced” anything simply didn’t exist. We’ve acclimated to our new normal, only to find that some unexpected memory can suddenly shine a harsh light on our unsettling reality. When End of the Road’s marketing email landed in my inbox promising a live-stream evening to supplant its usual four-day extravaganza I felt an acute twist of nostalgia for a festival date that is usually iron-clad in my calendar.

There’s something about festivals, and I suppose music festivals in particular, that gives license to the throwing out of daily life and all its banal worries and anxieties. It’s not just the drinking in fields or copious amounts of street food, it’s a sense of being all-in – from uncharged phones to mornings waking up cold and hungover in a damp tent – the real world feels far away. Festivals are, for lack of a better word, festive; their very nature is energetic, atmospheric and busy. Of course, these are also the very things that make them entirely COVID-inappropriate. Thousands of people, from a multitude of locations, pooling into beer-drenched crowds and cramped sleeping quarters? Sorry, the virus says no.

So it is that the summer of 2020 has breezed by, marked by cancelled events and memorable festival reruns on TV. Attempts to go digital have been received with, on the whole, mixed results. In the case of a literary festival like Hay, the live-stream format seemed fairly capable of maintaining the festival’s core essence of interesting ideas and discussion. Even so, such success is caveated by the understanding that it’s not really the same. In the case of live-streamed music festivals especially, the digital offering is positioned more as a token gesture than anything resembling a real substitute.

In many ways, End of the Road is especially difficult to capture because of its eclectic nature; music lies at its heart but the extra elements of arts, crafts and comedy are far more than just add-ons. On a typical year, the festival’s grounds are transformed into a concoction of earthy Alice in Wonderland-style aesthetics complete with not just kooky, ivy-clad stages but oversized games of boomerang bowling, circus school and even a disco ship. Throw in the mix of giddy 20-somethings, parents carrying children slung in The Guardian totes – even the occasional peacock – and it’s not hard to see why this festival is both adored and huffily written off as “Radio 6 in a field”.

End of the Road title their digital event ‘In the garden of streaming’ and its poster promises performances from Modern Woman, The Golden Dregs, Katy J Pearson, Billy Nomates and Squid. After some personal technical difficulties, I find the live-stream gets off to a chilled start with resident artist Dan Jamieson conducting interviews with the upcoming acts while also producing their portraits in an impressive sub-five minute timeframe. This is the only real nod to the festival’s artistic amenities – and considering it’s also when the lack of bountiful audience is most notable – it feels wise that the evening doesn’t linger here.

The first live performance is kicked off by Modern Woman. The sound is good quality and the smaller, picturesque stage gives a much-needed sense of intimacy. End of the Road is typically free from large viewing screens so it feels weird to see the camera zooming in and out, I also can’t help wondering if artists always look so pensive and bored up close (then, perhaps that’s the lack of festival atmosphere). Songs are followed by small flurries of applause from a kind of makeshift audience.

Everything seems to be going swimmingly on the digital front and so fate promptly cuts my live-stream and refuses to refresh until I’ve missed the majority of Moses Sumney and Jeff Tweedy’s sessions. Such is life. I do, however, manage to catch the entirety of The Golden Dregs who are all dressed in white (though thankfully not sat on stalls). There’s certainly something captivating in singer Benjamin Woods’ full-toned drawl, the songs fly by in a haze of genre-bending sound. Near the set’s end, a cameraman zooms in on Woods’ marked up notebook fluttering romantically in the dusk breeze; I find myself wishing I was also basking in the evening sun.

A relaxed, in-person Q&A with Courtney Barnett (presumably filmed last year) and a few cutesy acoustic sessions make for pleasant background watching in the lead up to the headline acts. First is Katy J Pearson who quickly takes the atmosphere up a notch with countrified rock and a voice eerily reminiscent of Stevie Nicks. Next is Billy Nomates, a full-blown bundle of energy. It must be daunting to take to the stage alone sans real audience but Tor Maries fills her one-woman act with wild, interpretive dancing. She also provides the most memorable cover of the night with her dancey take on Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’.

The improvised drummer collab between Kwake Bass and Black Midi’s Morgan Simpson is a trippy microcosm of musical talent complete with hazy, kaleidoscope visuals (something I suspect I’d have enjoyed even more had my tea and slippers been swapped for IPA and wellies). Squid close the show, a responsibility which is only weighted further by their huge success at last year’s EOTR (coaches home were filled with stranger festival-goers asking “Did you see Squid!?”). Luckily they deliver with characteristic energy and kook – I even found myself doing what I can only describe as a ‘sofa bop’.

As the live-stream fades out, an End of the Road showreel displays clips not just from past headliners, but also panoramic sweeps of origami cranes tied to trees, outside cinema viewings, beers on hay bundles, midnight campfire huddles. It does its job (I even look up tickets for next year) but it also provides a timely reminder. ‘In the garden of streaming’ was perfectly nice, but it is love for the real thing that makes it worth tuning into in the first place.

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Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review contributing editor.