Sunday, 1 August 2010

Latitude Festival 2010

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

NB: Whilst writing this review, I note that it’s turned into a 2000 word blog post. Honestly didn’t mean for that to happen… As such, I have taken the liberty of highlighting all the band names in case anyone wants to flick forward past my noodling. On with the show…:

First things first. For the duration of this review, I am going to dispense with my usual trick of being obstructively cynical for cheap laughs. The reason for this is very simple: Latitude festival is not a place that readily lends itself to cynicism. While it may be brimming with middle class families and yummy mummies, it is a place where it is totally impossible to be cynical, or even snidely ironic.

This year, I sort of flung myself at the festival really. 48 hours before it all started, I wasn’t even going. But now I’m back I am so glad I did. Despite having been initially underwhelmed by the line-up (particularly the headliners), it turned into one of the best festival experiences I have had in a long time.

Unpacking on Thursday, I am immediately struck by the sense of space. Capacity has been increased by a third this year, but the campsites still have enough room to walk (rather than tip-toe) between tents, a real bonus on the other side of a few glasses of cider. The first night is spent wondering the site looking at some stuff that glows and other stuff that makes noise, before failing (along with most of the site) to see Tom Jones perform his new album (irony is demanded for a mission like this).

Friday brings the familiar joy of waking up to pore over the programme and running order, before heading off in all directions to try and absorb even a tenth of what you actually wanted to see. I’m going to focus on the music here, but honourable mentions should be given to Latitudes seemingly infinite array of theatre, comedy, circus and people dressed as zebras. It’s an easy start, with Welsh band Y Niwl demonstrating what surf rock might sound like had it originated in Cardiff as opposed to Southern California. Then The Unthanks perform lilting melodic folk which fails to hold my interest, before the real day kicks in. I Blame Coco are easy to dismiss. She is, after all, Sting’s daughter, and my musical hackles rise at this. But, in the spirit of dispensing with cynicism, I’m pleased to report that they turn in a great performance of hard-edged indie rock, with enough sex and sass to have the audience yelling for more as they leave the stage. The tunes are catchy, the hooks are still in my head even now, and I am completely powerless to resist the strange sensation of actually liking them.

There follow excellent performances from Laura Marling and Wild Beasts, before Richard Hawley brings a touch of Northern charm and soulful lyricism to The Word Arena. Despite, apparently, “Feeling like shite” due to bronchitis, his voice is powerful and silky in equal measure, and songs such as Tonight The Streets Are Ours are truly well deserving of their place in the British canon. If I could sing like that with bronchitis, I would spend my time hanging out around respiratory wards. To round off the night, I decide against Florence and the Machine (since I’m banned from cynicism, I can’t explain why, but you can guess), and stay to watch The National. If you haven’t seen this band, you should stop reading right now and find yourself a ticket to their upcoming tour. They’re gloriously loud and the sound is huge and complex, like an ever-so-slightly less anthemic Arcade Fire. Lead singer Matt Beringer cuts a commanding figure at the head of the band, and his voice is strong enough to carry through everything going on behind him. It’s an incredible performance, and all present can’t fail to be blown away by the force of this band in the ascendency. Catch them now before they go too high: this is not an idle warning. This done, there is a ridiculous array of entertainment happening that keeps me up until the sky is getting light.

Saturday starts slightly less well, musically. Josie Long’s incredible performance as a NASA-trained astronaut who happens to hail from Croydon is so perfectly observed that I have to sit down as my knees are weakened with laughter. Then, sadly, I move to accidentally see The Supernovas. This band are the musical equivalent of one of those films where Danny Dyer tries to make football hooliganism seem like an acceptable career choice. It’s blunt instrument rock for louts and anyone who wants it can keep it, as far as I’m concerned. The afternoon is swiftly redeemed by a set of classic songs from James, during which I close my eyes and pretend it’s 1994, which almost works. Tim Booth’s dance moves certainly don’t seem to have been blunted by the tedious process of aging, and the inevitable sing-along of Sit Down is up there with the best. As the familiar opening riff kicks in, a woman asks me to lift her young daughter up onto her shoulders. I elect not to tell her how much cider I’ve consumed these past few hours, and all goes smoothly.

In the evening, I decide that sunlight and happiness are over-rated and head for The Word Arena for a doom-indie (patenting that) double bill made up of The Horrors and The xx. The former are a band that appeal to my fourteen year-old self: eyeliner and black clothing are the order of the day. Having never seen them live before, I’m genuinely shocked how much I enjoy the gig, and also by how loud the sound that pours off the stage is; I feel as though the dirt and grime of three days in a field is being vibrated out of every pore. I don’t miss being a goth (it’s a bit tricky to maintain when you have blonde hair and a naturally sunny outlook on life) but this gig is perfect: laden with shouting, twisting and the self-important sense that the world basically exists to wind you up. The band are tight and well drilled, and the whole thing collapses in on itself at the end, leaving me with a heart rate that I normally associate with an hour in the gym. Awesome. The xx are very much the same as they were at Glastonbury, and as great as they are I begin to ponder if it’s not just a little bit one-trick. We’ll let the Mercury panel sort that one out.

After this, we don masks (which means I have to take off my glasses, giving me a legitimate excuse for blurred vision) and head off to the woods for a masked ball. There’s a band playing in the woods called Suitcase Royale, who play scuzzy blues on homemade instruments and have the audience screaming along with wild abandon. Then there’s a spaceman who makes a bewildering array of noise by using a load of guitar peddles and bits of electronic wizardry strapped to his spacesuit. It’s impossible to describe, so I’ll just point you here. Then I meet three of the loveliest people on the planet around a campfire, talk and laugh for ages and watch the sun come up.

Meeting new people is one of my favourite things to do at festivals. It’s made even more fun when these new people are on tour from NYC, and have a musical agenda for Sunday that matches mine almost identically. If these people (hi guys, if you’re reading this!) are great company and are genuinely wonderful, this makes for a perfect day.

It seems that half of Brooklyn has descended upon the site today, even though the day begins with a performance from an old bloke from a Welsh mining town. Tom Jones puts on (and you have no idea how hard it is for me to type this) a sensational performance. Despite containing far too much God for this author’s taste, the guy has got to 70 and decided to use his still faultless voice to record a load of old blues, country and early rock ‘n’ roll numbers. As if this weren’t enough, he’s chosen to enlist long-time Ryan Adams collaborator Ethan Johns to take care of production. The resulting tracks leave me blown away. Despite not allowing me to pretend I’m at a rugby match by playing Delilah, Tom delivers a genuinely crowd-pleasing set. It might not be constantly rotating in the CD player, but it’s a festival moment that’s right up there.

Then it’s Mumford and Sons, who bring the festival to its feet with their folk tunes, all of which start low and pensive, and then swell to a massive crescendo. The first album has established these guys as an act that spans the gap between casual and serious music listeners. The crowd go wild and then (amazingly) go home. I’m serious about this, the festival genuinely gets quieter once they’re finished as people start to head for home and work. Not us however, next begins The New York Marathon.

First up are Dirty Projectors who I’m told are massive in New York right now (you have no idea how cool I feel typing that). This is a band who release music as often as most people change their pants: they’ve released seven full-length albums this year alone. Live, they’re electric and despite seeming strangely small and marooned on stage, they produce a sound that has the audience bouncing and generally loving this eclectic and experimental pop music. A quick hop to the tent finds us in front of what is probably the musical highlight of my weekend: Yeasayer. This Brooklyn (no, really) three-piece are well drilled, exciting and pack one hell of a punch. It’s rock music you can dance to and, crammed in at the front, it’s impossible not to dance. Latest single O.N.E. is saved for the end of the set and the band are clearly getting into their stride, looking confident, assured and totally unfazed by the rapturous reception they are generating.

Then it’s the brilliant The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who pack out the tiny Sunrise Arena and produce a set of brilliant indie pop that completely shakes off that mid-afternoon wilting feeling that so often sets in on the last day of any festival. They don’t put a foot wrong and, despite having one album so far, they have enough brilliant tunes to pack a set and leave the audience begging for an encore which, sadly, never arrives. They’re back over soon (if you’re reading this in July 2010), you need a ticket.

The weekend closes with a quick dance to Vampire Weekend, followed by the complete contrast of Grizzly Bear. “GB” bring volume and a sound that is huge and rich and vast. It’s like being in a bath, and it is all I can do not to lie down and drift off. The set seems to go on forever (this is not a criticism) and forms the perfect end to this festival.

In short: for me, Latitude is like the comedown after Glastonbury. The distances between stages are short, the crowd is mellower and the festival (now in its fifth year) is just so easy to enjoy. My festival this year was enhanced by brilliant weather, new and LOVELY people and some truly awesome music. Cynicism should be checked at the gate: next year I will not have to rely on ticket touts and spontaneous decisions, as the investment will be worth it from the very start.

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