And so to glorious Henham Park on the ‘Sunrise Coast’ in Southwold, Suffolk for the fifth annual music and arts festival Latitude. Impressed by our visit there in 2007 watching the likes of The Good, The Bad and The Queen and Arcade Fire, me and m’darlin Emily were keen to see as many of the enormous amounts of acts as possible. Latitude is cherished for its eclectic and cultured stance, offering cutting edge performances whilst affording equal prominence to each particular genre. Generating a devoted following of all ages, it’s quietly crackled away amidst the more generic festivals and is rightly recognised as a major trendsetter in the festival arena. However, its popularity has led to organisers Festival Republic annually upping the capacity, with a hike of 5,000 punters this year totalling 35,000 (compared to 12,000 or so in 2006!) Concerns were raised that Latitude’s unique flavour would be subsequently diluted with added commercial acts appealing to this increased, more mainstream audience. So, has anything gone amiss with Latitude’s attitude? Or should we still be treasuring this rare, gleaming jewel in our festival calendar? And what of the acts themselves? Let’s put on our sun cream, shorts, waterproofs and wellies and salute the multicoloured sheep as we boldly traipse into the arena…
Thursday 15th July
After a late night of last-minute packing, we’re picked up early by charming young couple Robert and Siobhan, who contacted us after we advertised our requirements on FestivalBUDI. This car-share site was alerted to us via the Latitude site and turned out to be a godsend after our driving plans fell through at the last minute. As it turned out the journey cost about £17 each there and back. Not bad at all, especially when your travelling companions don’t turn out to be freaks.
Arrive at Henham Park 3ish and already the crowds are queuing to get in. We wait in good spirits, drinking beer as the dark clouds slowly dissipate to present a very welcome blue sky. By the time we’re finally tagged and through the checkpoint it’s beginning to get quite warm in spite of a rowdy wind. Emily and I notice how much busier it already seems compared to 2007. We pitch up on the outskirts of Yellow Camping so that we’re closer to the arena. With beer and unsealed bottles of water (in case you’ve substituted it for vodka) barred from the festival site, it helps to have minimal distance to cover on those essential refuelling trips. In hindsight, it might’ve solved the organisers a few headaches if the adults weren’t subject to such petty searches, instead focussing on the legions of under 18’s who smuggled their crates of booze into the camping area to imbibe there or covertly sneak it into the arena.
Naturally, I have no problem with such illicit movement of ale when it’s me that’s beating the system but when it comes to swarms of pissed-up trustafarian teens let off the leash and recklessly abusing their limited freedom in such regrettable style over the weekend then I must demur. In case anyone cares to remind me of my own undoubtedly annoying behaviour way back at Reading ’87, I’d like to add that at the peak of my alcoholic excess I got nowhere near the horrors of running around screaming at 4 in the morning trampling over other people’s tents. Ah, Reading… £25 a ticket to go and see the likes of The Fall, The Stranglers, Alice Cooper, Zodiac Mindwarp and Bad News. The teenage thrill of being seduced by a single mum in denim cut-offs only to find out that her Hell’s Angels bloke was inside doing time for GBH. Honestly, it was probably for the best that I passed out on top of her…
Reading '87. Now THERE'S a festival line-up. The Enid!
But I digress. It’s Latitude and we’re past security and inside the wooded vale that leads to the arena and the place is absolutely pumping. This is the main difference with three years ago; the sheer volume of numbers peppering the place, most of whom seem to be youths. Scores of lanky, quiffy-boys in narrow chinos jostle for room amidst an endless parade of giggling teen girls in tiny denim shorts and wellies. Lurking nearby, quite unable to believe their goggling eyes, hordes of Justin Bieber–haired lads collectively rub their hands with glee. But along with the more typical laid-back couples and organised family groups there are other unfamiliar elements such as stag parties and even (whisper it) a few chavs. Yikes! Who on earth could they have they come to see? Plato’s Symposium in The Faraway Forest?
We wander around, grab an overpriced veggie meal and reacquaint ourselves with the friendly Latitude vibe that’s still in abundance despite the crowds. The sun begins its decline and jackets are zipped up as we amble over to the Lake Stage to see Nigel Kennedy and his big band present the tunes of Duke Ellington. Although popular with the crowd, his violins-instead-of-brass approach and rambling, guttural anecdotes are not for us so we repair to the Film & Music Arena (a big tent) and partake of the whoopin’ and a-hollerin that constitutes Future Cinema’s Blues Brothers-themed evening. After a short film the tent erupts with a mass rush to the front for the arrival of 50’s-styled swinging siblings Kitty, Daisy and Lewis. What they lack in vocal range the band makes up for in a lively performance of dexterous interplay; swapping instruments quicker than a fifteen year old can chug a tin of Carlsberg. They provide a much-needed injection of energy to round off a very long day.
However, before we can return to our canvas palace there is something else that needs attending to. Something hairy and gruff waiting in the woods… But that’s at midnight, the twitching hour, so we continue our tour and are entranced at the riverside by Quidams (pictured) who, wrapped in white inflatable sheets illuminated from within, walk on stilts as they beguile the crowds like giant glowing aliens. A quick nip up to the always-busy Robin Ince’s Book Club at the Literary Arena (a not very big tent) provides some stretch-to-see mirth care of Kevin Eldon as a pompous poet and Joanna Neary causing chuckles with some risqué observations that clash nicely with her well-honed nervous persona.
Suddenly it’s time for our late night appointment with the Welsh Windbag in the Woods, Tom Jones, about to be belting out numbers from his new gospel-makeover album Praise and Blame. Problem is, everyone else has the same idea and harassed stewards are soon clucking into megaphones telling people to move on as there’s no room left. Although an oddly appropriate venue (he was born in Trefforest, Pontypridd) and a novel idea at the planning stage I’m sure, whoever okayed it should be forced to listen to If I Only Knew on repeat for an entire year. Whilst he could easily pass for a gorilla at this dark hour, the Jones cannot be confined to mere woodland. Surely it would’ve been more practical to have him dangling from a zeppelin rotating in a circuit of the site. Or how about just putting him on the main stage, bird-brains? We slink off to sleep as TJ’s mighty roar leapfrogs the buffeting air currents, collides with some rising electro beats from another arena and bounces around our tent in a baffling gospeltheque hybrid.
Tom in all his 90's glory. A fiver for the first person who can reveal exactly what's going on here
Festival tip: Never go to bed with the intention of falling asleep; you’ll be sorely disappointed. There are simply too many surrounding noises vying for your attention. Just think, “I’ll have a bit of a rest now” and with no other agenda than that, sleep has been known to follow. Ear plugs mandatory.
Friday 16th July
Okay, much to cram in now the festival’s up and running and so it’s back to the literary arena after breakfast to catch former Hollywood reporter and comedy writer Jane Bussman (Smack the Pony, Brass Eye) perform her hit Edinburgh show Bussman’s Holiday. The material covers the period when she became so disaffected with interviewing celebrities that she moved to Uganda, worked in a school and ended up interviewing notorious Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, wanted on numerous serious counts including the kidnapping of thousands of children. Bussman is an engaging and sassy raconteur with a nice line in ironic put-downs. On this basis I’d recommend her new book The Worst Date Ever and wouldn’t be surprised to see her fronting her own TV series.
Skip over to the bridge at The Waterfront Stage to catch some of the repertoire of the beautiful Ballet Black. Covering classical and contemporary ballet, it’s not hard to see why they recently won the Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for Outstanding Company. Shamed by their graceful, lithe movements, we amble off for some delicious local beer.
Time for some music next at the Word Arena (a bloody enormous tent) in the form of the eagerly-anticipated Villagers who, having released one of the albums of the year (The Mercury-nominated Becoming a Jackal), didn’t disappoint in any way. Front man Conor J. O’Brien’s frail appearance belies an outstanding vocal range that can send shivers with its subtlety or fill the room if desired. I have to confess a couple of man-tears were shed by yours truly and that was only after a few lines of The Meaning of the Ritual had been sung. If I had to choose another highlight it would be a majestic Pieces that seemed to send the tent soaring. I thought it was a tune just crying out for Morrissey to cover until I realised they’d taken the recipe for his classic I Know it’s Gonna Happen Someday and altered a few basic ingredients. I’ll definitely be back for seconds though.
Villagers’ home-made video for The Meaning Of The Ritual
Over in the Comedy Arena (a flipping large tent) the Irish theme continued except in much more bellicose and belligerent style with Tommy Tiernan raging at the world with his near-the-knuckle take on life. Having never seen him live before, he proved to be an unexpected fusion of the charismatic and venomous. Just about catch the end of Chris Morris’s Four Lions Q&A and find out that the great man’s favourite film at the moment is Russian classic Come and See.
Anyone that releases a single called Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants is alright by me and Wild Beasts prove to be a captivating draw in the Word Arena. Whoever described the falsetto-prone Leeds four-piece as ‘the secret spawn of Kate Bush and the Smiths’ was pretty accurate; but they’re strange, powerful and original performers in their own right. Their two albums, Limbo Panto and Two Dancers certainly have a knack of creeping up on you.
Wild Beasts video – We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues
Trudging to get some evening grub we linger by Empire of the Sun at the main Obelisk Arena and watch in befuddlement as a giant Japanese Snow Monkey yawns over some heavy beats with lycra-clad dancers in tow. So it’s back over to the packed Word tent for some welcome professional tunesmithery care of the cask-matured Richard Hawley and his excellent band.
Empire Of The Sun
Spurning the dubious charms of flat-voiced foghorn Florence and her inexplicably popular Machine, we settle into a good spot in the reliable Word tent for the arrival of headliners The National. Along with Villagers, the Cincinnati-formed band proved to be the draw of the day, showcasing songs from new album High Violet as well as old favourites. Their rumbling, moody tunes, fused with singer Matt Berninger’s gruff baritone, grow in considerable stature when performed live and each towering chord change is greeted wildly by the thrilled crowd. It’s a moving and mighty presentation held together by a syncopated marvel in the form of drummer Bryan Dessner. Commanding and magnificent.
Stumbling through the darkened crowds at midnight we elect to collapse in the Literary tent for an hour in the twitchy company of the amiable Jon Ronson. The best-selling author of The Men Who Stare at Goats is here to test drive some new chapters of his unfinished book on the subject of madness. A textbook anxiety-case himself (confessing to constant dreams of being chased) he begs the audience to keep any details away from their blogs. But he seems pleased with how the material is received; particularly a compelling segment where a prisoner he met faked his own madness to receive a lighter sentence, only for the ploy to backfire disastrously.
The matter of madness seems an apt place to conclude this first part of my festival diary. Join me for Part Two (just scroll up) to discover in its aftermath if we should still have some, ahem, gratitude for Latitude.