Latitude Festival

I have always been of the opinion that dysentery is a disease best avoided.  After attending the Latitude Festival however, which took place last weekend in Henham Park, Suffolk, I realise that there may be many of you who are not so fastidious.

By all accounts last year’s festival, the first ever Latitude, was a grand affair; 10,000 people, families welcome (encouraged even), beautiful country park and good music.  Seduced by this proposal I followed a group of friends up the A12 and spent four days in an authentic, if slightly more squalid recreation of an earthquake refugee camp.

I have reached a respectable age and had thus far managed to avoid ever attending a music festival.  As someone who is mildly agoraphobic and plagued by an autistic need to bathe myself once a day, it may not have been a good idea to change the habit of a lifetime. 

With a gleeful wringing of hands the organisers announced on the eve of kick-off that all tickets had been sold.  20,000 people this year but apparently no proportionate increase in the facilities or the size of the arenas.  An excrement mountain due to an inadequate number of toilets; a complete collapse of water pressure and thus showers and overcrowding in several venues was the result.  The heavens took pity and, apart from a couple of heavy showers, blessed the reeking campers with sunshine and merry weather.

Day one; It was all about Wilco.  Two Gallants, Midlake, The Fields, began slowly cranking up the afternoon, but I was already worried that the weekend’s line-up which had looked so promising, might have been a bit heavy on whining and men sincerely frowning over their guitars.  Now Wilco are ostensibly a band of men who frown sincerely over their guitars, but they are also schizophrenic and utterly compelling. 

Before they got on stage I was bored; bored by the many children running around, bored by not being able to bring your own booze into the arena, bored by the crowds packed solidly into the comedy arena sheltering from quite a few boring performances.  The Magic Numbers had bounced the audience around a bit, but I just can’t take the whole beard and siblings thing.  It’s all a bit creepy, inspite of the smiley faces.

Then Wilco walked out and with a great white burn of lights, a heave of the crowd and a wall of guitars, they gave a performance to wake everybody up.  I had seen them in May at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the hour-long set they played at Latitude shared all the highlights from that night but seemed even more determined.  New album ‘Sky Blue Sky’ got a good outing with storming renditions of ‘Walken’ and ‘Shake it off’.  Albums ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and ‘A Ghost Is Born’ also got their hits out; teasing the audience with their gentle melodies before snapping into trademark guitar tsunamis and feedback.  Inspired.

Like a musical dose of Valium, Damien Rice must have been back-stage anxiously waiting to numb the crowd from their Wilco-induced high.  His presence in this otherwise exhilarating line-up was inexplicable and who in the world stayed to listen to him I couldn’t stay - but boy, the rapturous noise they made when he’d finished echoed across the campsite. Most disturbing.

Day two;  Bit of a slow builder again.  Herman Dune and Bat for Lashes on the main stage competed for ‘Sound-alike of the day’.  The Cretin who compared the former ‘to the likes of Bob Dylan’ should be strung up with guitar wire; this blatant Jonathan Richman tribute band are within a Nordic-facial-hair’s breadth of copyright infringement.  As for ‘Bat for lashes’, again the literature describes her as having been ‘compared to Bjork, Cat Power and Tori Amos’.  ‘Derivative of’ might be more accurate. 

Prize for most enthusiastic performance of the festival goes to The Hold Steady’.  They run on stage like a bunch of college jocks and front man Craig Finn, announces, ‘We’re the Hold Steady and we’re here to have a good time!’  It’s the last day of their tour and they are clearly over-excited. ‘Stuck between stations’, ‘Massive Night’, ‘Party Pit’ all provoke a lot of finger pointing form the crowd of forty-something-blokes enjoying some healthy man-rock and working themselves up to a belching coronary.  The band strings out every guitar crescendo and look like they never want to leave.  As Craig says, ‘When we started out it was so we could all meet a couple of nights a week and drink some beer.  This is beyond our wildest dreams’.

If Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who followed, had had a modicum of The Hold Steady’s energy they would have avoided my nomination for Biggest Disappointment of the weekend.  As it was, my own hands were reluctant to celebrate contrived, gurney, vocals and a dull performance.  If they’d played the CD’s of their two albums I’d have had a great time. 

And so it was that CSS brought their balloons onto the stage of the Obelisk arena and revived a sagging day.  The crowd needed relief and their vacuous dance-pop perked it up like effervescent vitamin C.   ‘Let’s make love (and listen to death from above)’ closed the set.  With helium in her lungs Lovefoxxx squealed out her appreciation to the audience after an hour of cat suited carnival.

The Good the Bad and the Queen had to headline I guess, but it was another strange change of tempo when they ambled on. ‘History Song’ and ‘Herculean’ are unexpectedly ballsy, in no small part due to the contributions of Clash Bassist, Paul Simonon.  He takes control of the stage with loping strides and a brooding presence, plucking at his guitar and sending his deep bass across the crowd like a defibrillator.  A Dickensian London backdrop and a top hat for Mr Albarn seem to court great Blakean comparisons; Songs of Innocence and Experience.  And although he’s a very clever boy, Damon’s a right annoying twat with it.  ‘Soldier’s Tale’ comes with a sanctimonious nod to the ‘Soldier I met who was going to Iraq’ and when he brings on MC Eslam Jawaad for the encore I’m squirming at the smug self-consciousness of it all. 

When the band plays ‘80’s life’ I can’t help but think of the last Blur album, and clearly I’m not the only one musing on this.  In the audience there are a lot of girls grinning.  Occasionally I hear one of them shouting, ‘I want to fuck you Damon’… which suggests that something less than raging Anti-war sentiments were rousing the crowd’s passions.

Day three; My limbs are crippled, caked with filth resulting from the lack of shower facilities.  An internal build up of noxious fumes as I attempt to avoid going to the toilet and asphyxiation by medieval stench when I finally do, have all left me in a bad way.  So far this whole Festival bollocks is proving no substitute for a good three-hour gig at the Brixton Academy.

But that’s ok because today’s line up is looking good.  I was annoyed to miss most of the Andrew Bird set after collapsing with exhaustion from my third toilet trip of the day.  All this hovering above the chasm and straining is traumatizing me.  What I eventually do hear sounds bewitching in the summer afternoon.  The drummer, Dosh (accomplished electro-musician himself), gives fine support to Bird who provides vocals, looping violins, guitars, glockenspiel and goddam fine whistling.

Next up The National, whom I’ve been anticipating like a child waits for Christmas.  But Oh No! What’s this?…. there appears to be confusion on stage.  Look, there are Messrs Dessner, Dessner, Devendorf and Devendorf, but what are they doing spending so long tinkering with their instruments and sticking tape onto everything?  It transpires that The National arrived at Henham Park ten minutes ago and came empty handed.  None of their instruments deigned to suffer the stench of Latitude so they’re having to borrow everything off the Cold War Kids and Andrew Bird.

It shows.  The band look ravaged and uneasy with their purloined Orchestra.  There are great songs in there somewhere; ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ (from their latest album ‘Boxer’), ‘Karen’ (off of ‘Songs for Dirty Lovers’) and ‘Mr November’ (from ‘Alligator’) but there is no subtlety to the sound.  Lyrical contributions from keyboards and violins that make the albums so symphonic and full are totally swamped by the guitars.  Lines like ‘I used to be carried in the arms of a cheerleader’ or ‘The English are coming!’ should by rights swell this audience to a festival frenzy and the lead singer is trying hard.  He rasps ‘I won’t fuck us over!’ with a kind of tortured mania that seems ironically relevant to the shitty day they’re having but it feels like a bit of a lost cause.  Two songs from the end of this too-short set they kick into ‘Fake Empire’ and it’s almost like they get their conviction back.  I get goose bumps with the rhythmic build and the crowd responds, maybe they’ve just warmed up?!  Well they have, but now they’ve got to get off; ‘Thank you very much! I’m glad we got here because half an hour ago it looked like we wouldn’t make it’.  I feel cheated.

The Cold War Kids do well next and The Rapture, like CSS last night, provide a poptastic interlude which the crowds devour.  I sense that a lot of people are getting a bit tired of some of the slightly dour singer-song writing going on and want a sugar rush.  ‘Get myself into it’ and ‘Whoo!  Alright-Yeah… Uh’ do the job and you have to hand it to them, Matt Safer and Luke Jenner know how to handle their audience.  They tease us by walking on and off stage, bounce off each other vocally and insist on being resiliently up beat. 

Jarvis Cocker is on stage next as the sun begins to sink and if you haven’t been able to make it to the Comedy tent, Jarvis provides plenty of star cabaret.  Again, however, there is the sense that everyone would probably rather be watching Pulp, just as last night they would have much preferred Blur to the drones of Damon and his crew.  But Jarvis encapsulated his previous band more singularly than Damon ever did, so if you close your eyes you can almost daydream that…

‘I stand astride these two monitors like the Rock Colossus that I am’, claims the lanky one as he bemuses the crowd with surreal commentaries on the weather.  He then gains our instant favour by empathising with the epic efforts required to have got this far into the Festival.  ‘The world is still run by cunts’, brings his set to an end and those of us who weren’t expecting much are impressed by a run of songs which have never been less than engaging.  Just as I finish clapping and start to, mentally prepare myself for the festival finale with the Arcade Fire, Jarvis reappears;

‘We were going to end there but I just want to play you one more song which I promise this band will never play again’. 

‘What?  A golden slice of Pulp!’, the crowd wonders eagerly, ‘Common People’, ‘Disco 2000’?!…

‘It’s called, the Eye of the Tiger’.

‘What?’

And so off they go.  Jarvis and his band play themselves out with a sparkling cover of Eye of the Tiger and the exhausted crowd smile and cheer their appreciation.

If day one had been all about Wilco, then I guess the whole festival was really about the Sunday night headliners.  I’m sure that anyone reading this would probably take the credit for introducing their friends to the Arcade Fire, probably the most exciting band in the world at present.  But to find yourself in a field with 20,000 people equally convinced that the band are their own private discovery, throws you a little.

The scene is set with a great red velvet backdrop, several oversized Victorian camera props onto which are projected surreal faces in black and white and a lot of red neon.  Tantalizingly the stage is covered with all manner or paraphernalia; hurdy-gurdies, cymbals and the pipes of a great organ.  In the hands of an army of musicians each gets its moment in the limelight during a performance which just keeps getting better.

The husband and wife pairing of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne take it in turns to lead the way on a comprehensive journey through their two albums, Neon Bible and Funeral.  From the pounding urgency of ‘No cars go’ to the swelling Mariachi trumpets of ‘Ocean of Noise’ there is no escaping the band’s persistent inventiveness and passion.  Highlights were aplenty but the Bruce Springsteen coloured tracks ‘Antichrist Television Blues’ and ‘Keep the car running’ were blistering.  Projected onto the backdrop was footage taken from a camera apparently embedded in the snare drum.  Watching a giant drummer beating the rhythm out so relentlessly was mesmerising as the music continued to build, crescendoing in the ‘Power out’ and as a finale, ‘Rebellion (Lies)’.  As the performance came to a close fireworks showered over the back of the audience and someone lit a series of paper lanterns that billowed softly up into the night sky.  The band seemed just as entranced by the moment as they looked out over 20,000 arms clapping in time to the music; ‘Every time you close your eyes’ they sang but we didn’t dare.

If I’m honest I’d have to say that Butler’s voice repeatedly got lost in the roar of the music and I found myself anxious that he was straining to meet the range which his songs demanded in a live performance.  Perhaps I was just distracted by the tuneless moron next to me who insisted on droning loudly and inanely along with the music: and there are a lot of opportunities to accompany the songs of the Arcade Fire with a choice bit of off-key humming. 

Latitude 2007 will be the first and last festival I ever attend.  Three days of crowds, camping and mountains of faeces, book ended by two fantastic performances by Wilco and the genius of Arcade Fire.  If anything it has convinced me to spend a lot more time in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire enjoying whole-hearted performances by some of the great bands who were compromised by poor organisation and shorter sets.  To my mind learning that may have made the whole experience worth it.

Overall experience - 2
Music in general - 3.5
Arcade fire and Wilco - 4.