I should probably start this review off by saying exactly what I am trying to achieve. The Latitude Festival is a huge and varied event, with so many bands and so little time that it is impossible for a serious music fan to see everything they want to see. Chuck in a decent comedy line-up and a group of friends and it becomes close to a nightmare, but oh what a nightmare. This is what Latitude is about, variation and fun; and here, in the form of a short music review and a short review of the festival atmosphere, I have tried to show just what the atmosphere is like, and just what I thought of the music.
The Festival Atmosphere:
Saturday afternoon in July, the sun is making its way downwards towards the trees that shade the arena at Latitude Festival. Lying on your back, you listen to Frank Turner’s relaxing, yet engaging voice and watch as bubbles drift over your head, blown by a small child sitting with their parents a short distance away. However, something different appears: looking across towards the arena, you see five men walking through your field of vision, dressed in t-shirts marked “I told you I’m not gay tour 2010”, a stag party, probably on their way to the main stage in preparation for James’ set later that day. Latitude, I’m sad to say, has changed.
I am a huge fan of the Latitude festival and all that it stands for. I stood at the barrier in 2008 as Sigur Rós played the best set I have ever seen, as Elbow played “One Day like This”, finding myself later on ITV’s coverage and as Blondie managed to get everyone from the ages of 5 to 50 singing along to all of her songs. This year, however, the general ethos has changed: gone is the BBC tent, their coverage and their “Introducing” stage. Also gone are the friendlier sponsors from last year, replaced by a massive “prism” advertising Sky 3D and the dozens of salespeople pushing The Times as “the only newspaper on site”. In my mind, this was not ‘Latitude’.
In previous years, the atmosphere has been the one thing that has stayed constant about the festival. It was always the case that you could talk to almost anyone there and get both an interesting response, and, more importantly, feel safe about it. This year, however, the festival took on what can only be described as a “lads on tour” vibe. Attracted by the more ‘populist’ line-up, including Florence + the Machine, Mumford and Sons and Empire of the Sun, people flocked, and the extra 5,000 capacity arranged was not matched by an enlargement of the festival facilities. As a loyal Latitude-goer, I was disappointed by this. Throughout the weekend, everything felt crowded, especially on the bridge which marked the only entrance to the arena, which filled up and was often gridlocked at peak times. This was still a minor annoyance compared to the headline-grabbing events of the weekend.
The “lads on tour” vibe may have resulted more from the headline act choices than from the overcrowding, but the overcrowding made it seem a more present reality. The behaviour in the campsite was markedly changed, taking on the feel of a festival like Reading or V, shattering Latitude’s reputation of being a slightly pretentious, but very respectable festival. The final pieces of evidence for the change in the festival’s atmosphere were the two incidents of rape in the campsite. In 2008 and 2009, I could never have imagined this happening, but with the changed atmosphere, including more shouting, drinking and irresponsible fire-building in the campsite, it became more understandable than unimaginable. These tragic events, which have tainted Latitude’s reputation as a “family friendly festival” changed the mood in the campsites, and also provided a clear sign to the loyal group who keep returning to the festival that it had changed for the worse.
Whilst all of this sounds like a damning report on the state of the festival, there were a few huge success stories in the weekend which show exactly why Latitude has the firm following it does. The comedy tent returned this year with a larger size and a great collection of sofas for the audience members further out to sit on – a huge improvement over the cramped tent of last year. The new sign and coloured sheep looked more welcoming than in previous years, and the inclusion of Nigel Kennedy on Thursday was a master stroke which was a huge attraction for many of the festival-goers. The “New Act of the Year” comedy competition was a great showcase of some of the best young talent around, and was one of the best performances of the weekend.
The musical line-up was also, for the most part, very well chosen. Whilst the populist Florence + the Machine were somewhat lacklustre, her performance in total was still high quality and a good choice for that evening, although The National were, I am told, equally brilliant. On the main stage were Kassidy, Scottish rockers who channelled a 60s sound to open proceedings for the weekend, who, although a small band, created a great atmosphere. In fact, the whole line-up on the Word arena was excellent, and, although I did not get a chance to see much there, the Sunrise arena also presented a more intimate collection of bands in a great setting. One of the star performances of the weekend was The Feeling, whose set was bursting at the seams with energy, and got all ages entertained and ready to sing along, providing a great high point for the weekend.
I am still a huge fan of Latitude Festival and everything that goes with it, but I felt that this year the shine had been taken off. The only problems came with the atmosphere, which had changed from the year before, where the older, more established, but no less entertaining bands provided something for everyone without too much hype. Next year, Festival Republic have a chance to rescue Latitude by reducing their ticket sales, no matter how much they have to change the price or their booking of bands to keep the festival true to its origins as a family-friendly festival.
After a great night “in the woods” and a great morning in the comedy tent, music was just what the Latitude loyal needed. Kassidy were the first band up, and their blend of Scottish rock and beards certainly opened the Obelisk Arena with some force. Soon after that, I was able to check out Hockey’s set, which was also great, picking up the tempo and really adding to the mood – the highlight for me was Song Away, which, being one of their best known songs, got a strong audience reaction. I didn’t find Spoon all that entertaining, but I didn’t stay for all of their set – I had other places to be, seeing one of the best performances of the weekend: The Feeling. The “showcase” acts for that evening were due on much later, but in the mean time, we had Laura Marling and her wonderful blend of folk to act as the soundtrack to a summer’s afternoon.
The “headline” acts for Friday evening were Empire of the Sun and Florence + the Machine, who, despite their different styles, were both great entertainment, and pulled in some of the biggest crowds of the weekend. As the Empire of the Sun walked onstage, the age-old question of “So, what would happen if you cross-bred aliens and Egyptians?” was finally answered. Their bizarre outfits did not stop there, cycling through from playing pink guitars to dolphin-like creatures. Meanwhile, Luke Steele’s vocals and general enthusiasm caused their greats, such as We are the People to play through what seemed almost to be a space-pop-rock concept complete with video backing. After this, Florence Welch’s harp seemed a little pedestrian. After a long set-up and a short walk onstage, she launched straight into Drumming Song with a huge amount of force and conviction. However, whilst her music is, no doubt, high quality, and her sentiments were positioned perfectly, the tracks that followed, including Rabbit Heart (Raise it up), Dog Days Are Over and Between Two Lungs seemed not to excite the crowd. The biggest indication of this was the fact that her biggest reaction came not during one of her own songs, but during her excellent cover of You Got the Love.
For me, one of the highlights of the weekend came early on Saturday, with the Latitude New Act of the Year comedy competition – the winner, Eric Lampaert, gave a great performance, and the others showed how much talent there was to be found in the comedy tent. Returning to the music, however, Corinne Bailey Rae’s performance showcased some of the tracks from her new, Mercury nominated album, and of course, some of her old classics. With her London accent, singing to a crowd more interested in Frank Turner and James, she held her own, playing Put Your Records On late in her set, allowing the audience to hear why she has been nominated for the Mercury Prize this year, even if it was the old song which got the crowd going.
James, a great figure of English music, played to what could only be described as an older audience, but, it was still one of the most receptive audiences of the weekend, singing along to Sit Down and Laid long after the stage manager wanted them to leave, only to be followed quickly by The Maccabees. Their set seemed to go very quickly, but it was a set that could have lasted longer, with an eager crowd and a strong selection of songs, although my favourite of the set was definitely the sing-along moment of Toothpaste Kisses. The final sets of the day, for me, were Crystal Castles and The XX, but I have written a separate Crystal Castles review.
On Sunday, nothing could stop me getting to see Tom Jones. His set, which consisted of an excellent voice singing a reasonable, if somewhat average album, gathered a huge audience, but also left them nonplussed, with a decent amount of applause, but no rapture for this evangelical Jones. A “morning” walk around the arena and to the comedy tent distracted a little from the music going on, but, returning to the main stage in time for Mumford and Sons’ excellent performance of their album tracks, I became part of what was a huge crowd for the time of day.
The Temper Trap were, without doubt, one of the best performances of the weekend, with their high vocals flawless, and the audience keen to enjoy what they had to offer, but also keen to hear what were, to many of the audience, new songs as well. Rodrigo y Gabriela, with their fast guitars and fast moving set played what must have been new songs to most of the audience, and this showed, as their flawless handwork and refined sound spread out, there was a silence, partly from awe and partly from a lack of knowledge of the songs or vocals which they could pick up. However, this is how Rodrigo Y Gabriela play, and how their crowds react. I just wish they could have played one of the covers that they have previously recorded to bring the crowd into their way of thinking. Finally, a small word about Jónsi, the last act I saw at Latitude 2010. His material with Sigur Rós has always been incredible, and his more illustrious solo work has continued this trend, with such an outgoing performance and enthusiastic crowd, Jónsi managed to show that music doesn’t have to be populist or pretentious to gain a following, it simply has to have the right feel to it. Bringing back my memories of their unforgettable 2008 set, Jónsi left me remembering why I love Latitude.
It is almost impossible to set out one way of reviewing or defining a festival and Latitude is so varied that its performance is even tougher to explain. This year saw a huge amount of great music, but the atmosphere changes really affected it for me. I will return again, year after year, and would always recommend it to anyone, but I have seen better before.
Highlights of the weekend:
1. Crystal Castles
Despite the controversy over Alice Glass’s attack on a fan, and her storming off stage 20 minutes early, Crystal Castles delivered the most energetic set of the weekend, claiming some casualties, but also showing Latitude-goers what a real, enthusiastic gig feels like.
2. The Feeling
As well-established pop musicians, it didn’t take much effort from the feeling to really encourage the crowd with a string of hits, including their excellent cover of “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles.
Jónsi’s performance as part of Sigur Rós in 2008 will always be my best Latitude memory, so to hear something similar again was a great reminder of how Latitude’s choice of acts is always well-judged, varied and high quality.
All words and photographs by Henry Cooksey