Latitude Festival // Review

Latitude15_Victor Frankowski_[_DVF9600]

Henham Park – July 16th to July 19th 2015 | Photo by Victor Frankowski

The ‘Middle-Classtonbury’ joke was told approximately 12,546 times at last year’s Latitude festival. I totally get the joke. I mean, if Latitude were a supermarket it’d most definitely be Waitrose. Clean, well organized and bursting at the seams with high quality products. There’s even a load of snotty teenagers being dragged around by their parents.

There is, though, a huge gaping hole in the gag. In 2015 a weekend long festival is, by nature, a very middle-class affair; simply because not everyone can afford the £200 ticket, plus everything else that you’ve got to pay for over the course of 3 or 4 days.

Even this year’s Sunday night headliner Noel Gallagher had a pop at the Festival and its audience. “I feel like I’m looking at a Guardian reader’s convention.” First of all, who the fuck do you think buys your records these days, Noel? These are your people. Secondly, Noel, you’re not working class anymore, mate. You’ve been a millionaire since the mid 90s. You live in Marylebone, for godssake! Please spare us the blue-collar hero bit. Just play fucking Wonderwall and put us all out of our misery because your Highflying Bird’s material is even worse than your chat.

In all honesty, I actually don’t mind Noel. It’s just so arrogant and short sighted to bite the hand that feeds you. He was, after-all, the best songwriter in the world for a time. And it’s his tunes from that period (‘Talk Tonight,’ ‘Half the World Away,’ ‘Acquiesce’) that provide the biggest sing-alongs of the entire weekend. It’s a huge testament to the power of Noel’s songwriting when the entire audience, so diverse in age, belt out every single word of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and ‘Champagne Supernova.’ It’s unfortunate, then, that most of the stuff he’s produced post Oasis is painfully vanilla, making for a set of extremely high highs and, to be frank, stodgy, tedious lows.

Noel’s attitude to the festival is of stark contrast to that of Friday night’s headliner Alt-J, who are unbelievably happy to be here. And they’ve worked hard to elevate themselves to such a high profile slot. In some ways, Alt-J seem the perfect headline act for Latitude: pop enough to satisfy the youthful side of the crowd, and interesting enough for the chin scratchers. Tonight, though, the stage seems to swallow them up. Joe Newman’s voice doesn’t have quite enough power for a platform of this size and is totally lost during the band’s more tender moments. There are lots of high points, though, as the bluesy riffs of ‘Left Hand Free’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’s industrial groove, neat guitar and sinister melody reminds the audience of why Alt-J were booked for this slot in the first place.

In support of Alt-J, Dan Snaith, aka Caribou, took to Latitude’s main stage, The Obelisk Arena. It’s remarkable how well Snaith, has been able to transform his music to fit perfectly into this context. Once, he produced club friendly disco influenced techno, suited for a post 2am slot in a Paris basement. This evening, though, during Latitude’s sunset-slot, Caribou’s prismatic electronica is resplendent under the Suffolk sky. Hands are in the air. This year’s Latitude is well and truly under way.

Latitude15_Dan Medhurst_[RP1A2949]Thom Yorke by Dan Medhurst

On Saturday morning, there was a whiff of a rumour drifting across the site that that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke had been booked to play a ‘secret’ slot in festival’s woodland iArena. The previous night, local loop pedal maestro Ed Sheeran had played that same slot, much to the delight of the festival’s teenage contingent. This, though, was different. Thom was in the building. Not even Wolf Alice’s pop-grunge or Laura Marling’s wistful tales of heartbreak on Saturday afternoon could distract me from the excitement of catching Thom Yorke in a tent of no more than 300 people.

I was, however, broken from my reverie by Savages in the BBC6 Music tent. Without exaggerating, Jehnny Beth is one the most exhilarating and engrossing lead singers in the country at the moment. Dressed head to toe in black, with her short hair slicked back, she lithely prowls across the stage. At once, sultry and seductive, then powerful and menacing, it is a truly explosive performance. It’s not just beauty and brawn, though. Savages’ music carries with it some pretty heavy and important messages. ‘Fuckers’ is an epic admonition to not put up with any crap, no matter how hard it might get thrown at you. Considering the youthful vulnerability of some in attendance, Jehnny’s bellowing refrain of “Don’t let the fuckers get you down,” seems all the more poignant. New tracks ‘Adore’ (a tale of “life and death”) and ‘Hit Me’ hint that their as-yet-unamed second album will be no less incendiary than their 2013 debut. It’s a brutal, relentless andpropulsive set that has the audience in raptures from the very beginning and ends with us being brought back down to earth and plonked somewhere between euphoria and out-and-out awe.

When discussing this year’s Latitude lineup, a friend remarked “Portishead? I want a bit more from a headline act.” Some people might agree. I really don’t. Sometimes, it’s not about bombast. Sometimes it’s about energy, atmosphere and feeling. And Portishead create all those things expertly. Beth Gibbons is as poised as ever. Her voice, an aching timbre that’s note perfect throughout, is brimming with melancholy and wonder.

What’s so compelling about Portishead is that they somehow manage to make this huge arena seem somewhat intimate. Particularly on the ethereal ‘Wandering Star’, which sees Gibbons seated on a stool beneath a white spotlight, singing above a deep, brooding bass-line, as the rest of the band lurk in the darkness at either side of the stage. Few guitarists are able to make a guitar talk, but tonight Adrian Utley’s Harmony H-64 is in full verse. His extended solo on the seminal ‘Glory Box’ is one of the weekend’s highlights as he bends and twists each note to create a monstrous groove that soars into the purple sky.

Latitude15_Marc Sethi_[DSC_6656]Portishead by Marc Sethi

The most striking moment of tonight’s performance is undoubtedly, ‘Machine Gun,’ taken from Portishead’s 2008 Third. It’s a jarring and abrasive beast, which juxtaposes beautifully with the sombre vulnerability in Gibbons’ voice. Behind the musicians on stage, a giant image of David Cameron’s face, blue lazers for eyes, glares out at the audience. The image is cut with distorted footage of Cameron’s Britain: queues at food banks, anti-austerity marches, violence on the streets. Intermittently, the words ‘Five More Years’ are emblazoned across the screens. It’s a stark image, indeed. And a vitally important message. For Geoff Barrow has commented recently on the lack of political engagement amongst the modern music fraternity, and with acts like Catfish & the Bottlemen and La Roux playing this year’s festival, it’s difficult to disagree with him. It’s bands like Portishead that remind us of the power music and the ability it has to energise people. My only hope is that those in attendance were paying attention.

Before Portishead’s set ends, I scarpered into the woods and up towards the iArena to ensure that I wouldn’t miss Thom Yorke’s not-so-secret show. To my dismay, I found out the next day that Thom had joined Portishead on stage to perform The Rip during their encore. I needn’t have bothered leaving so soon.

Arriving at a packed iArena, I elbowed my way through the heaving crowd. There are lines of luminous green scorched across the monitors. The colours on the screen mirror the artwork from Yorke’s second solo album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and act as confirmation of the rumours of his appearance. It’s nearly 1am by this point and in the air sits a heady mixture of tension and anticipation so thick that you could reach up and take a bite out of it. After a chorus of “Thom, Thom, Thom” from the expectant crowd the great man eventually emerges from behind the screens along with Radiohead producer and long-time collaborator Nigel Godrich. “I’m Pharell Williams and this is Robin Thicke,” he proclaims, with a sly grin and an emphasis on “THICK”.

Opening with ‘A Brain In A Bottle’, taken from Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, it’s immediately evident that something’s not right. Both Nigel and Thom look confused. One of the sound engineers scrambles around the stage, lifting things, pulling on leads, checking things are plugged in properly. The frustration on stage is growing, and that transmits to the audience. Eventually, it seems things are sorted and Thom relaxes into the performance. The glitchy electronica that dominates his solo material and is becoming his forte is enough to get the crowd moving. Thom’s voice is as perfect as always, swirling and undulating beneath the iArena’s big top.

However, just when the show threatens to get out of first gear, there are more technical problems. More scurrying around the stage, more frustration. This time, though, Yorke is visibly perturbed. He grabs a microphone to apologise to the audience and even that won’t work. He slams the mic back in its stand and disappears backstage, along with Godrich. “He’s going to have to get the acoustic out and do Creep”, I think to myself. Knowing Thom, though, that is absolutely out of the question. 5 or 6 painful minutes crawl by and, eventually, both musicians emerge. Nothing is said about the interruption, but it’s had a profoundly negative effect on both audience and performer. Unable to handle the excruciating pain of seeing the lead singer of my favourite band fall flat on his face, I skulk out of the iArena, pining for what might have been.

Despite the technical difficulties, booking Thom Yorke and, for that matter, Ed Sheeran (who’d sold out Wembley the week before), was a massive coup for Latitude. It’s an indication of where they’re at and how far they’re come over the past ten years. Latitude is a beautiful concoction of the avant-garde and experimental, the upcoming and the established. And, in spite of Noel’s complaints, it’s been yet another brilliant weekend in Henham Park. Happy birthday, Latitude. Here’s to the next ten years.

Now, where’s that copy of the Guardian?

@LeeMoroney