Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Latitude Festival 2011

Latitude Festival
July 15th – 17th

My festival life began at Temple Newsam in 2001. Since then, I have been to a number of what I call ‘big’ festivals; Leeds many more times, plus V and Opener in Poland. But for the last few years I’ve avoided them and gone for the smaller ones. The individual touches appeal to me, the attention to detail, the less corporate, money driven aspect. Space to relax and unwind, socialise and not feel as if it’s an effort to have a good time. With 40,000 people expected to turn up, Latitude was a return to those large scale events I’d long avoided but, with all the positive things I’d heard about it, I hoped it wouldn’t be a return to being shepherded round a field like cattle, from one atypical indie band to another.

It was almost a whole weekend we were there. We got there teatime Friday, the long journey from Wakefield smooth enough. We had to leave Sunday teatime so we sadly missed headliners Eels whom I were looking forward to immensely. But in between I saw enough music, theatre, comedy and much more to make the journey worthwhile. On top of that, the care put into the festival was a joy to experience.

The Friday was spent exploring the site, which is huge but totally manageable. It seems bigger than it is because there are so many little corners with things going on. There are the usual large stages for music, alongside tents in decreasing size for Comedy, Literature, Theatre, Poetry, Caberet and then further stages in the woods, by the lake – basically anywhere they can squeeze something in. In the best way though, it all fits into the environment with natural ease. Even when busy, walking around is never a problem or a crush, and though they could do with more seating, if the weather is fine you can always find a spot of grass to perch on and chill out. God – doesn’t sound like much to ask does it? But after Leeds fest horrors, it came as a massive relief.

Friday wasn’t the best days line up for me, so I didn’t mind spending the time wandering around. I caught some of Paloma Faith on the main stage. I didn’t / don’t know anything about her, bar kooky appearances on Never Mind The Buzzcocks but she was pretty good, perfectly matching the bright sunny vibes cast across the main field. The National popped up later. Everyone loves The National it seems. I’ve never had chance to hear them and I don’t especially think this was the best way to do it. From what I gather they are a bit of a grower. The sound was impressive, but they kind of sounded like a really slow Interpol to my untrained ears. With a bit of gentle Elbow grandness. No point me describing them here anyway, because no doubt, unlike me, you’ve actually heard their records.

Elsewhere I caught David O Doherty, again who I had seen on Never Mind The Buzzcocks (more on that soon) over in the comedy tent. Before arriving the Comedy Tent looked like the hottest ticket to me. When I arrived the place was rammed, but it wasn’t a big deal to sit outside on the grass with a pint and watch on the big screen. He was the headliner for the day – weirdly comedy headliners go on at 6:30pm at Latitude. I reckon it’s to counter drunken heckles. He was great though, I enjoyed his little Casio keyboard tunes and his take on Irishness which was far less clichéd than it sounds now.

Among the many tents was a ‘Film & Music’ tent which earlier in the day had hosted an onstage interview with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. We popped down to watch the Beastie Boys Short Film ‘Fight For Your Right: Revisited’. We caught the end of some terrible female singer whose only trick was to lead with her breasts in a swanky ballroom gown whilst singing covers (of what I forget now). Programme says ‘Camille o’Sullivan’ and perhaps it is just unfortunate I saw her after Paloma who does seem genuine in her individuality whereas Camille certainly did not. However, once gone, we dashed to the front of the tent to get a good view on the massive screen behind the stage. Then REALLY STUPIDLY they started playing it on the screens at the side of the stage only. Except the volume was so quiet we didn’t notice for 5 minutes. We were so far forward we couldn’t see. So we just left. It was annoying that they bigged it up in the programme and then just played it whilst soundmen pottered around the stage for a switch over of bands.

Finally on Friday we caught some theatre. My well informed theatre friend informed me this was £25 a ticket on the westend (or whatever) and we should definitely take a look. Bare with me here as this takes some explaining. Basically, amongst all the stalls and stages they had built a hotel. Called the ‘Electric Hotel’. It was 4 storeys high and was all windows down one side, with blinds across. We’d seen it through the day and wondered what on earth it was. Performances took place at night. You were given some headphones and invited to sit in front of the hotel – on the grass, whilst people walked around – and watch. When it began, the hotel lit up. The blinds pulled back and we could see people in different parts of the hotel; some in their rooms, some in corridors, some in the bar on the top floor having a drink. Through our headphones we could hear different things that were going on. Never any speech, but foot steps, music, atmosphere. It was pretty amazing – footsteps of a maid walking around and knocking on doors, obviously pre-recorded were synced up with the actors brilliantly. It was amazing just to look at and the voyeuristic nature of it made it intriguing at the same time.

The whole concept blew me away and I was startled… for about 15 minutes. Then I started to get a bit annoyed. After 30 minutes I was furious and had to leave (the performance was 60 minutes). Why? Because, after creating the most amazing set I’ve ever seen – BUILDING A HOTEL IN A FIELD! – and one of the best concepts ever… nothing happened. They pulled one of the most convoluted tricks in theatre and started looping things. Ah yes, she’s going in that room like she did last time. That’s ok if things change, but literally it was the same. I’m sure if I stayed for the whole thing something would have happened. But I was so angry at the director for being so lazy with something that was potentially the greatest thing I’d ever seen. All I wanted was some kind of story. What a waste.

I awoke Saturday morning to the sound of a million frozen peas being unloaded upon my tent. The weatherman had been correct – torrential downpour. In my anger the previous night – at not being able to get the stove working to cook up a burger – I had rampaged the tent ever so slightly; I awoke to find my waterproof inside out… in a puddle. What a moron.

Despite this we got into the arena nice and early to start queuing for what I hoped would be one of the best parts of the weekend – a live edition of Never Mind The Buzzcocks in the comedy tent, with Noel Fielding, Phil Jupitus and yesterdays David O Doherty. We stood in the rain, in the mass of people waiting to get at the tent for nearly 40 minutes. The gates opened, a mad rush, a crushed herd of punters head for the tent. We end up about 2 feet from the tent with no view whatsoever. We head round the side but no luck. We stand there in the pouring rain under the umbrella for 10 minutes and then decide it’s not worth it. We can’t see a thing and it is pissing it down. Because of the overnight conditions people are now standing on the periphery of the comedy tent; if it had been dry we’d have been able to sit down and still see. We walk back to the tent and hear roars of appreciation way back at our campsite.

Missing things due to the crowds was a big problem at Latitude. Now I’m home and can think I would put it down to me not going to a big festival for a few years. I’m out of the habit of getting down early for a good spot. I’m used to just turning up now. Things didn’t run to time very well either, meaning well laid plans for the day were disrupted and acts missed. I was most gutted to miss Tim Key, the only thing I gave a shit about in the poetry tent – it was rammed full. I missed a piece of theatre by Whippets Productions due to it starting early. By the end I didn’t even bother trying to see Dylan Moran, Mark Watson, Adam Buxton, Mark Lamaar, Ralph Fiennes and loads more because I knew I would have to get their an hour early to secure a spot. The rain forced a lot of people into shows they didn’t even care about which made it all the more frustrating.

Of course another point here is that in the real world I consider my tastes fairly niche. People I work with probably haven’t heard of Ian Curtis, let alone Tim Key so I almost expect these places to be empty. But at Latitude my ‘secret interests’ are mainstream in a lot of cases. The guy off Charlie Brookers Screenwipe? Oh please! Etc.

Saturday was a good day though, despite the awful weather. At the comedy tent we caught the end of Robin Ince, who I have a fair bit of time for. We had to watch from outside, but slowly worked our way under the cover of the tent, inch by inch. I was disappointed with Robin though. A lot of the comedians seemed to at least mention families in someway, at least acknowledging the family friendly environment. But Robin did that awful thing of telling stories about the ‘hilarious’ things his kid does. At first it seemed he would do it in a self aware and ironic manner. But he didn’t, he just told stories about the time his kid said that inappropriate thing or did something silly. With the swarms of children mingling around and the dedicated kids area I started to worry I was at the wrong festival.

Perseverance at the comedy tents led to better things though. A one-two of Doc Brown and Jon Richardson really got things going. Doc Brown is a rapper turned stand up. He too starts with a bit of child related stuff, but then drops into a rap about how English rappers are unable to brag about where they come from like their American counterparts – due to their inate Englishness. Hence a rap about getting 3 shirts for a fiver down at Primark and driving a Ford fiesta. The act comes alive after this and he periodically drops into a rap, with backing track to back up his points. It’s great – funny but talented too. I like the fact he comes from a different background to most comedians I’ve seen. He’s friendly , approachable and knowledgable and his rap upbringing has given him a really interesting, and amusing outlook on life. Great stuff.

Jon Richardson pops up on stage IMMEDIATELY after due to things running behind. He’s quite a well known face on television now, popping up on various panel shows. I saw him at The Hop in Wakefield a couple of year back and had enjoyed it but it’s great to see that a) he has improved massively since then and b) has not become ‘accessible’ after being on telly. He’s more neurotic than ever, focusing on his OCD when on tour, when at festivals and how it stops him forming any type of meaningful relationship. It works because I believe he is actually like that. I see a bit of myself in his attitudes of finding disgust in almost everything but he takes it past what would be a logical conclusion for most people. And from there floweth the comedy. He’s really smart but down to earth. As he says himself; ‘With most comedians you leave thinking, hey, he’s going to do alright for himself. With me, it’s more like ‘Is he gonna be ok? Should I be worried’. Excellent.
Due to not being able to get into a few tents, as mentioned, a fair bit of Saturday was spent on the main stage. The rain, that had not stopped for about 7 hours, subsided slightly for Seasick Steve. I don’t understand Seasick Steve. I am heavily opposed to Country, Folk, Blues… seemingly every influence he has ever had. But I think he’s amazing. I think it’s because you know he is for real and he is clearly loving every second. He is joined on stage by a drummer and by the former Led Zeppelin bassist. I don’t own any of his records but I enjoy every second, so much passion and good humour. He wheels out a procession of unlikely looking homemade guitars, including one with just one string. The band jam for some sections, clearly loving every second. Despite the rain returning it feels like the whole field is stomping away. At the end he takes about 5 minutes to leave the stage, reluctant to leave the appreciative crowd behind.

As The Cribs hit the stage the sun appears from behind a cloud. They are probably the most un-Latitude band on the bill. We manage to get to about the 10th row without having to so much as say ‘excuse me’. Not because there isn’t a crowd, but because it’s a different type of crowd. Someone stands on my friends toe during an energetic number. They turn round and apologise. Wow.

But the set itself is sublime. Ryan is wearing a bright pink wig. They storm straight into ‘Cheat On Me’, a touring guitarist now filling in for Marr. They don’t miss him one bit. It takes a couple of songs for the crowd to get going. At first the Jarman’s seem terribly out of place. But then the circle pits start and the gig comes to life. Ryan tells the crowd they woke up in Great Yarmouth that morning in the pouring rain and didn’t expect anything from today, but they really enjoying it. The majority of the tracks seem to be from ‘Men Needs, Womens Needs, Whatever’ alongside generous helpings from the other albums and what appear to be a couple of newbies, which seem to be full of the usual melodic delights. They play ‘Be Safe’ which is brilliant, Lee Ranaldo shown on the big screens, adding his spoken word.

2nd last song is ‘Mens Needs’ and as they launch into ‘City of Bugs’ from the most recent album I begin to think they should have ended a song earlier. But I am so wrong. I never fully got into ‘Ignore the Ignorant’ and presume the run through will be a bit tired, anitclimatic. But live it comes to life like I would never expect and it proves to be a thrilling conclusion.

Later into the evening we call in to see Echo & The Bunnymen who are outstanding. I should know more about them, I know, but they are just one of those bands I know a couple of songs by but don’t own a thing. Judging by the crowd reaction they were playing some classics and as ‘The Killing Moon’ hits I’m there with them 100%. The huge echo-ing sounds round the massive tent is perfect. It’s not often a band you don’t know has such an effect, but I guess they are bloody legends aren’t they, so it’s no surprise.

The bands finish quite early at Latitude (and comedy finishes at 7pm) which leaves you wandering the odder stuff for entertainment. We popped for a pint to the cabaret tent as there was a Stones/Beatles cover band. Course I object massively to that, but I thought as background music for a pint it’d be ok. We found a comfy tree by the tent and sat there listening but ‘No Expectations’ were surprisingly dull, making McCartneys touring band sound like the fucking Sex Pistols. Absolutely by numbers and without an ounce of personality. Shame on them.
The poetry tent had cleared since us missing Tim Key and similarly we sat for a pint with something in the background. The female compere dropped some typically bleak poetry about some kind of relationship bother. Then Nathan Penlington came to the stage. I enjoyed his 10 minute slot, though it raised more questions than anything, the main one being ‘what is poetry?’. He told stories, read some of Uri Gellar’s terrible poetry, did a magic trick and read a poem. It was enjoyable but unusual. Judging by various other acts I saw in passing, plus what I gathered from the programme, spoken word / poetry / rap / reading out loud all seem to blur into one now. I guess part of it is making it accessible to an audience, especially a festival one. It didn’t really convince me to go see poetry live anytime soon, but I’m still glad it was there and given an outlet. In fact a great thing about Latitude is that despite Music having the biggest stage, it feels like all the strands of the arts are treated with them same respect, as well they should.

On the way back to the tent we witnessed something very strange by the lake. We were on our way into the woods, through the crowds, when I saw some giant inflatable Moomin type characters bobbing past, like Sprirted Away characters. We then spotted a person attached to a massive balloon floating our way. Like a trapeze artist they were spinning around as the balloon fell and raised itself up again. I’m talking way up in the sky here, dangerously high. The person lowered themselves down and touched the Moomins one by one and they dissolved to nothing. Then the balloon man flew away. It was awesome, mostly because it was totally unnecessary, but also because if we’d not happened to have been passing at that very moment, we’d have missed it. Well cool.

Which brings me to the little touches that made Latitude so great. As soon as we arrived at the campsite we dumped our stuff and started to unpack the tent. Immediately two volunteers rolled up and offered to help us put it up. 5 minutes later they were on their way and we were in our tent having a beer. The campsite was excellent, though admittedly we were in the guest site. Toilets generally were amongst the best I have seen at a festival including, to the mass amusement of my girlfriend, female urinals. The general campsite had a supermarket selling goods at reasonable prices, including fresh milk, homemade cakes, locally sourced meat and newspapers.

Within the arena the prices were acceptable – about 6/7 quid for a meal, which is steep but the choice was massive and the quality very good. Pints were a reasonable £3.90 for Tuborg or Cider. You had to pay a £3 deposit for a cup which at first seems a bit costly. But it’s actually a genius move – it means there’s no littering and people keep hold of their cups. At the end of the weekend we got our 3 quid back.

The programme was expensive - £9. However, the programme is a 350 book, a proper book with masses of information in and makes a decent souvenir. Though, as the only way to get a timetable, it is a bit much. Perhaps there should be a timetable only option for a few quid.

I found staff to be very helpful. There were a lot of ‘information’ people around to point you in the right direction. People in shops and stalls were friendly too and fitted in with the general easy going atmosphere. I didn’t see any drunken idiots shouting and causing bother. People were drunk, don’t get me wrong. I saw paramedics attending to a few. But there was no fuss. It was a family festival afterall, but I’m glad that the family aspect did not affect the quality of the acts. I heard some right swearing from the comedy arena, but the whole thing was still family friendly. I saw a lot of young girls, 13/14, going around in groups and at some other festivals that would worry me.

Saturday night ended in the woods with a DJ delivering some pumping tunes. Felt real counter-culture. But safe, y’know? Sunday arrived and the weather seemed to be coming round to the festival spirit.

We kicked off with our first bit of theatre – Crunch! The theatre was great, about 500 capacity but it felt very intimate. Crunch! Was a one man show based around the idea of money. ‘Gary’ appeared to be one of those money making, pyramid scheme scammers. He laid out his 5 point plan for a better financial system. He held an auction for an envelope containing an unknown amount of money and someone came out smiling. Using evidence (including a trillion dollar Zimbabwean Bill) he tried to talk the audience round to his philosophy of ‘Richism’. It all built towards a climax that I don’t want to spoil here, but it involved the audience seriously questioning its attitude to money in a most extreme manner.

The show was great because it was unpretentious. It has to be said for a lot of the stuff at Latitude actual – words like ‘Literature’, ‘Poetry’ and ‘Theatre’ scare / bore the shit out of some people, but most of what I saw here was really engaging. The key here was Gary himself. Clearly elements were scripted, but he addressed the audience directly and bounced off their responses. It’s difficult to keep that up over an hour whilst building to a pre-determined climax but he did it with style.

I popped over to the main stage to catch 20 minutes of Kele (of Bloc Party) doing his solo thing. I kinda liked his solo album, or about half of it. Its Galaxy FM dance moves were unexpected certainly, especially as they were tinged with some pretty heavy regret and despair. Would this win over a mid afternoon festival crowd?

Surprisingly, yes. Kele had a proper band with him and seemed in incredibly high spirits. He was battling against the worst downpours of the weekend but was working the crowd like a seasoned professional. Smiling and everything. Maybe I got the guy completely wrong. They played a medley of Boc Party tunes that sounded completely different (Blue Light, The Prayer, One More Chance) but it was his own stuff that stood out. Shame I had to leave before he wrapped things up.

I ended my Latitude with a piece of theatre, a piece developed especially for Latitude between SpyMonkey and Peeplokyus. The latter of those are one of my favourite theatre groups (not that I can name many) having made two of the best pieces of comedy I’ve seen in theatre (Spyski and their version of Hound Of The Baskervilles).

In short it was utterly bonkers, silly beyond what I previously thought were the boundaries of silliness. It was based around the Jekyll and Hyde story and featured a cast of 6 playing multiple characters. It was created to appear under-rehearsed but by happy co-incidence was also under rehearsed. As is often the Peepolokyus way, the actors slip out of character, into the character of the actor and argue on stage. There were some amazingly off the wall moments that you expect from them. Some parts were so over the top slapstick it was beyond belief. But it was piss funny. Basically this was a greatest hits set for theatre, playing to the festival crowd. It wouldn’t work in it’s current state as a touring piece, but as a one off piece I was thrilled and it was a great ending to my Latitude.

Overall I was very impressed with Latitude. I heard there were some issues with the water supply (again…) and a shortage of wood chippings in the main campsite. I didn’t encounter any of this and from what I witnessed staff were on the ball in dealing with the boggy conditions. The festival had the right atmosphere, and though its headliners weren’t as massive as some other festival, the general experience was spot on. If the weather had held, it would have been even greater. As it was, it became a bit of a trial making it around the site. But with lots of new and interesting things to see, I will be surprised if I find a better festival experience this year.

Dean Freeman

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