Latitude Festival 2012
The main thing I noticed about Latitude is that it is designed for people who love festivals more than for people who love music. Of course, that isn’t a criticism; I’m reviewing a festival. But for an introvert like myself, the constant immersion in crowds of people talking about how great the “atmosphere” is can get very overwhelming, especially when the festival turned out way bigger than I expected (35,000 capacity!) It’s full of stalls and exhibitions and outfits that could only exist at festivals, in ways both good and bad – I saw a giant inflatable lighthouse, stone balancing, a poetry takeaway, several nails/eyelashes/henna stalls as well as the now-iconic flock of despondent-looking multi-coloured sheep. Tellingly there was not a single record stall (compared to at least five hat shops), which I’m hoping says more about the festival than about physical music’s decline. Nonetheless, I can’t say a bad word about the actual lineup or the sheer giddy energy of what they’ve put together – it really is impossible to be bored when there are 14+ stages of some truly inspirational art; the main problem is finding time in the day…
And yet in my resultant insecurity, I was a bit more inclined to cynicism: already rather put out my ticket’s preposterous surplus fees (£18 on top of a £175 ticket…), I arrived to scenes reminding me that Latitude is a business scheme as much as a festival – programmes cost a tenner and there was a partnership with megalomaniacal tax-dodgers Vodafone which gave their customers exclusive seats and phone recharging, not to mention the £4+ pints and a policy denying any of your own alcohol beyond the camping section. Not being able to afford to drink didn’t help my heightened social anxiety.
Still, even though this frames Latitude’s aspirations to splendour as rather contrived, they really do make a good job of it. By which I mean that festival “atmosphere” does exist, not just as the product of very muddy wellies and pints of cider and small groups of teenagers sitting on their macs in a forest. It was palpable because the best bands of the weekend were the ones who got the most enthusiastic crowd reaction. The biggest applauses went to almost everything in the more intimate i Arena – Tune-Yards in particular made me emotional about how someone could be creating music this brilliant, and Francois & the Atlas Mountains and Zun Zun Egui exuded pure musical joy (same goes for Fatoumata Diawara in the much larger Word Arena). At the other end of the spectrum, the crowd hushed in reverence at the heart-wrenching beauty of Perfume Genius, failing to hold back tears.
The tent held a warmth which could not possibly be matched on the colossal Obelisk stage. I only caught the end of Bon Iver’s much-discussed headline set in favour of a stellar performance from The Field, but from the back this music was losing the deft intricacy of its construction over quips like “is this a Kanye cover?” Perhaps this has more to do with how Bon Iver’s recent music is so haphazardly overblown, but even the fans I talked to agreed that his grandeur fizzled out in the open space. Rufus Wainwright and Bat For Lashes suffered a similar fate, although Laura Marling was successfully engaging and moving in similar territory. But really that stage was made for the ambitiously zany antics of Janelle Monáe and her 13-piece band. She blew away the huge crowd with an unstoppable energy, reminiscent of both Motown classics and oddball futurism.
After Monáe, I dashed over to Lana Del Rey more out of curious duty than fandom. So much has been said of her that it’s impossible to appreciate her music or show objectively, and I found that Video Games (my favourite song of 2011) had lost all its power amidst her legions of intermittently-screaming teenage fans who seemed as unsure how to react as I was. I actually found her quite charming heading in to hug the crowd, and almost felt guilty of having outgrown my former appreciation. I was met with a similar test at cult band Los Campesinos!’ Lake Stage set. I felt so old on the edge of the benevolent moshpit (and I only turned 21 on the Friday!) but they just don’t disappoint us initiates. “You’re making a very unpopular band feel popular”, said frontman Gareth, and ignored the fact that their sound was turned off for the last song, allowing the fans to scream the choruses and surf him across the crowd.
But I wonder if the moments I’ll remember most were those in which I felt the least like I was at a festival. I was particularly impressed by Van Dyke Parks’ performance in the Film & Music Arena, accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia: Parks is an absolute living legend, having been involved with everyone from Brian Wilson to Frank Zappa to Joanna Newsom, and it was a lovely performance whose memory I will long treasure. I got another rare sit-down for Lang Lang’s solo piano performance of late Romanticism, after he arrived by boat to the Waterfront Stage in the middle of the lake – Liszt and Chopin sounded woozily beautiful since the sun had finally come out. I was greatly amused by the transparent attempts among the mostly-quiet thousands to adopt pretences of classical music knowledge.
Most of my other highlights were where I felt treated to American indie acts who rarely drop by my hometown. I basked in the lush decadence of Destroyer’s currently sax-laden tour band, felt the aching slowcore harmonies of Low, and experienced a profound connection to Sharon van Etten’s understated but oddly arresting songwriting. However, not everyone met my huge expectations – I’d been waiting 5 years to see St. Vincent live but she spent most of her set pointing out nonexistent sound problems, and never really seemed engaged. She’s an obviously brilliant performer who was on an unexplained off-day. I was also excited about The Antlers but I left wishing I’d seen them three years ago; their self-indulgent proggy-shoegaze leanings are distancing them from the emotional impact of their former work. On the other hand, I entered M83’s set expecting to feel aloof, based on their super-OTT new album, and I have to admit they were brilliant regardless. As if intent on being the ultimate festival band, every amp and pedal and light-show setting was firing on “HUGE”. It was what I imagine being on ecstasy is like.
But for me it was Battles who came closest to pure live music perfection. Delayed by at least 20 minutes due to their mess of cables confusing the sound people, their abridged set still managed to fulfill so many ideals – it was full of surprising new touches and the continuous wonder of how they create their sounds, not to mention how the hell they sync their backing track vocals hooked up to two LED screens so seamlessly. They played a new song and an old song (Atlas – which I totally did not see coming), but most importantly world’s-best-drummer contender John Stanier relentlessly makes Battles a formidable dance party band, even if the Sunday afternoon crowds weren’t headbanging as much as me.
As someone who chose the festival for its musical lineup more than for its reputation I was definitely satisfied. Sorry about my opening curmudgeonry. The truth is, going simply on the music, Latitude had it all – a killer lineup with a sense of variety above most festivals (no hip-hop or metal but still, maybe next time?), and with which they managed to iron out any particularly awful clashes, maintaining impeccable sound quality at every stage. So much more was going on beyond music, but with such a great array of acts, who could ask for any more?20 July, 2012 - 12:17 — Stephen Wragg