Around about this time last year a combination of cost cutting and Mumfordgate left many diehard fans of Latitude scratching their heads, wondering if the festival had reached the end of days. Was it a metamorphosis it into something leaner and more sustainable, or merely a descent towards mediocrity and eventual oblivion? This year’s Latitude went some way to answering that question with encouraging signs that the festival was both moving on, yet had listened to concern raised the previous year. Perhaps inevitably, new questions also arose.
It’s worth reiterating some things that Latitude still does well - perhaps better than anyone else. These are things too easily taken for granted. Security is firm but fair, the toilets are spot on, and spotless, it is set in a beautiful park tastefully enhanced with all manner of frills – not to mention the purple sheep. There is music, and lots of it, with main stages of mainstream pop complemented by quirky little venues showing acts you’ve never heard of – the kind that will either be propelled toward international fame or disappear without trace. The site is forever being worked on,and this year we saw a welcome increase in the choice of food, and (judging by the fancy pants liveries on many of the vendor’s stalls) a general improvement in the quality. Comedy was now under an awning, rather than at tent – a simple change that nevertheless made a hugely positive difference to the flow of people coming in and out. The forest clearing had been tarted up, with the Town hall replacing the Welcome venue, while the cabaret tent had been subtlety changed to accommodate the plays it was now expected to host. Most intriguingly, the Speakeasy spoken word arena was now looking very swish, and was significantly bigger. This would have surely been better done last year, offsetting much of the backlash when the poetry tent was shut down, so you have so you have to wonder whether the change was a reaction to that criticism.
Admittedly, the entertainment contained within these venues was a tad thin on opening night, the highlight being Sandi Toksvig having a pleasant chat with John Lloyd, but it was good to see more of the venues at least open. The film arena had only one act on all night, but it was a good one. Balaklava Blues was a faux rave set in war-torn Ukrainian, pleasingly bonkers and oddly moving. Add to that some dance on the waterfront, a Don Giovanni’s screening in the theatre (which spookily featured Latitude in the break, meaning we sat there watching ourselves) and some matchmaking in the Town Hall. Best of all was Darkfield’s “Flight”, which offered up what surely every festival goer aspires to – the chance to experience a simulated aeroplane crash. The only significant absence, and I thought it a great shame, was the usual centre piece of Thursday. In the past, inventive, haunting, and frequently beautiful spectacles have been staged on the lake, drawing together festival goers in a physical manifestation of a unifying spirit (if that doesn’t sound too new age) and set against the unparalleled loveliness of the grounds in which it is set. This year we got some drums, some illuminated flags, and a load of punters waiting for something to happen. This may seem like a small change, but for me it was always the moment when the festival truly started - I can’t help but think that its absence is indicative of the regrettable shift in emphasis we saw creep in last year, whereby Saturday is seen as the jewel in the crown, packed full of goodies for day trippers impatient for their headliner, buttressed by lesser pleasures on other days, put on for those of us who were staying the distance. The idea of a communal experience kick started by floating balloons and illuminated pontoon boats would appear to be just that – only an idea.
So while it would be unfair to call Friday the new Thursday, it was a muted and disparate day. There was good stuff on, but you had to go mine for it. Swim against the tide flowing towards QI in the comedy tent (folk at Latitude are suckers for anything that looks and sounds like something off the telly) and you would have found Bryony Kimmings frank and heart breaking work-in-progress, a deeply moving account of her troubled times following the birth of her child, while Rosy Carrick’s time traveling Passionate Machine was witty and smart. On the main stage, French band La Femme were a hoot (no one can seriously object to a band with a Theremin at the heart of their sound) while Benjamin Clementine showcased his fine voice, having moved the decorative lamps around his piano, following a request by an audience member whose view was obstructed. “I thought you came to hear the music, not see it,” said he, bewildered by this sense of entitlement.
Good though they both were, it was early evening before Nadine Shah gave the first truly outstanding musical performance inside a hot and sweaty film arena. One of the few original structures it is one that has outstayed its welcome. Hardly anyone watches the few films still shown in here, but the blackout required means that everything else – Nadine included – has to struggle against this inhospitable pit of a venue. And its still pointing the wrong way, with the audience sloping away from the stage, so no one can see when standing up, and no one can sit comfortably on the floor. It took all her charisma and charm to battle against these environs, but fortunately she has both in bucket loads, combined with a powerhouse voice.
Just before the headliners, Australian duo Confidence Man popped up on the Lake Stage. Fronted by the marvellously named Janet Planet, who sported a flashing neon conical bra while Dad dancing, they proved that some of the very best finds at Latitude are on the small stages. They were certainly a welcome sorbet before headliners James and Solange. Most chose James, making the BBC tent largely impenetrable.
I’m still not sure if it was brave or foolish to have Solange as the main headliner, was it was certainly roomy. Playing to a near empty field can’t have been easy, but that can’t fully account for the lacklustre, anodyne performance given to those of us pushed by Hobson’s choice into giving her a whirl. Sadly, while there was a core of fans who clearly loved what she was doing, and good luck to them, many more drifted away. I was one of them, disappointed that my preconceptions hadn’t been confounded. It's absurd to suggest that the festival shouldn’t have put her on – I rather admire them for having the balls to do so - but having started late and finished early she frankly let us down.
Saturday, as already discussed, was always going to be seen as the “big day”, and apart from the killer headliner (see what I did there?) we also had the two biggest comics of the weekend. Alan Davies did well, Harry Hill less so, but both played to huge crowds. Kermode had them queuing round the block, and we even had the winner of Britain’s Got Talent in the cabaret tent. Perhaps best of all was the mighty and righteous indignation of Mark Thomas in the Theatre tent, defending with passion and commitment the NHS, though many would have handed that award to Liam Gallagher. For once, a surprise artist equal to the hype, whatever you think of him (and one patient Dad stropped out the tent as soon as he appeared) it was a pretty good surprise. So all in all, a grand day out for the family, all of whom turned up for a day that culminated in an uncomfortably crowded arena where the Killers churned out the hits. Meanwhile, playing to practically no one (which was sad for them but damn comfortable for me) was a majestic Mogwai, creating cathedrals out of sound in the performance of the weekend for those few canny enough to plough their own furrow.
The final day was at its best early on, with dry mordant wit from Richard Ayoade nicely contrasted with the precocious wisdom of Reggie Yates. Outside, Sleeper played to a small, but loyal audience, while next door in the BBC tent, the Idles blew away the cobwebs with a pleasingly atypically racket. In the spirit of completeness, I ventured into the cabaret tent and watched a pretty good, and surprisingly explicit, play about teenage sex, performed gamely to the half dozen people that had forsaken Rag ‘n’ Bone Man. Wolf Alice was an excellent warm up for the quirky headlines Alt-J, whose distinctive mash up of the Futureheads and Philip Glass closed the main stage with another (in the words of Sir Humphrey) brave choice of headliner. They put on quite a spectacle, and there moments of sublime transcendence, but also quite a lot of dodgy singing. Setting them against Jon Hopkins (doing his laptop thing in front of arresting visuals) made for a quirky and somewhat underwhelming end to the festival. While it was fun to graze between to the two, it was telling that neither really held my attention.
So has Latitude solved its problems? It certainly smartened up nicely, presented a mixed and eclectic bunch of acts, and was blessed with wall to wall sunshine. I imagine there were many who left the festival delighted with their weekend. However, the main stages are increasingly being geared towards a younger demographic, and while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, I wonder if a lot of people, particularly older people with families and money, are going to find themselves with time on their hands. Now the festival has dispensed with the likes of OMD, Hall and Oates and Echo and the Bunnyman, will Mum and Dad start getting a bit bored with going back and forth to the admittedly excellent theatre tent? Might, then, a festival so dependent on families (and look at the size of their field if in doubt of that) might simply stop working? It’s obvious that the appetite for alternative entertainment remains undiminished, yet with the notable exception of the theatre the quality continues to be eroded. It’s great that the festival showcases classical music, but don’t bother if, instead of Micheal Nyman or Catherine Jenkins, we get served up the Britten Sinfonia ruddy youth orchestra. The Speakeasy was dominated by pod casts and dreary debates, where once we might have had Simon Armitage or Don Paterson. The new tent was nice but why not spend that money on acts? Conversely, either sustain a proper film tent with the likes of Stephen Frears or Ken Loach of yesteryear, or dump it and provide a better venue for the music acts that took up most of the schedule.
Although minor stages continue to throw up gems like Black Midi, WH Lung and Lyra, you can’t be forever wandering around hoping to bump into an alternative to Jessie Ware. Programmed, high quality non-music alternatives in film and literature used to be Latitude’s USP and key to its unique charm, and their absence is now profound and obvious. Latitude may well be more interested in the kids that want to go see the Vaccines, they still need their parents to get them there. The festival needed to move on and its done that , but I wonder if it's underestimated how vulnerable this policy shift makes this unique and, by many of us, still treasured festival.
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