Suffolk’s grand weekend out prides itself on bringing something new to Henham Park every year – this year it was puddles. I’ve oft repeated the mantra that it rarely rains on Latitude, and even when it does the sandy soil soaks up the excess water with dismissive ease. This year that truism was sorely tested with persistent rain that dogged the event, bewildering regulars who had grown complacent after years of glorious weather. It wasn’t nearly as bad as forecast, but it still made for a hesitant start on Thursday as this predominantly family festival set itself up while twitchingly looking up to the skies.
The glory days of Thursday night, with flotillas of flame-illuminated watercraft overseen by the magnificent balloon lady are long gone. This year there was no opening spectacle, but perhaps that was better than last year’s unspectacular damp squib. The big ticket on Thursday was instead a screening of War Horse from the National Theatre, but a tent pretending to be a cinema pretending to be a theatre seems an odd place to spend the first three hours of a festival, so I went looking for diversions elsewhere. It says much about Latitude’s wilful contrariness that I found the touchingly poetic John Osborne talking about dementia, the harmless lark of a faux boxing match , and the self-regarding pretention of Imelda May writing a poem from inside a transparent cube. Even caterwauling Jesus Carmona on the Waterfront stage added to the fun.
Last-minute addition KoKoKoi proved a bracing main stage opener on Friday, as resplendent in yellow boiler suits their infectious rhythms were carried across the site by an unseasonable breeze. Convinced the monsoon was coming, I bottled it shortly afterwards and ducked into the comedy tent in time to see a muted set from Maisie Adam, before Nish Kumar railed against Brexit, racism and all points in between. Polemical and thought provoking, this was a mile away from his cuddly TV personality, as was Tiff Stevenson and Marcus Brigstocke, though admittedly he was dressed up as the Devil, complete with impressive horns.
It was the promise of a provocative triple bill at the Sunrise stage, nestled in beautiful woodland, which finally eased me out of the comedy tent. Kicking off with the Crows, here was a band that reminded me of Joy Division for all of an hour before James McGovern of the Murder Capital trumped such thoughts with vocals that impressed with a depth and resonance that had me shivering in remembrance of Ian Curtis. Swiftly followed be A Place to Bury Strangers, who made a splendid row while hurling their instruments around as if they were rock stars of old, it was like a mini festival of its own.
Later in the day I finally broke cover, to take a peek at trippy Khruangbin from Texas, which was of course the cue for the rain to fall. It was rain that only got worse before it got better - fittingly relenting for the deity that is George Ezra. He seems like a poor man’s Ed Sheeran to me (who knew that could even be a thing) so after sticking it out amongst his very many fans I eventually scuttled off into the welcome arms of Bobby Gillespie, curious to see if he was going to be belligerent, barmy or brilliant. He was actually surprisingly cheerful, which was somehow quite disconcerting.
Early risers on Saturday were treated to a double dose of interpretive dance, with James Tiller’s provocatively sexualised retelling of Moby Dick on the Waterfront stage followed by the always excellent Theatre Re exploring the tribulations of birth. I was really looking forward to seeing the Futureheads afterwards - this year’s surprisingly-low-down-the-bill act - but unfortunately they had barely started before an electrical storm forced the entire festival to switch off the power. Every cloud, however, as having serendipitously taking shelter from the torrential and spectacular rain that followed in the Sounds tent, I instead caught what proved to be one of the finest performances of the weekend. Nadine Shah’s was incandescent with righteous anger, pulling off the difficult trick of injecting a timely anti-hate message into a ferociously catchy and tuneful set.
An amiable, if disposable, chat with Mark Kermode and his harmonica followed, before the coruscating solo play Daughter had me reeling away from the theatre tent. Performed with icy brilliance by its author Canadian Adam Lazarus, this was an extraordinarily brave play to put on at Latitude, and hats off to the theatre programmers for daring to do so. The confession of a monstrous man is not a festival experience I expected to have, but it was all the more richer for it. By comparison, the aural assault from Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs (imagine Mark E Smith fronting early Hawkwind) felt almost like light relief.
The centrepiece of the day - indeed the weekend - was an innovative double headliner that I thought worked tremendously well. The family friendly Stereophonics did a proper closing set - anthemic, professional and a bit dull - which finished at a time that allowed families and day ticket holders to make their way back to homes and tents. This left the big kids, already half convinced it was later than it really was, to enjoy a brilliantly concise set from Underworld. This was a clever idea, one that should be repeated, and presumably only possible because of a judicious decision to spend less on the unfortunately absent Snow Patrol.
Sunday had the feeling of a bullet dodged, with lovely fluffy clouds that dappled a sun that had finally arrived. Diving into the bowels of the film tent seemed an ungrateful response, but the Penguin Cafe were worth it – both an affectionate homage to Simon Jeffes, and a fine band in its own right, this was a lovely way for his son Arthur to spend his birthday. The tent was heaving – Lord knows how many more people didn’t get in – and stayed full for Charlie Brooker, though he soon did a fine job of emptying it with a tired Q&A session that managed to be both cocksure and lacklustre.
I still think the Obelisk is the best main stage of any festival I’m familiar with, but try as I might to spend time there, its roster of harmless, bland, ubiquitous performers just didn’t feel worth missing out on other things. Both Russell Kane and Frank Skinner were just too good to miss, notwithstanding a vague guilty feeling that I was not, as my Mum used to say, outside playing in the sun. Somewhere else I sadly spent little time in was the Speakeasy, a venue that has never really recovered from the amalgamation of literature and poetry. The Millennial Dome of Latitude, it is rather lovely to look at, but has so little in it. I had a moan about this last year, but here’s the thing. A rare visit to see Simon Armitage, the current Poet Laureate and a grounded, talented, humorous man, it should have been a challenge. In the past you needed sharp elbows to see the star turn, but I wandered up with barely ten minutes to go. I used to think Latitude folk were divided into two audiences – the musos and the literati – but sadly, I think the latter have drifted away.
The new divide is now between the family friendly music on the main stage and genuinely ground breaking offerings elsewhere, with the unrepentantly bonkers Snapped Ankles (tucked away in the film tent) or the wacky jazz of The Comet Is Coming on the Sunrise being just two examples. The two-man Slaves would never have headlined the second stage a few years back, and yet here they were - the perfect antidote to Lana Del Ray. I’ve never seen them better – seemingly consumed with their unique brand of shouty, sweary, stripped down, rage-fuelled noise that drove their audience to the point of near hysteria. That is until someone collapsed in the crowd, when they suddenly became just two nice lads from Kent genuinely worried for someone’s welfare.
If I had to some up Latitude in one word, it is choice. It has something like twenty-five scheduled performance spaces, which is extraordinary for an event of this size. Some of those spaces could be culled without significant loss – the Faraway Forest is always a tad lame and the Cabaret tent is well passed its sell by date – but all of them bring something to the party. So when there is a choice, it’s not just between bands or musical genres, but between music or plays or comics or dance. It’s a choice that can be bewildering and frustrating, with disparate parts of the festival having little regard for schedules elsewhere, but I can think of no other festival short of Edinburgh or Glastonbury that offers such an exhilarating, kaleidoscopic experience. In the last three years the festival has shifted, and the audience has shifted with it, but it has done so to survive, and you can’t really take issue with that. Judged against its peers, rather than its past, Latitude still dares to educate as much as entertain, to move as much as thrill, and to shock as much as amaze. It still has a dogged insistence on doing different and should be treasured for that. For all the gripes and misgivings of the regulars moaning it’s not as good as it used to be, we all know that a festival season without it would be immeasurably poorer.
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