It came as a considerable surprise to many that Latitude sold out so quickly this year, given the straightened times we live in. A cursory look at the line up is maybe a clue as to why, though only, in fairness, with the benefit of hindsight. I've noted, over the years, how token 'heritage' acts, anything from OMD to Hall and Oates, were being discreetly dropped. It left me wondering what Mum and Dad were going to do as the festival pivoted ever closer to a younger crowd. With poetry, literature and film long gone, the parents needed something to distract them, I argued, if only so that they were still prepared to act as chauffeur to the youngsters. Well, be careful what you wish for. In an about face I can't recall at any previous Latitude, much of this year's main stage schedule was given over to - let's just say -established acts. The Lightning Seeds, The Proclaimers, Paul Heaton and the Bootleg Beatles were just some of performers best suited to a seated audience, probably with a picnic blanket laid out, with kids playing on their phones while Mum and Dad, having got sloshed on warm beer, mixed up the words to Three Lions and mumbled their way through the chorus to Letter from America. To be clear, I've no problem with the more mature performer and have heartily enjoyed the line up presented by the likes of the Let's Rock outfit when it's come to town. I'm just surprised a festival that has prided itself on giving a leg up to the new and the innovative would have gone down this road with such enthusiasm.
I'm less surprised at some of the cost cutting measures. On Thursday night, the rain kept most hunkering in their tents, but it wasn't as if there was much to do. When I finally crept out into night, I opted for a lock-in at the Listening Post. BOOKTALKBOOKTALK was described as an absurdist Beckettian parody, code words for a comedy that thinks itself clever and that actual jokes are a betrayal of the form. Writer Ben Moor has an impressive track record, so maybe I'm simply not smart enough to get it, but I thought Garth Marenghi's Terror Tour both funnier and sharper. Marenghi is a hack horror author dreamed up by comic Matthew Holness that is blissfully unaware of his considerable limitations. After a read through of his truly terrible short story, Marenghi took questions from an audience that were clearly in on the joke and a good time was had by all. With the rain still howling outside, undercover remained the best place to be, in the convivial company of Danny Robins, for a recording of his Uncanny podcast. In the past, I've resisted attending what seems to me to be a bit of a cheat at a live event, but with the festival dominated by them, I relented. Harmless fun, would be my verdict, though the impact of real life ghost stories was significantly compromised by the choice available in the tent.
Danny Robins seemed on much better form the following morning, when taking part in a recording of BBC's Loose Ends. Hosted by Danny Wallace, this was a fun start to the day, not least as it introduced me to the work of Helen Czerski. More about her later, as the main stage had finally opened, with Latitude regulars Tinariwen the first half of a world music double bill that was completed by N'Famady Kouyate's modern interpretation of traditional West African rhythms. After a brief but illuminating chat between Ruth Davidson and Chelsea Manning, the main stage commanded attention, with Confidence Man consolidating their recent meteoric rise with a whimsical set that was pretty much exactly what I'd seen them do on smaller stages, not least the much-missed Lake Stage, back in the day. After a sneaky peek at Ed Gamble doing a not so secet set in front of an advert for Barclaycard (what was he thinking?) Metronome proved good value, but the night was all about Pulpable expectation (see what I did there?). As far as shows go, this was quite something, with Jarvis prowling around illuminated steps a la Vegas with a string section stage left. What a pity it was marred by poor sound and obscured by the current obsession for theatrical haze. In short, I could neither hear or see them properly. In many ways, I enjoyed the simple pleasures of William the Conqueror more, tucked away in Latitude’s late night Trailer park.
Determined to look further than the main stage on Saturday, I settled down to listen in on Hugo Rifkind broadcasting live from the Listening Post. It was the second of several from the ubiquitous Times Radio, and while diverting, I tired of speakers reining themselves in because they were being broadcast. A big part of seeing speakers in the flesh is to assess the cut of their gib free from the public glare. A radio broadcast or podcast is inevitably tailored to a remote audience listening, not watching, leaving those in the tent as bit part extras in a performance not really intended for them. Much better was ocean expert - who knew that was a thing - Helen Czerski, who spoke with passion and engagement about the waters that surround us.
I first saw The Mysterines, not so very long ago, in the beer garden of a Norwich pub. They've clearly done well for themselves since, and with the charismatic Lia Metcalfe at the helm are surely destined to work their way further up the bill of the main stage. Their performance was a welcome warm up for what was to come, an uncompromising look at climate change with Chris Packham and Hamza Yassin. Packham proved to be passionate, but also compassionate, articulate and wise. Yassin, who proposed depriving anyone over 65 of the vote on the grounds of senility, less so. The metaphorical storm clouds discussed during their talk were amplified by very real ones outside as, appropriately, the Lightning Seeds made an appearance. What impressed me most about the band was the crowd they attracted despite the rain. This is when the penny dropped that canny Melvin Benn knew what his audience wanted and was content to give to them. The sing along of Three Lions surely stirred all but the hardest heart.
The rain, heavy now, sent me scuttling back to the Listening Post for a rare treat - a talk directed at the people in the tent, rather than a remote listening audience. What a difference it made, and what a shame Ryan Broderick was only given half an hour to cover the entire history of the internet. Shaparak Khorsandi was given longer - long enough for the mask of her comedic persona to slip. I'm still dwelling on the propriety of taking her to the point of tears, however benign Isy Sutie's intentions, but it certainty highlighted the stress of someone living with undiagnosed ADHD. By now, the weather had got the better of me and so, with the sound of Paul Heaton receding as I made my way back to my tent, I scuttled past Lucy Deakin on the open topped Climate Live Bus, gamely singing that The World's So Fucked to a bedraggled audience of several. I could only echo the sentiment. Some time later I emerged, intending to see the Flamingods at the Alcove stage, despite my companion's warning that it is a horrible stage, perennially and claustrophobically packed with impossible sightlines. He was right in all respects. I lasted five minutes. Now one of the oldest stages on site, it needs sorting out. On the plus side, its inhospitably pushed me towards the Young Fathers, a band I'd heard good things about. Good things turned out to be an understatement. This genre defying trio of vocalists, moving in and out of the spotlight, were outstanding, confrontational and apocalyptic, and were easily the stand out set of the festival so far
Until, that is, James took to the stage on Sunday, opening the main stage complete with orchestra and gospel choir. Reworking what Tim Booth described as their quieter numbers and having asked that people put their phones away for the duration, this was an unusually communal experience that proved James are complete masters of their craft.
Mark Thomas has been a regular at Latitude for years presenting his own material. On the Theatre stage he acted in Ed Edwards's dense and complex one man show. Thomas proved to be a fine actor, notwithstanding some technical problems, and while the play felt a little overloaded with ideas, it remains a highlight of my weekend. I'd spent too little time in the theatre, largely as I'd already seen several of the plays on offer, but it was a timely reminder it is one of the last vestige of old Latitude, and should be treasured while it lasts.
The Bootleg Beatles were surely the antithesis of old Latitude. A tribute act that has been around for longer than the act they mimic, they attracted a huge crowd singing along merrily to all their favourites. I did try and join in the fun, but ultimately despaired at what was essentially a novelty cabaret act on the main stage. While I concede they were harmlessly entertaining a crowd that were having a good time in the sunshine, a little bit of my soul died at the artistic bankruptcy of it all. Instead, I made my way over to see John Osborne, inexplicably shoehorned into the Waterstones bookshop. Shamefully left out the program (at an eye watering fifteen quid a pop they could at least have got the content right) and only belatedly included on the app, I only knew he was on because I accosted him in the Faraway Forest and asked him. With so many gaps in the Listening Post schedule, I'm puzzled why he, and Fern Brady before him, were shunted next door, in his case up against Simon Armitage. As Osbourne quipped during his delightful love letter to Norwich, he was in the unusual position of clashing with both the Beatles and the Poet Laureate. He took it in good spirit, and thankfully had a decent crowd, but unnecessarily forcing punters to choose between two of the very few poets appearing at Latitude requires a special kind of stupid.
The huge crowd that had come for the Beatles stayed for Sophie Ellis Bextor, which inspired me to go see if the previously impenetrable comedy tent had elbow room for once. Romesh Ranganthan was as personable as you would imagine, utterly unconvincing as the misanthrope he pretends to be. I even laughed occasionally, but the improved weather soon seduced me back outside, where I caught The Proclaimers finishing with I'm Gonna Be. Jolly good fun they were too, but I was determined to see something at the lovely Sunrise stage. I found in Artemas a gifted young man that sung with a style and substance well beyond his years and left me feeling I should have made the effort to get tk this stage sooner. Black Midi proved to be a bizarre punk/prog rock mashup, complete with frenetic drumming and impossible time signatures. Afterwards, Siouxsie Sioux closed the Sounds stage with mostly Banshee songs that, while enjoyable, again felt a tad redundant. It was as if the nostalgia bug on the main stage was contagious.
So, setting aside some of the worst weather I've experienced at a festival, can this year's Latitude be judged a success? It has found its audience - or at least an audience. You only need to look at the huge acreage given over to family camping to see that. This year, the festival has given that audience long-established, sing-along bands that cut across the generations, albeit bolstered by up-and-coming artists tucked away in corners. Granted the literature, poetry, cabaret and film that made the festival so special are now missing, but those venues held hundreds, not thousands, of people that loved them. Many more people, I suspect, don't miss them at all. The Guest Chef dining experience, the Spa and the Latitude lounge arguably further divide attendees into those who can, and those who cannot, afford the full experience, and frankly I despise them, but I suppose they help pay the bills. I also despise sponsorship from Barclays, adverts for Specsavers, and fifteen quid programmes, but I don't have a spreadsheet to reconcile after the weekend. It would very easy to be furious with Melvin Benn for the changes he has made, and many people are furious. I certainly regret them, and miss what used to be my favourite festival of the year, but I can also see those changes as pragmatic compromises. I suspect that when Benn stopped the brilliant opening ceremony, or inviting authors to discuss their books, or programming classical music, he hated doing so, but needs must when most of those who buy tickets aren't influenced by such things. When I bumped into a mate he listed what he had seen that weekend - and he had seen a lot. Wthout exception, it was all music.
When Benn started Latitude he was clear what he wanted to achieve a multifaceted arts festival but it would appear that vision simply wasn’t shared by enough people. It's hard to believe that in previous years I barely bothered with the music, but I have to accept I was part of a small minority. When festivals are falling like nine pins, its a small miracle Latitude keeps going. If it does so by focusing on giving paying punters what matters to them, rather than what I suspect Benn would still like to offer, can I really take issue with that?
Duran Duran joined by Kasabian, Keane, London Grammar, Rag N Bone Man and many more
Latitude Focuses on Family Fun
line-ups & rumours