Tuesday, 22 July 2014

"Latitude - the Waitrose of festivals"

Damon and an Icelandic trumpet is all it takes for an atmospheric End Of A Century
Much as I'd like to, I can't do the full Latitude experience any more. I went in 2008 and 2009, and found it to be the best of festivals. I really liked the look of the line-up in 2010 but couldn't make it. I did, however, manage a day in 2012, with the mighty Weller headlining. And I managed a day again this year, with a certain Mr Albarn (right) as my excuse to go. Here, then, in the best tradition of my old festival diaries, is what I saw.

Saturday:
  • Teen : i Arena. A long queue getting into the car park meant I missed my first intended port of call, Jack Dee's Help Desk. Instead, I listened to the sweet harmonies and twisty bass of Teen, a female four-piece from Brooklyn. Their band name may be awful, but they sound lush and smooth - an unexpected, plesant surprise.
  • Luke Wright : Poetry Arena. Luke used to be in a band (Dorian Gray) and it shows in his stagecraft and wannabe rockstar swagger. Poetry highlights included The Bastard of Bungay and, especially, Dad Reins, during which I may have got something in my eye. He concluded his set with a poem in a garage style, for which he was joined by musical collaborator Laura Stimson - poetry, comedy and music, all at once!
  • Rag 'n' Bone Man : Lake Stage. From the write-up in the Latitude programme, I was expecting a sort of Seasick Steve, but with a more contemporary backing. Well, the contemporary backing bit was right but The Rag 'n' Bone Man himself, a mountain of a man with a mountainous voice to match, reminded me more of CeeLo Green. The stage felt a bit empty, as he performed with just a drummer and a backing track, and his take on House Of The Rising Sun felt a bit hit and miss but anyway, Rag 'n' Bone Man was very keen to stress that you can download tracks from his album for free at Soundcloud... here's a link so you can make up your own mind.
  • Booker T. Jones : Obelisk Arena. Yes, you read that right, soul legend and multi-instumentalist, Booker T. Jones. Mannish Boy was a highlight, perfectly suited to his now-grizzled bluesman credentials. Of course, he did Green Onions too, from his days with the MGs. He also covered Take Me To The River, introducing it by saying it was written just around the corner from his house by two friends of his, Al Jackson (MGs drummer) and one Al Green. Music history, right there. I was less certain about his cover of Hey Joe, but Booker T's sideman filled the Hendrix shoes, just. He really got the crowd going with Soul Limbo (aka the theme from Test Match Special - yes, really) before closing with Time Is Tight. Peerless stuff, a pleasure and a privilege to see one of the old school still doing his thing.
  • Liam Williams : Cabaret Arena. Just caught a bit of Liam's set in passing. Slightly unusually for stand-up, Liam had a quiet accordion track playing in the background as he delivered his pathos-laden, tragi-comic "anti-lad" routine. His meditation on the value, or otherwise, of Wetherspoons pubs was interesting. His best line though was this: "When I'm 40 my wife won't divorce me, she'll just decide she doesn't love me very much."
  • Mark Thomas : Theatre. The longest queue of the day was to squeeze into the 500-seat Theatre tent to see comedian and activist Mark Thomas perform his new, hour-long solo show Cuckooed. There were plenty of laughs but plenty of seriousness too, as Mark detailed how a personal friend and fellow activist turned out to be a spy, no less, paid (though not even handsomely) by BAE Systems to infiltrate the anti arms trade movement. Despite the weight of the subject (and the stupefying heat of the tent), Mark held the audience rapt, prowling the stage and interacting with interview clips of fellow activist friends. Over the course of the show, the poor guy soaked through his shirt, a dark ring working its way down from his neck to his waist - that's how hot it was. But it was well worth it, another real highlight. And he coined the "Waitrose of festivals" phrase too.
  • Oliver Wilde : Lake Stage. An unintended bonus, purely because my intended next stop - James - had been postponed for a day, owing to missed flights. What can I tell you about Oliver Wilde? Not too much, to be honest. Wilde describes him own sound as "Downer pop? Tinsel rock maybe? Lo-fi glitchtronica?” All of that seems fair enough but, for me, it was a bit bland (possibly because I was still gutted at missing Tim Booth et al), but nevertheless provided an adequate accompaniment to eating churros in the late afternoon sunshine.
  • Mark Watson : Comedy Arena. I've wanted to see Mark live for a long time; he didn't disappoint. Just as well really, as 6.30pm gave me a three-way timetable clash and I forsook seeing First Aid Kit on the main stage and Sheffield's finest in "Pulp: a film about love, death and supermarkets", in favour of the Comedy Arena. Conducting his show from the centre of the crowd, Mark's set (I can't really call it a routine because so much of it was improvised, and therefore far from routine) lasted well over the allotted half an hour but the time whistled by (always a good sign). Riffing on whatever seemed to catch his attention, Mark was equal parts energy and honesty - far from off limits, his past drinking to excess was mined extensively to dark comic effect. He also reprised his Bouncy Castle song, which got a big laugh too. How I wish I could have been at Latitude on Sunday too, for Mark's book reading...
  • Gavin Osborn : The Little House. After grabbing some tea from the smaller Greenpeace tent (top festival tip: charity tents sell cheaper fare than commercial food concessions, and with shorter queues), I popped into the tiny Little House to see Gavin Osborn. He sounded a bit croaky (too much booze and fags, by his own admission) but still did his thing with aplomb. A singer-songwriter in the style of Billy Bragg (witness the self-confessed rip-off homage to (Waiting For) The Great Leap Forwards at the start of the excellent Left Side From My Right), Osborn adds a little more humour than Bragg to the mixture of pop, politics and love songs. The tiny crowd (60 in the Little House and a healthy gaggle crowded outside the open door), myself included, lapped it up.
  • Damon Albarn : Obelisk Arena. The big kahoona, and the main reason I'd stumped up for a day ticket in the first place. I've seen Blur live twice, in '91 and '94, but never in their later years, and although I'd heard a few solo Albarn tracks on TV I haven't heard the whole Everyday Robots album - all in all, I wasn't sure what to expect. Relief then, to see that Damon has lost none of his frontman/showman skills, even if the band behind him (The Heavy Seas) are different. After a concise intro from Steve Lamacq, Damon was off and running and, fair play to him, he even had a woman signing the lyrics in the corner of the big screens (and dancing awkwardly during music-only middle-eights) - a nice touch. But what of the music? Some Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad and The Queen tracks crept in amongst the solo material, but the biggest cheers of the evening were reserved for the Blur tracks. Out Of Time and All Your Life were performed by just Damon at the piano, as was encore-opening End Of A Century (augmented by a lone trumpet solo). Then, as the lightning and storm clouds that had been circling throughout his set finally let rip above the arena, Damon said, "There are some Blur songs I can sing on the piano, but this is one that's impossible to do without the man I wrote it with: Graham Coxon." On walked Graham to join Damon and the band for a joyous, anthemic Tender. The crowd were soaked in less than a minute but I for one didn't care a bit. This felt a bit special. Graham didn't stick around though, or say goodbye - he just hugged Damon and ruffled his hair before exiting stage left. The appearance of rapper Kano during Clint Eastwood felt a bit anti-climatic after that, if I'm honest, as did the full choir on-stage for Mr Tembo. Tender should have been the last track, I reckon, but if it had then those that left early to avoid the downpour (or beat the car-park exit queue) would have missed out. Bottom line though - it must be difficult to compete with one of the most spectacular lightning shows I've ever seen, but Damon did okay. His solo show is definitely worth seeing, should you get the chance. Oh, and there are some good photos of Graham with Damon on the NME website - my pic of them is blurry because of the heavy rain.

And that was that. I had intended to see Robin Ince's late show in the Literary Arena after Damon - experience tells me this would have let the queue of day-trippers exiting the car park clear - but I was soaked to the skin, and Literature, like every other tent, was stuffed to the gills with festival-goers seeking refuge from the rain. So I joined the car park exodus, and over the next hour crawled the 200 yards out of the field... at least the windscreen made a fine picture window onto that incredible (and incredibly sustained) lightning display.

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