Review: Latitude Festival 2011

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Reporter Andrew Trendell went along to Latitude Festival for a cultural feast. “IT’S MUCH more than just a music festival,” reads the Latitude slogan.

And as a rammed tent anxiously awaits a Q and A from legendary comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on the opening day, there’s a certain curiosity that hangs in the air – a unique curiosity that can only be found at a festival that caters for junkies from every corner of culture.

The National live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

The National live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

With a staggering breadth of eclecticism in cabaret, comedy, music, art, film, dance, poetry and literature, the fact that spray-painted multi-coloured sheep graze alongside a gorgeously illuminated lake surrounded by the picturesque Suffolk countryside is just the icing on the cake of a truly individual festival with an atmosphere like no other.

Cult indie hero Conor Oberst with Bright Eyes is the first to truly rise to the spirit of the occasion on the main stage. Opening with the rich folk majesty of Four Winds, Oberst is clearly in high spirits as he squawks and stumbles the stage. Thundering rocker Jejune Stars lands well with the festival audience but it’s the stone-cold classic of Lover I Don’t Have To Love that proves the most rapturously received crowd favourite.

The sense of occasion is only when the band are joined on stage by the lovely Jenny and Johnny for a tender cover of Gillian Welch’s Wrecking Ball and a fiery rendition of Road To Joy.

Having a line-up which flows from Bright Eyes into Paloma Faith seemed utterly incongruous, as a young crowd dispersed and another one of mums, dads and young families gathered to sip Pimm’s from their picnic blankets and marvel as the simply kerrr-azy Paloma Faith donned a big wacky hat and belted out her Radio 2 anthems, but it was the headline set from gloom-mongerers The National that really stole the show.

Bright Eyes live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

Bright Eyes live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

The National attended Latitude last year, playing a glorious set headlining the second stage at The Word Arena. Naysayers doubted whether it was really worthwhile having the band return to top off the big stage, but The National did everything possible to lay doubt to rest and prove that they are now a premier league band.

In the last year, The National have amassed an even more dedicated following off the back of their critically-acclaimed fifth album High Violet, and as the rich guitar, driving drums and brooding vocals of opener Bloodbuzz Ohio send shockwaves around the crowd, it becomes apparent that The National have come with a purpose.

Tonight is not just another festival show. This is a moment of triumph – their victory lap.

With a set that’s haunting, evoking, powerful and solidly consistent, all present are left with the certainty that The National will be topping bigger things than this in the years to come. As frontman Matt Berninger dives into the audiences to sprint around the crowd that swells around him during a charged performance of Terrible Love, The National have sealed their fate and are received as kings. They came, saw, conquered, and truly seized the day.

The National live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

The National live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

Saturday begins with a whole lot of commotion as a capacity crowd gathers outside the criminally undersized comedy tent for the first ever live outing of hit BBC pop quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Cult hero Noel Fielding holds the crowd in the palm of his hand as he dazzles his surreal whit and Dickensian child-catcher appearance.

Joined onstage by fellow team captain Phil Jupitus, along with Paloma Faith, comedians Shaun Walsh, Charlie Baker and host David O’Doherty, the group tear through a racey show that’s as shambolic as it is familiar and warming. Laying waste to Preston from the Ordinary Boys for his infamous walk-off and also laying waste to the likes of Bono whilst probably delivering a few too many paedophile jokes considering the amount of children in the room, the Buzzcocks team succeed in translating a now legendary TV format into the live arena.

Over in the Word Arena stands dandy highwayman Adam Ant. Looking like a dishevelled Captain Hook on steroids, he hasn’t aged well, but his catalogue of classic pomp-punk certainly has as he still knows how to put on a show.

A succession of memorable performances follow with Villagers’ charming and humbling brand of soft but powerful gypsy folk, a splintering and booming performance from The Walkmen and culminating in a chaotic set from the mighty British Sea Power. As the crowd dance with BSP’s trademark display of foliage and home-made uniforms, the band return their set with a blistering showcase of energetic eccentricity.

The Walkmen live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

The Walkmen live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

Indie heroes The Cribs send the crowd at the mainstage into a pogo frenzy with their spiky grunge pop and a set that’s as vibrant and lively as frontman Ryan Jarman’s bright pink wig, but the mood is soon smothered by an intoxicating thick, dark smog as the monolithic Echo And The Bunnymen play a set of gothic indie classics. Definitive post-punk gems like Lips Like Sugar, Bring On The Dancing Horses and The Killing Moon are welcomed like old friends in a set that far outshines that by their peers U2 at Glastonbury.

With what they say will be their final UK show of their current campaign, Foals deliver not only the highlight of the weekend but one of the best gigs of their lives.

Being a Latitude veteran, I have never seen a set in the Word Arena charged with quite as much fervour and electricity as this. So much so, that the band have to pause just moments into opener Blue Blood to remind the crowd not to crush one another.

The packed tent is immediately sent wild as Foals unleash an animated and stirring 12 song onslaught of math-rock brilliance.

While on record the band may appear awkward and introvert on occasions, tonight Foals sound short of apocalyptic. Indie disco staples Balloons and Cassius are earth-shifting, rather than twitchy and cumbersome, while Miami is the sound of Foals possessed by the hip-hop spirit of The Wu Tang Clan and gets the crowd bouncing with an infectious U.S. West-Coast groove.

Total Life Forever is a celebratory anthem, while Spanish Sahara unites everyone with its gossamer but celestial and sprawling sound.

British Sea Power live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

British Sea Power live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

As the crowd bounce through the schizophrenic and frenetic closer Two Steps Twice, one can’t help but feel a hunger for the band to return. Don’t break for too long, boys.

Sunday gets off to a plodding start with the hotly anticipated ‘surprise’ lunchtime slot. While previous years have seen stellar sets from the likes of Tom Jones, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Joanna Newsom, this year Latitude booked Belgian girl choir Scala and Kolacny Brothers. Playing a set of pop and rock classics in an operatic style, their performance drifts in and out of something rather pleasant and something dull and discomforting. A fairly shameful follow-up to the legacy of a great slot.

Anna Calvi soon raises the bar with a set that showcases why she deserves to be a shoe-in for this year’s Mercury Prize.

Opening with the ethereal guitar-mastery of the instrumental Rider To The Sea, before kicking into the pounding drums and arresting delivery of Desire and a thunderous realisation of Edith Piaf’s Jezebel, the shy and softly-spoken Calvi mutates into an impassioned beast through her performance and it’s clear to see why Brian Eno calls her ‘the best thing since Patti Smith.’

Bloc Party frontman Kele does well to draw such a crowd in a battle between his dub-charged electro and a torrential downpour, while many flock to the comedy tent to catch a beautifully bitter 45 minutes of stand-up from the dishevelled and poetic Dylan Moran. Picking off targets like Michael McIntyre and the majority of mankind, Moran has weathered well over the years, and uses the wisdom and withering of middle-age to his advantage to make his comedy more barbed and brutal than it’s ever been.

Calls of ‘Stephen’ welcome one half of 90s cult-comedy legends and 6 Music heroes Adam and Joe, Adam Buxton to the stage for an audio-visual feast fit for a nerd. With ‘awkward rapping’ session and a bizarre take on a Gwen Stefani video, Buxton plays to his strengths and brings something unique and fresh to the comedy stage. The world needs to see much more of this man.

The same can be said for Ghostpoet who draws a modest crowd to his appearance on the Lake Stage, but still impresses all present with electronic trip-hop blended with hypnotic street poetry. Expect to see this man on much bigger stages in the future following his recent Mercury nomination.

Fixers are also ones to watch. Drenched in harmony and charged with infectious disco beats, their psychedelic electro-pop is the sound of the Beach Boys at a rave. If you like the sound of that but missed them on the Lake Stage then watch this space.

The stark but imperial sound of Hurts perfectly befits the darkening sky as they both battle and compliment the elements with their main stage performance.

Somewhere between New Romantic and shameless Euro-pop, Hurts bring a back dose of guilty pleasures to the proceedings as chiselled frontman Theo Hutchcraft throws briefly breaks from his ice-cool veneer and launches himself howling into a wall of synth and screaming girls during glacial pop gems like Wonderful Life and Better Than Love.

At the complete other end of the spectrum in the Word Arena is Lykke Li. Sincerity and warmth saturate her performance as she skips and twirls around the smoky stage with a megaphone and cape. Her voice is as bewitching as her presence and demeanour, as she covers everything from the haunting and heart-wrenching Sadness Is A Blessing, to the skittering and otherworldly danceability of I’m Good, I’m Gone and the sinister but infectious tone of Get Some.

Eels are the only way to end the weekend on a high. Armed with brilliant banter and brutal, brooding and bearded blues, Mr E and co deliver a full-on barrage of feel-good sounds and antics.

From the soulful lament of Tremendous Dynamite to the stoner-rock haze of Novocaine For The Soul, Eels turn even the most casual of listeners and passers-by into fanatics, ending the weekend in a way that perfectly sums up Latitude – something eclectic, entrancing and unforgettable.

Review by Andrew Trendell

Photos by Lucy Bridger

Foals live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

Foals live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

Foals live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

Foals live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

Lykke Li live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

Lykke Li live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

Eels live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger

Eels live at Latitude, by Lucy Bridger