Festival Diary: Latitude
The festival may have had all the bohemian kookiness of Glastonbury, but Glasto’s scale is far too great in comparison
“It’s like a mini-Glastonbury,” said a 17-year old on being asked why he was here. I had reported on that legendary music and arts festival from Pilton a few years ago for this magazine, and visited it once before that. I rank it with other life-changing experiences ”“ like having children. I did not like his comparison. “Have you been to Glastonbury?” I asked the whippersnapper, incredulously. “No, but my friends have,” came the deflated reply.
Latitude Festival made me realize that I am old. For this three-day romp of electronica, rock, literature, performance, arts and culture on a farm some four hours away from London, I am easily 10-20 years older than so many of the people I am crushed up against at the Obelisk Arena one Friday night watching Caribou. At 35, being surrounded by chirpy and energetic youths from 13 to college-going ages, brings out the curmudgeon in me. But no one likes a grouch, so I resolve to be like the weather forecast for the weekend ”“ mainly cloudy with some sunny spells.
Latitude certainly boasts a similar feel to Glastonbury: there is a Faraway Forest of sorts that invites people to wander about, presumably stoned. There’s enough stand-up comedy, theater and interpretive dance crammed into sheds and tents to make you wish this were a week-long festival. A visit to the mad Russian Dacha for foot-stomping music from the Tsarist days or play-enactment is good fun. But the stilt-walking insect people, Caucasian sadhus selling yoga, marijuana-chocolate-bearing pixies and energetic nudists are conspicuous in their absence. When I approached an older couple to talk about the festival, David Cameron and the NHS come up. They obliged me but politely remarked that it wasn’t very English to start talking to people just like that. Back at the crush of bodies at the Alt-J performance, a smooth-cheeked young man with girlfriend-upon-arm asked me if I would like to stand in front of him. Really, it wasn’t a problem at all, he said. It was remarkably polite. At Glastonbury, festival goers want to chain you arm-in-sweaty arm and belt out songs together. At Latitude, personal space is somewhat prized.
As headliners, Alt-J proved every ounce of being the most inventive and anthemic act to come out of Britain in the last decade, despite coming off a little more depressing than their polished tracks belie. Joe Newman’s nasal vocals cut through their tinkling, choral interludes reminiscent of Radiohead’s haunting, post-rock overtures. The rest of their music barely commanded the open air space before them. But they did a cover of “Lovely Day” which made my hair stand on end. On the same stage the next day, Portishead blew us all away. Since Dummy over two decades ago, Beth’s voice was still at its chilling best. The band’s sound is tight and every note and warble was sent reverberating with dissonant-angst, deep into the woods. Evidently, Alt-J’s sound guy needs to talk to Portishead’s sound guy.
The wildest the festival got for me was Badly Drawn Boy’s Damon Gough telling the organizers to stuff themselves because he wanted to play a little longer. Jose Gonzales brought his brand of surfer chill in spades, also adding a brilliant rendition of Massive Attack’s Teardrop. Everywhere we went, children and families seemed to pervade the same space. This is not a bad thing by any means, but that and the painfully polite people put into perspective the tags ”˜bespoke’ and ”˜bourgeois’ that Latitude has been given in the past.
Even the spread of food is, to borrow a descriptor, spiffing. Duck wraps, paella, blue cheese, coconut water, rosti, chocolate-covered strawberries and beef brisket were just some of the delicious grub on offer. I was used to a more doner kebab and fried doughnut culture but this was great. There were much fewer bars too. “This isn’t really a drinking festival,” said one of the people working at the festival. A pint of “piss-like lager” according to one festival-goer, was a crisp fiver (not including the two quid deposit for the ”˜eco-glass’ it came in!) Every plate of food was at an average of eight pounds. In all, not cheap, but hold your horses ”“ there was even a purpose-built supermarket on hand to cater to those who couldn’t do without fresh fruit, burger patties and salad every day. You did however have to surrender any alcohol bought at the mock-up supermarket (half the price of the bars inside) at turnstiles, before going into the festival area. That, to me, is a little mercenary for a supposedly festive atmosphere.
Don’t get me wrong – Latitude is a fantastic event and clearly the organizers responsible for Reading, Leeds, Hove and Lollapalooza Berlin have successfully carved a market for themselves. Families and kids who don’t mind forking out a little more cash receive a well-planned music festival featuring some of the hottest British contemporary acts (we’ll forget High Flying Birds for a moment ”“ an hour into their set, we still couldn’t tell the difference between all the seemingly rejected Oasis B-sides being belted out). And let’s not forget the surprise acts this year of Ed Sheeran and Thom Yorke who both played impromptu sets on different nights. Due to the genteel nature of fest-goers, the absence of alcohol bingeing and brawling seen at other festivals made it a hugely pleasant experience. As a parent of two, I’d be happy to bring my six and eight-year olds to this.
But for my tastes, the kookiness, bonhomie and tantalizingly unhinged aspect of Glastonbury is too compelling to ignore, and its scale is far greater considering the weekend tickets cost roughly the same amount (GBP 200). Even when the kids dressed up here to let their freak flags fly, many of them wore Native American headdresses or wreaths of flowers in their hair ”“ all of which was evidently bought at the stalls on-site. And then maybe it was my bad luck but in between the bigger acts, I checked out some of the theater, poetry and stand-up comedy on offer and despite sounding great on paper, I was utterly disappointed with the experimentally pedestrian aspects of so many of them. One poet told us he needed more sex in a crowd-pleasing stream of poets’ names and rhyme; a supposed expert on Generation Z decided to tell us in poor taste, about child cancer rather than Generation Z; a couple of stand-up comedians gave us already-seen YouTube videos; and a woeful thespian bored us to the exit with the intricacies of a virus. Groan!
This may sound like a lot of complaining, but it’s not. (This is the sunny spell.) Latitude did teleport me to a younger age. Portishead blew me away with an urgency which I suspect made me and the majority of parents there, feel relevant again. Roni Size reminded me how difficult it was to dance to old school Drum and Bass; Caribou, SBTRKT and James Blake enchanted us with mind-blowing electronica despite us being born in the last century, and Hanif Kureshi told us how not to write about sex! All the acts started on time, and unlike other UK attractions, you didn’t have to queue up too long to eat, drink or relieve yourself. Latitude’s musical line-up is its most compelling draw; the range of acts is cutting edge and is curated well enough that many smaller acts are destined for great things simply by playing here. Years & Years, Kwabs, Stornoway, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Young Fathers are my picks for bands pushing the envelope in their brands of pop. Check them out now.
But it’s not Glastonbury ”“ not by a mile and not by a long shot. At Glastonbury you get more than a handful of people of color and culture. At Latitude, there was very little of that going on, and a glaring lack of inspiring art or performance. Without people of the world, artists and performers to push your thinking, and a good handful of nudists and the arboreal, you’re never really going to be the defining British festival. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t ever call it a mini-Glastonbury.