Latitude 2008 – More than just the music

The reputation Latitude festival has built makes it hard to believe that 2008 is still only its third year.

In the introduction to the official programme, festival boss Melvin Benn states the festival ‘has blossomed into everything I dreamed it could be’, and it’s hard to believe exactly what the festival has blossomed into in such a short period of time.  Coming to offer a line up spanning music, art, literature, comedy, theatre and poetry, it spans further than the usual mainstream festival we come to see across the circuit, combining a ‘festival of musical harmony’ with ‘artistic and creative beauty’.

If you’re fortunate enough to have been to the festival, skip the introduction and get straight into the review, as you will know it really is difficult to put Latitude into words, and will have experienced first hand just everything this distinctly unique festival has to offer.  Set on a lake, in a forest in Suffolk’s beautiful Henham Park, upon entering the site on the festivals opening day, Thursday, it is instantly apparent it offers something uniquely different. After settling down, amidst the trees, each individually lit a variety of shades of lighting, in front of the fountain on the lake illuminated by a mesmerising light show drawing many snap happy a festival goer, just how much organisation goes into this spectacle.

Delving into the aforementioned festival programme shows an attention to detail unrivalled across the Latitude's peers, with each offering on the line up given a meticulous write up necessary across a bill as diverse as is offered, proving to be more a bible of what Latitude has to offer.  Drinking out of the pint glass given in return for a £2 deposit highlights just why you can settle down next to the lake amidst in excess of 14,000 people and there not be a single abandoned plastic pint glass in sight.  And the sheer fact of how different this festival of the ‘cream of music and arts’ begins to set in.

As the stages open on a sunny Friday afternoon, the chance is offered to see some new bands on the On The Lake stage, curated by Huw Stephens, now a mainstay of the summer festival circuit with his travelling BBC Introducing stage.  The afternoon’s highlight of a list of names only familiar to a true anorak of Huw’s entourage are Leicestershire five piece Kyte.  As the sun beats down on a beautiful Latitude, Kyte present the sound of a prolonged sonic boom with intermittent dreamy sequences, it is obvious the band take inspiration from Latitude’s Saturday headliners Sigur Ros.  The clouds draw in and the question is raised as to whether the band are somewhat of a one trick pony, however, as if sensing this feeling of doubt, as frontman Nick Moon introduces the band as only having two more tracks to play, bassist Ben Cox hits us with a deep driving groove showcasing a darker edge to the tripped out landscape.  As the last track fades out with a similar feeling, it is still obvious Kyte possess a talent for songwriting in a manner that creates an  atmosphere that grips to the core, at times presenting the most melodic shoegaze you could come to dream of.

The Uncut Arena offers the festivals biggest indoor stage, and a slightly more leftfield selection of artists than the Obelisk Stage.  The arena doesn’t have to wait long until kicking into life, and it does so to the dramatic sound of The Bookhouse Boys.  Often, nine members may cause a confusion of sound, but the TBB deliver a hit of the full nine piece band present.  As frontman Paul Van Oestren, who at times takes an inspiration from a young Neil Diamond, shares vocal duties with vocalist Catherine Turner, reminiscent of the Arena’s headliners Debbie Harry, it becomes apparent the band provide a vocal presence as good as any other at the festival.  As the band switch from a four piece, back to a nine piece with ease, the sound progresses as if you were watching a multitude of bands instead of only one.  Bassist William Emms chugs his way through a journey of seedy downtown bars, and a niche is developed with the aide of the two trumpets present throughout, enveloping us in a sound of sleazy debauchery.  And as frontman Von Oestren falls to his knees during the penultimate track screaming ‘I’ll get down on my fucking knees and plead’, you get the distinct feeling he isn’t going to have to.

The Sunrise Arena, set back into the woods surrounding the lake that serves as the centre point to the festival, shows in its line up just how wide the musical offering Latitude has amidst the many artistic mediums present.  There has been much hype surrounding Torontan dance punks Crystal Castles, and as soon as they enter the stage it is evident why.  With a crowd reaction as strong as any across the weekend, the dance rock crossover created by the electronic barrage of Ethan Kath and the punk esque frontwoman performance of Alice Glass creates a noise that doesn’t fail to impress an already eager crowd.  Although to the untrained ear each track isn’t easily identifiable to the next, it is the raw energy that bleeps and twitches its way across the tent that fill the crowd with that enthusiasm only music delivered at this velocity can present.  As Glass is lost in the crowd for the second time, she proves reminiscent of a more dainty Beth Ditto, and it is Glass who saves this band from slipping into the obscurity of sounding much like any other electro offering.  The fact it is still light outside the tent creates a surreal backdrop to music that should possibly only really be saved for after dark, and an elite of the too cool to spawn from the new rave generation proves maybe there can be substance with a dance beat after all.

As the main stages close on the first night, music plays into the night at the festival's late night In The Woods area.  Walking into the illuminated forest for the first time, all you can do is follow the screams and low thudding beat coming from the distance.  The surrounds of the surreally lit Henham Park offer an idealistic backdrop to a late night festival goer, however, upon arriving at the stages, a rather lack lustre affair is evident, and it proves that late at night offers a valuable opportunity to see some of the other performing arts Latitude has to offer besides from musical talents.  Robin Ince’s Book Club and School for Gifted Children in the Literary Arena offers a more tongue in cheek performance of hilarity you may come to expect from such a stage, and the compeer’s reading from a Danielle Steel novel may be more fitting to the festival's Comedy Arena.

Latitude festivals Comedy Arena offers a line up as strong as many devoted festivals of this medium of art, boasting, amongst others, Ross Noble, Phil Jupitus and Russell Howard, yet the highlight of which had to come from Bill Bailey.  The multi instrumentalist self professed ‘Part Troll’ drew the biggest crowd the arena saw all the weekend.  Longer than an hour before his scheduled beginning all vantage points were taken, and Bailey’s distinct dry form of wit never failed to deliver, flitting from crowd participation of the Wurzels to the mockery of anything from George Bush to The Killers, with ‘I’ve got ham but I’m not a hamster’, his usual music / stand up combination takes the simple to the sublime ‘          ‘

As the afternoon progressed, Seasick Steve brought his usual show of home made instruments and storytelling to a sun drenched Latitude.  Showcasing tracks from previous album Dog House Blues, and the forthcoming I Started Out With Nothin’ and I Still Got Most Of It Left.  His tales of love, woe, homelessness and anything in between are as tireless as they are thought provoking.  As he switches from his trademark three string guitar to a ‘Piece of shit’ that ‘Probably shouldn’t work’, a one stringed device operated by a steel slide, now backed by a drummer, and son P.M.Wold providing the occasional rythym, it is obvious just how far this artist has come since finding more widespread critical acclaim just over a year ago.

As this intriguingly endearing character introduces a friend ‘we just made earlier today’, the spirit of Latitude is again highlighted, and the mouth organ provided by Eli Reed adds yet another dimension to the raw blues belting from the Obelisk Arena.  As Steve thanks his guest, begging the audience to witness the voice of an angel perform later that evening with his own band, before breaking into last track Dog House Blues, we are left in awe of a truly creative individual.  An all American pied piper, backed by home made bric-a-brac and enough worldly experience to deliver such poignant stories, conglomerating in one of the most unique live shows of almost formulaic blues Henham Park, and beyond, may ever come to witness.  In the words of Steve himself, ‘S’all good’.

Saturday's musical line up was spearheaded by the hype surrounding a rare UK performance of LA legends The Mars Volta.  Spawned from the demise of American post-hardcore outfit At The Drive-In, holding an equally as legendary status, The Mars Volta are known to deliver frenetic live shows drenched in the musical creativity of founding members Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala.  As the band break into their first track, it is evident the change in scope found on latest album ‘The Bedroom in Goliath’ has transferred directly onto the live stage, and as the opening chords of Goliath surround frontman Cedric, it is reminiscent of a 70’s Led Zeppelin, particularly when delivered through Rodriguez-Lopez’s trademark wild perm.

The talent shared between the current nine piece of The Mars Volta is obvious as the band work their way through track after track of pure progressive rock, only occasionally letting up for, unbeknownst to the crowd, a relatively underrated frontman’s screeching vocals proclaiming ‘Never heard a man speak like this man before’, and quite possibly, we haven’t.  It is obvious with the tightness each bolt of noise is delivered from the Uncut Stage the energy emanated is tightly bound, and the song writing contained in the bands new material is still as meticulous as found on the bands concept albums, serving as just another turn in the band's twisting musical scope that may possibly bring them the widespread acclaim they so thoroughly deserve.

Covering The Sonics' classic Strychnine may be the downfall of many, however the energy present throughout the in excess of two hour set reprises only once, for frontman Cedric to warn anyone thinking of crowd surfing that the people at the front ‘Don’t want you messing up their hair’, and the chance for any question to be raised by anybody witness to the explosion of noise presented is well and truly eradicated.

As the band leave the stage, the Uncut Arena seemingly breathes a sigh of relief, not because of a wish for the set to end, but because the question of how much more The Mars Volta the body can take both on and off the stage, proves just what an experience this still iconic outfit present.  With their only major UK festival performance of the year, the band prove just how spectacular a claim, particularly for a festival it is easy to forget is only in its third year, this really is.

As the main stages close, wandering from Cabaret to Literature and all things in between, is the time Latitude offers up its most unique experiences.  As we are faced with a compeering Mark Lamaar in the Film and Theatre Arena in the small hours of Sunday morning, introducing none other than the Buzzcocks, just another one of the abundance of surreal moments Latitude offers passes, and the tent erupts into a frenzy of original punk.

A sunny last day's afternoon offers the opportunity to see some upcoming bands, whilst soaking up the beauty of the surrounding Henham Park.  Noah And The Whale have moved up the roster in anticipation of debut album Peaceful the World Lays Me Down, and the sublime folk the four piece provide is a perfect wind down from a blistering weekend, the upbeat chords a stark contrast to the melancholy ramblings of front man Charlie Fink.  Late at night, by the river, under a gazebo containing just a piano bearing a sign stating ‘please play me’ two things are evident, just how many talented people flock to this festival every year, and just how many unique festival moments Latitude can offer across such a different array of mediums. 

Bring your family, bring your friends, but most of all, bring yourself.  Without wanting to steal a quote from another publication, the Independent correctly described of 2007’s Latitude Festival with ‘one day, all festivals will be like this’, we can but hope.  With the organisers behind the festival bringing for the third year a show of renowned creative ability beside upcoming talents of the future unparalleled across such a diversity of mediums. Thank you organisers, thank you Latitude, Thank you God.

by Rob McCallum