11:44 AM GMT 21/05/2013
Latitude? It's exactly 52° 20' 3", on an imaginary line that links Frankfurt, suburban Saskatoon, and downtown Stepnogorsk in northern Kaszakhstan. But in none of these places, surely, is anyone going quite as mental as these people, in the vicinity of Southwold, Suffolk, are going for Merrill Garbus, the extraordinary singer, sonic manipulator and all round good egg at the centre of tUnE-yArDs. Playing a single drum, trilling and howling over live-sampled voice and beats, backed by the funky bass of boyfriend Nate Brenner and two tenor saxists, this is the kind of thing - exemplified by the Afrodelic yawp of Hatari and big time sensuality of Powa - beyond category, full of spontaneity, soul and groove, that gives live music a good name.
It is Friday evening, July 13, not even a third of the way into proceedings at the 7th Latitude Festival, and a star is being born. This is the i Arena, the festival's third stage, but it's where many of the weekend's aficionado happenings are slated (we'll be back tomorrow for MOJO faves Wooden Shjips, The Staves and Django Django). And it's typical of the festival's preference for intrigue and guile over brute popularity, a place where Bon Iver are considered headliners and Elbow qualify as a monster act.
Where critics divide it's over the festival's slightly cultish aura of "niceness". Great, you would think, to be enjoying music in the open without being trampled by slurry-dipped Legions Of The Mashed, and it is - yet the flocks of beautifully-mannered, 12-year-old Fabians in regulation shaggy haircuts are indicative of a certain social exclusivity (private school term has ended already - bad luck, comp kids!) and the almost complete lack of 18-25s has overtones of a mass-kidnapping à la Hammer Horror. Or maybe there's just something really good on BBC3.
As with all festivals, you could unfold the camp chairs and bivouac by the main stage. You'd certainly be treated, on Friday, to Amadou & Mariam's increasingly glitzy amalgam of Malian folk and Western pop, and a hi-energy set of burnished beehive showfunk from Janelle Monaé. But it's best to pick your own path. This takes MOJO, via the ever-provocative, pop-obsessed contrarian of Britart, Jeremy Deller, outlining his laudable worldview in the Film & Music tent, to a roaring Dexys on the second stage, furthering singer Kevin Rowland's ongoing surge towards redemption.
Terrific new album, One Day I'm Going To Soar, mixes soul revue dynamics with startlingly honest, kitchen sink theatre, and it's made for the stage - especially once comely co-vocalist Madeleine Hyland emerges, clad in black, to spar murderously with Rowland's pathetic, commitment-shy protagonists - but the long stretch of unfamiliar material tests the patience of a crowd who (albeit politely) would rather like to hear some hits. Come On Eileen, refreshingly arranged, awesomely sung by Rowland, and an epic, shaggy-dog version of This Is What She's Like - the Dexys' Connoisseurs' Greatest Dexys Song - are the thrown bones. It is not in Rowland's nature to pander to expectations, but by his standards (since he does not appear to be wearing ladies' underwear) this is his audience-friendly side. Long may it prevail.
Exactly when did Bon Iver (pictured above) become a stadium rock band? And yet, Justin Vernon's Saturday headline show in the Obelisk Arena is an object lesson in turning small into big without sucking out its soul. Garden lights like floating candles out of Hogwarts, shadowy back-projections like kudzu vines crawling over Ansel Adams landscapes, three electric guitarists (three!) plus avant-brass bloke Colin Stetson's reverberating bass saxophone flood the senses, enriching the dun colours of Vernon's For Emma, Forever Ago debut and amplifying the epic aMORicana of the Bon Iver, Bon Iver album's Holocene. Despite his bad hair life and dearth of personal charisma (perhaps some kind of hat?) Vernon sends Latitude off to bed bewitched.
Saturday starts with swabbing the tent after a nocturnal downpour, then Sharon Van Etten on the second stage. The New Jersey songstrel whose sojourn in Texas ended with a jailed boyfriend and a sackful of songs about obsessive and abusive relationships weaves grungey sounds and siren vocals, and tells of her odyssey just getting here: "The truck that came to tow us out of the mud got stuck, so they sent another truck for the first truck..." Her brilliant Tramp album yields today's sublime Magic Chords and feedback-wreathed I'm Wrong, and sets a high bar that the likes of Mick Flannery (imagine a less-good David Gray) and even the ebullient, super-charming Lianne La Havas (elegantly constructed, slightly over-safe soul-pop) struggle to reach.
Back again, then, to the i Arena for crunchier fare, which certainly describes the stoner lock-groove of San Fran Gandalfs Wooden Shjips. The Horrors, connoisseurs of heavy psych, appear at MOJO's shoulder and nod their approval, but for this correspondent the Shjips need something explosive - maybe Earthless's drummer; or Endless Boogie's sense of nasty fun; maybe just more volume - to take them to the zenith of transcendent zonk rock.
...Or tunes. There's a thought. They could have one or two off Richard Hawley, who fires up on the Obelisk Arena, proving that with new album Standing At The Sky's Edge he's added an extroverted, heavy rock shaft to his moody pop quiver - just the thing for a festival. But that's not until he's recreated Kurt Cobain's notorious entrance at Reading 1992, rolled on in a wheelchair by Elbow's Guy Garvey (Hawley's broken his leg falling down a marble staircase - he swears that drink was not responsible). It's too short a set, it seems, even by festival standards, but his band has a grim, imperious quality that compels without histrionics, and there's time for the rich, lugubrious melancholy of Open Up Your Door from his 2009 masterpiece, Truelove's Gutter.
For MOJO, Elbow will have to wait another day, as we end the main event with alt.headliners The Horrors on the second stage. Elbow being Latitude's house band (the niceness, again) means the tent is by no means heaving, but it says much for the Horrors that they deliver exactly the intensity you expect, and since last year's awesome Skying followed their merely excellent second album, Primary Colours, they've reliably rolled out a brilliantly FX-drenched sound and memorable, emotional songs in the vertiginous vein of I Can See Through You. The glowering, grand guignol presence of arachnoid frontman Faris Badwan makes them an anomaly here at Latitude: a proper, old-fashioned rock'n'roll attitude is in the area. F**k you, in a good way.
And then, when disgraced New Labour Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and the Fabians are safely abed, something odd happens to Latitude's sylvan woodland - again in the vicinity of the i Arena. Suddenly, as if transported from another time, place and cultural milieu, here comes veteran junglist Shy FX, bringing the motherfreaking noise and answering the question, "Where are all the drug-taking nutjobs" with one word: "Here". BBC3 has shut down for the night and Hammer Horror has disgorged its captives, who proceed to do the zombie dance till their bits fall off. Perhaps Latitude is a real music festival after all.
By Danny Eccleston
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 11:00 AM GMT 20/07/2012