CRACK! THE SKY IS ILLUMINATED by forks of lightning that would have more safety-conscious souls scurrying offstage, seeking a bunker constructed of a strong insulating material. Instead, once and probably-future Blur man Damon Albarn whoops with delight and leads his audience in an appreciation of the forces of nature. Rain sloshes down but no-one's running away. It’s not quite the turning-point of his Saturday Night headline slot at this super-boutique music festival (enjoying its ninth year at its verdant Henham Park home) but it encapsulates what’s just begun to work. Albarn has bedded in with the crowd and is finding a way to ignite a setlist culled largely from his undeniably lovely but mainly downbeat and interior recent solo album Everyday Robots.
“One of the roadies runs on dressed as a clown – or maybe it’s a clown dressed as one of the roadies.”
Albarn is aided by The Heavy Seas, a new-ish band he's been drilling on the road: longtime Albarn keysman Mike Smith is joined by drummer Paul Stanley-McKenzie, with Jeff Wootton and Seye Adelekan sharing bass and guitar duties. They’re spunky and charismatic, full of piss and vinegar, and they're goading the now 46-year-old singer into something approaching his Blur-vintage belligerence.
Sometimes this is less than a good thing. Melancholy classics like The Good, The Bad & The Queen album's Kingdom Of Doom and Three Changes do not look comfortable in their rockin' new threads. Likewise, Everyday Robots’ Photographs (You Are Taking Now) is fine until its incongruously upbeat coda. Adding more incongruity, one of the roadies runs on dressed as a clown – or maybe it’s a clown dressed as one of the roadies.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the material travels best when truest to itself. Hostiles and You & Me retain Everyday Robots’ opiated, hangdog charm. Albarn revives the beauteous Out Of Time from Blur’s Think Tank album and Parklife’s End Of The Century as solo piano numbers – exquisite – and, a happy rediscovery is Bowie-esque Beetlebum B-side All Your Life, perfectly suited to The Heavy Seas’ up-and-at-'em approach.
The thunderstorm ushers in a flawless end-section. For Blur’s Tender Albarn invites up a gospel choir and co-writer Graham Coxon to deliver some magical Tele-twangling, while rapper Kano owns Del Tha Funkee Homosapien's part on Gorillaz' stupid-fresh Clint Eastwood. The clown's back, stalking Damon with a pie (he's behind you!), after which uke-driven Mr Tembo and gospel-charged Heavy Seas Of Love – Everyday Robots' two route-one showstoppers – send an all-ages crowd off to their tents with Ready Brek glows to counter sodden rainwear. A victory with caveats – very Latitude.
Latitude’s strengths are also its weaknesses. A serious music festival you can take a 9-year-old to without falling foul of Child Protection is something of a godsend. At the same time, a music festival you can take a 9-year-old to will lack a certain, how you say, edge. It’s well-run without facing the challenges that make festivals hard to run: namely, vast armies of twentysomething nutjobs unmoored by cider and ket.
“A music festival you can take a 9-year-old to will lack a certain, how you say, edge.”
Meanwhile, the spoken-word tents that offer various comedy, theatre and chat-based entertainments bear 12 and 15 certificate roundels as per films and DVDs. The music stages aren’t similarly certified (by the British Board Of Rock Control?) but they don’t need to be. Latitude music, even at its best, tends toward the polite. Bombay Bicycle Club – yes. Sleaford Mods – no. Ministry – definitely not.
Friday night headliner Lily Allen personifies this trend. She might wax sweary on Fuck You, but she's otherwise kid-friendly – a naughty big sister at worst. And while her eclectic pop engages admirably with the world around it, it’s ultimately unthreatening. David Cameron gets the wanker sign; that’s the level of political analysis. A critical blogger is slapped down on URL Badman. There’s lots of banter about Allen’s hiatus from the music business. It would make a good beach read – she could even do a Q&A in the Latitude Literary Tent – but this is not music that desperately needs to exist.
MOJO’s path through the next day’s music offerings is haunted by this spectre of politeness. Kicking things off in the woodland iArena, Vaults are like a less interesting Chvrches, with a diva singer in a flouncy dress. On the BBC 6Music Stage, meat-and-tatties LA rockers Dawes are loving Bruce Springsteen, and a lyric from their set-closing From The Right Angle really does go, “I think there are a few of us that still belong out on the road.” It’s furiously well-studied, even down to drummer Griffin Goldsmith’s Simon Kirke-standard gurning.
Still, at least Dawes are in a tent. That’s something when main stage status is such a double-edged sword. At a festival where your competition is not just other groups but a nice sit down while the hilariously lugubrious JP Bean lulls you with the stories behind his Britfolk tome, Singing From The Floor, you might struggle to sell an afternoon set of niche music in the 'Obelisk Arena', where crowds are thin until past teatime. This level of ambivalence would be unimaginable at, say, Glastonbury's Other Stage at 1pm on a Saturday.
Responses are mixed to this Main Stage challenge, where excellence alone is not enough. Mid-afternoon on Saturday, Afghan Whigs ignore the paucity of punters and deliver Greg Dulli’s heart-scouring soul-grunge like their lives depend on it. Opening on Sunday shortly before 2, the all-star collective who play the music of Nigerian afro-synth-pop outsider William Onyeabor offer grooves, dancing, and new wave personalities: namely, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside in a massive white cowboy hat. Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor and keyboard maestro Money Mark look like they’d enjoy playing this music even if no-one were watching, and the radiating vibes of celebration attract a steady influx of the curious.
“A roly-poly ginger man in a blue velvet robe invades the stage and frots himself suggestively.”
Others fare less well. Phosphorescent glow gently on Sunday afternoon, the wrecked Americana of Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough) requiring nothing so vulgar as audience feedback. But The Jayhawks appear nonplussed. Gorgeous, harmony-laden examples of their country-power-pop mélange – best on Sound Of Lies’ elegiac The Man Who Loved Life – ensue, but Big Star reads even more ironically than usual (“I couldn’t get arrested if I tried,” sings Gary Louris in gin and bitters tones). The Jayhawks' sound maintains its stately control, but something more pulse-quickening is required, in the circumstances.
MOJO runs down that elusive beast Excitement at the BBC 6Music tent, where Parquet Courts are cranking up bracingly pissy US indie rock just like momma used to make. Fender guitars thrash in unison, while a young Thurston Moore, a young Tom Hulse and a young Porthos from the Three Musketeers take turns to scream the odds. A roly-poly ginger man in a blue velvet robe invades the stage, provides the bassist with a folding chair, frots himself suggestively and goads the audience into paroxysms of frenzy. For the first time this weekend, primal rock’n’roll chaos reigns...
...and spills over at the iArena where MOJO favourites the Fat White Family are being upbraided by a stage manager unimpressed by their timekeeping. Here’s that ginger man again (how did he get here?) – even more excitable this time (it transpires he's the singer of Manningtree upsetters Dingus Khan). A riot of unkempt attitude and unregulated haircuts – refusing to kowtow to anyone's idea of what rock'n'roll should look or sound like – FWF proceed to lay waste with a scalp-tingling display of imprecision-tooled yob-rock, providing the revelation that they may even have the songs (Touch The Leather, Cream Of The Young, and more) to match their heroic defiance of the UK’s prevailing tide of Approved Indie. They’re the best thing we see all weekend.
“Dan Auerbach’s mastery of great swathes of black-roots pop and rock styles is now stunningly deft.”
...and that includes the Black Keys, closing the festival with a blistering set on Sunday. The guitar-drums axis of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are on crunching form, ably underpinned by the multi-talented Richard Swift on bass and John Clement Wood on other stuff, and the big tunes – Gold On The Ceiling, Tighten Up, Lonely Boy – whip the main stage crowd into a pogo, while the recent Turn Blue album’s slowerburning charms are showcased by the glistening soul-pop spook of the title track, Floydian epic Bullet In The Brain and the crisp Tom Petty pre-new-wave of Gotta Get Away.
Auerbach’s mastery of great swathes of black-roots pop and rock styles is now stunningly deft – his magic touch latterly in evidence on albums by Dr John, Valerie June and Lana Del Ray as much as those by his own band – and only a certain awkwardness with audiences (evident here via his unvarying announcements of “Latitude, can you help us with this one?”) and perhaps something intangibly straitlaced, something insufficiently idiosyncratic about his music, holds him back. Letting big, funny Pat Carney do the banter would be a start.
As the strains of El Camino’s Little Black Submarines fades into the night, we’re left to ponder a judgment that might apply Latitude in general: bravo and everything, but a little bit more eccentricity would not go amiss.