Live Music + Gig Reviews

Latitude 2009: Day 1 @ Henham Park, Suffolk

17 July 2009

Latitude 2009: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

As tent flaps are drawn back on Friday morning, a sodden wasteland is revealed – the aftermath of Thursday night’s ferocious storms. Never mind – on with the wellies and out into the smorgasbord of culture that is Latitude ’09. The music doesn’t really get going until mid-afternoon, so we take the opportunity to check out various cultural experiences of all altitudes – of which more later.

It’s nearly teatime, and so off to the Uncut arena to enjoy the very civilised The Duckworth Lewis Method, a side project from The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and fellow Irishman Thomas Walsh of Pugwash. In spite of a lyric sheet composed almost entirely of cricketing metaphors, no prior knowledge of the game was necessary to be soundly entertained.
Sporting a handlebar moustache and cricket whites, and pounding away at an electric piano, Neil led the company through an immensely jolly and genre-hopping set. The sheer exuberance and variety of sounds (swing, Beatles-inflected rock, ’70s detective show theme tunes) rendered the sometimes bewildering range of cricketing jargon wholly forgivable.

Everyone knows that of all the UK festivals Latitude is one of the more child and family-friendly. For one, there’s an entire area dedicated to keeping the little ones entertained, complete with a tiny Ferris wheel and puppet shows. However, one area that is decidedly childfree for an hour or so is the Uncut arena, during Fever Ray‘s deeply unsettling performance. From behind a bank of keyboards and percussion instruments march four sombre-looking musicians, engulfed in smoke, dressed as if they’ve emerged from the set of a Scandinavian The League Of Gentlemen. One of them guides Karin Dreijer Andersson by the hand, her own view masked by a giant, multicoloured cloak complete with elaborate headdress that makes her look like she’s been sucked backwards into a tree.

In spite of the festival setting and the fact that the afternoon light conspires to reveal too much of the elaborate get-up (previous shows have been in almost complete darkness save for lamp light and lasers), the band creates a murky, claustrophobic atmosphere with this year’s self-titled album played almost in its entirety. Concrete Walls is terrifying, all drip-feed anguish and airless emotion, whilst Seven is as upbeat as you can expect from an album written in the grips of insomnia, creating a set that is utterly terrifying yet compellingly beautiful at the same time.

The Swedish onslaught continues with Lykke Li whose boundless energy is strangely at odds with the unreleased tension of what’s gone before. Drawing mainly on tracks from 2008’s Youth Novels, Li spends much of the set bashing away on a lone cymbal or hollering through a megaphone, stopping only to play one new song – a tuneless dirge that promises little for that difficult second album – and a brilliantly bizarre cover of Lil’ Wayne’s A Milli.

Ah, the dark, cool and cosy music and film tent: the perfect antidote to hot sun, heavy rain, hangovers, crowd fatigue, and atonal Swedes. Some were clearly using the space for a quiet doze, but at the risk of missing some real visual treats. Not least Noah And The Whale, who chose the festival for the premiere of their new album and accompanying film, The First Days Of Spring. Directed by lead singer Charlie Fink and produced on a miniscule budget, the film is a moving meditation on the effect of a girlfriend’s death on a man’s life and subsequent relationships; at first, then in middle age, and finally as he faces his own demise. The music is terrific too, and few eyes were left dry by the end.

Blinking away sunshine and tears, we made our way to the main Obelisk stage to see Ladyhawke. Now, there’s only so far that you can stretch tinny electro, and she conclusively proves that a huge outdoor stage on a sunny Friday afternoon is a stretch too far. No doubt much more exciting in a small sweaty club or thumping out of a set of earphones, her set failed to make much of an impression; unaided by a static presence and seeming indifference to the crowd.

Much more in keeping with this bright open outdoor space was Regina Spektor, all smiles and jaunty piano mastery. With her musical expertise and poetic turn of phrase, she’s often lumped in with Tori Amos or Joanna Newsom, but here managed to avoid their meditative introspection, and created a richer, warmer sound thanks in part to a superb string section. Surprising, perhaps, that the crowd was so small; but then, main stages at outdoor festivals are of course the natural habitat of Boys With Guitars.

Aside from The Pretenders on the main stage, Friday’s main nostalgia act was Squeeze, who filled the Uncut tent to bursting point with ecstatic fogeys. With a clear understanding of how acts over a certain age are supposed to behave at festivals, they churned out all of the requisite hits with perfect showmanship. Always more at home with the likes of ELO and Supertramp than their ’80s contemporaries, they now seem even more retro than first time round, with plenty of gratuitous guitar solos and Glenn Tilbrook’s Joe Cocker-style vocals, far gruffer than when they were last heard. Hugely enjoyable nonetheless.

Putting a chart-bothering, poll-dominating, electropop starlet on a small stage in the middle of a forest at 8.30pm seems like one of the slightly odd decisions that only a festival organiser could make. The Sunrise arena is located in the beautiful environs of a subtly lit wood, complete with art gallery, projections and a theatre. But it is absolutely tiny. For forty minutes it’s home to hundreds of sweaty young kids who proceed to leap, sing and crowd-surf their way through Little Boots‘ triumphant set, crammed in like sardines throughout. New In Town reveals itself to be the juddering synth monster the recorded version only alluded to, whilst future single Remedy sparks a frenzy that threatens to uproot the surrounding fauna.

You can’t help but feel that Bat For Lashes, aka Natasha Khan, would have suited the atmosphere of playing in the middle of a forest better then in the middle of the man-made tent of the Uncut arena. Instead of the soft sound of bird call between songs all we hear is the muffled bass of the Pet Shop Boys on the main stage and the rain that drips down outside. Khan enters resplendent in a flowing cape with long tassels, skipping about the stage like a woman on a mission to maintain her kooky demeanour. Despite the elaborate stage dressing and Khan’s crystalline voice, it’s a set that bores rather then enthrals, with only the pure pop of Daniel and the captivating Horse & I really holding the audience’s attention.

But good gracious, the Pet Shop Boys certainly do know how to put on a show. Neil and Chris, of course, don’t do a lot in the way of movement themselves, but they more than compensate by creating a stunning visual world of activity around them. With a sly nod to Pink Floyd, two giant walls were constructed, demolished and rebuilt in countless different ways; with giant bricks even worn as headgear for the opening numbers. The light show was to die for, with bold primary colours and crisp geometric shapes filling the night sky and pulsing in perfect time with the music. And ever keen as the Pet Shop Boys are to fuse high and low art, the dancers switched effortlessly between simple Madonna/Kylie style thrusting and the drama and storytelling of the best contemporary dance.

The setlist, too, was audaciously post-modern, cramming in virtually all of the highlights of a twenty-five year career by pasting musical snippets of one song into another without every resorting to the dreaded greatest hits medley. Their influences, too, were made playfully explicit – the intro to Two Divided By Zero merrily nicked from Kraftwerk’s Numbers; Always On My Mind bolstered by early New York hip-hop rhythms; and Left To My Own Devices incorporating the thumping pulse of Giorgio Moroder’s I Feel Love. Amazingly, this even left room for enough album tracks to keep the fans happy, without ever coming over as obscure. With a giant burst of gold tickertape across the sky to accompany the closing It’s A Sin, this was a magical end to the first day of the festival.

Late night entertainment was provided by Jeremy Warmsley back in the music and film tent, conquering initial technical issues and resulting tetchiness to deliver a fine series of renditions of Daniel Johnston and Tom Waits standards (far more listenable to a lay person’s ears than any of the originals); and to Martin White’s Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra, who charmed the tiny Literary Salon with a series of endearingly eccentric accordion-led songs about cursed musical instruments and killing swans with gold clubs. And so to bed. Something tells us we’ll need a good night’s sleep: there’s Grace Jones to contend with tomorrow.

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