Given that this was only its fourth outing, Latitude Festival is much more firmly established than it has right to be, but it is not hard to see why. Few summer festivals can offer a setting as bucolically beautiful as Suffolk’s finest.
The site is divided by a lake, on one side of which are the grassy slopes that host most of the action, and the other, a wood of pine trees that separates the field of play from tent city. Dubbed “the thinking person’s Glastonbury” (not my phrase I’m disappointed to report), Latitude pitches itself as a multi-arts extravaganza with high-profile rock acts joined by artists from a host of other disciplines, from poetry and comedy to theatre and cabaret. It may have a reputation as a haven for the more temperate middle-class and middle-aged festival goer (which pretty much translates as family-friendly), but you couldn’t accuse it of being tame. Given its remote location there is no noise curfew and partying went on until the early hours of each night and nobody seemed to mind the deluges of rain that fell intermittently throughout the weekend.
As usual with the big festivals, seeing one thing means missing another – so I’ll just cover the music highlights I witnessed. With four main stages for music, I was surprised that my magic moment of the weekend took place at the smaller Into the Woods stage. Shlomo is well known as one of the world’s best beatboxers. On terrific form, he demonstrated the jaw-dropping sound palette he conjures with just his voice and a mic (plus his not inconsiderable skills with a looping pedal) before leading his remarkable Vocal Orchestra in a set of originals and covers.
With five genuine beatboxers and three vocalists, Shlomo’s beatbox choir combines razor-sharp rhythmic interplay with gorgeous melodic fragments, all with the tightest musicianship you’ll ever see (“We practise all day” grinned Shlomo at one point. “We don’t really hang out with anyone else”). Covers of Stevie Wonder, Massive Attack and Michael Jackson were bursting with energy and wit but the biggest praise must go to the on-the-spot improvisation the band put together, showing that beatboxing is not a gimmick but music of precision, skill and above all funkiness.
Shlomo and his gang made more intense and colourful music than any middle-of the-road indie band, of which there were just too many on the Lake Stage. The other main outdoor stage, the appropriately named Obelisk Arena hosted a very special guest at noon on Sunday. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke took to the stage in front of a huge Latitdue crowd to play a selection of his pretty much unrivalled back catalogue. In good form, joking with the groupies at the front, Yorke performed a powerful set which featured songs from his 2006 solo album The Eraser, rarer b-sides (off the shelf as he put it) and a couple of Radiohead numbers too. Watching Yorke in solo mode, stripped of the support of his band-mates, is to realise the depth of skill of his songwriting and the searing quality of his voice. Yorke’s engagement with the microphone and the instrument at his fingers was absolutely focused – a privilege to watch.
Moving on, the bill on the Uncut Stage was the most varied of the festival. The likes of Spiritualized and Bat for Lashes headlined while daytime slots went to a mix of the cool and eccentric. Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy performed with his band The Duckworth Lewis Method (named after cricket score calculation system) and the brilliant Paloma Faith, an outrageous jazzy, soul singer, charmed the crowd with her sassy songs. In utter contrast to Faith was Aboriginal singer and guitarist, Gurrumul, the current talk of the world music scene. The start of his set coincided with the heavens opening (a benevolent sign in Gurrumul’s opinion, his bassist and collaborator Michael Hohnen explained), bringing a huge crowd into the Uncut tent. If they came seeking shelter, they were soon held rapt by the simple beauty of Gurrumul’s songs. A remarkable voice lives and breaths within the man and when he sang his one English language song, ‘Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)’, this seemingly ageless music, accompanied the summer rain outside created a spine-tingling moment.
So, all in all, a fine festival weekend. The headliners, from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to Regina Spektor were programmed with imagination, the multi-arts platform is genuinely refreshing and there were some sparkling acts on the smaller stages. Shouty, dull indie kids may have dominated the daytime slots on the Lake and Obelisk stages, but hey, you can’t have everything. What other festival can you sit in a deck chair, drinking cider and watch contemporary dance across the water?
- Shlomo is an Artist in Residence at Southbank Centre in London.
- Gurrumul’s eponymous debut album was released in 2008.
- Paloma Faith’s debut album, Do You Want the Tuth or Something Beautiful? will be released on 21 September 2009.