Sigur Rós, Joanna Newsom, Interpol, Death Cab For Cutie, Nada Surf - Latitude 2008: the review
Mike Mantin 26/07/2008
2008 has seen scores of new festivals failing to deliver or even sell a basic amount of tickets, but the three-year-old Latitude is just finding its feet. Of course, it is organised by people behind the Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds, but is still notable for making a special effort to stand out.
There's a distinctively calm atmosphere brought on by the serene lakeside setting and an emphasis on non-music entertainment such as comedy, theatre and 'slam poetry', which mainly consists of very angry people shouting at you in a semi-rapped way. And pretty much every comedian here picks up on the overwhelming middle-classness of it all - for example, two people at a time are taken by gondola to a private Island to drink Pimm's and lemonade, play gramophone records and enjoy feeling a bit smug. But the outstanding selection of bands are the reason most people are here - it has one of the most enticing line-ups in Britain this summer.
Today, the smaller stages are filled with quiet curiosities. Dreamy Leicester group Kyte (Lake Stage, 12:30pm) were the first of many small bands to impress on the Lake Stage, curated by Huw Stephens. They're a perfect opener for the weekend - their sound is ambitious and sweeping, but the vocals are hushed and subtle. It's extremely soothing but engaging enough to stop you drifting off, plus highlight 'Eyes Lose Their Fire' builds into a classic post-rock crescendo. A hugely impressive start and hopefully a boost to this excellent new band's profile.
Slow Club (Sunrise Arena, 2pm) return from last year with a slightly higher slot on the gorgeous but hidden Sunrise stage, the woodland backdrop proving a perfect setting for their cute pop songs. They are reliably loveable, but the poignancy to their lovelorn, reflective songs is what makes them stand out amongst the dozens of other duos which have emerged this year. Michael Nyman (Music and Film Arena, 1:50pm) also delights with a long, minimalist piano concert partly set to snippets of his films.
As nice as twee-pop and minimalist piano are, however, some noise is needed. It's provided by (relatively) local Bearsuit (Lake Stage, 3:45pm), who overload on whimsy with matching blue capes, balloons spelling out their name and and handclaps. It's fun to watch but today their live sound doesn't quite match their recorded output. The shouty vocals remain, but it occasionally sounds cluttered and unfocused. Still, the originality and great melodies of songs like 'Itsuko Got Married' shine through.
Ross Noble attempts to make his 2000-strong audience start a conga line, but it turns into the politest riot I've ever seen. So I miss all but two songs of British Sea Power but manage to catch The Go! Team! (Obelisk Arena, 6:45pm) who, four years after their debut album 'Thunder, Lightning, Strike', are still recreating the party atmosphere of that record, avoiding all but the best songs from the slightly disappointing follow-up of last year, 'Proof Of Youth'. It's all very familiar but, of course, this is what The Go! Team do, and they do it well. As ever, they bound across the stage with Ninja encouraging (somewhat aggressively at one point) the usually-static Latitude crowd to dance, and they dutifully do. You wonder how long they can keep their party-peddling up, but it's still great fun.
In direct contrast to Ninja and co.'s exuberance, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie (Obelisk Arena, 8pm) stomps onstage in obvious discomfort, with no word to the crowd, frowning and gesturing furiously to the sound guys whilst constantly checking his earpiece. Something is obviously going horribly wrong, but everything sounds fine. The band offer a great setlists which draws from all three of their 'breakthrough' albums (it's hard to know exactly when they became so popular, seeing as they still haven't had a big crossover hit) plus a couple of oldies. But Ben Gibbard's infuriating moodiness threatens to ruin the atmosphere, and it's up to guitarist Chris Walla to offer nervously the standard "hi, how is everyone tonight?" Ben's strop ruins his image as a nice, shy college indie boy but highlights such as epic closer 'Transatlanticism' are still hugely enjoyable. Death Cab put in a good performance, but it's a shame the sensitive soul behind these songs is absent. That's not the Latitude attitude.
Leeds-via-Lake District quartet Wild Beasts (Uncut Arena, 2pm) had been top of my list of new bands to check out at Latitude, and they do not disappoint. Like British Sea Power when their classic debut came out, they are making unique indie-rock with a very British eccentricity. There is, of course, a sense of novelty, as seen in song titles like 'Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants' and a disguised Lieutenant Pigeon reference in 'The Devil's Crayon', not forgetting singer Hayden Thorpe's astonishing falsetto which is almost comically unusual at first. But they are in no way throwaway - their songs are well-crafted and they defy the Uncut Arena's murky sound to win over a curious audience.
Cardiff's Truckers of Husk (Lake Stage, 2:45pm) are probably the find of the weekend for most of their audience at the tiny Lake Stage. They deliver an impressive set, all instrumental until they invite half the crowd onstage to sing the appropriately-titled 'Choir' (it works surprisingly well). Technically they are astonishing - the sound is incredibly tight for such a new band, as is guitarist's finger-tapping. But the music's elegant enough to accommodate this technique, usually reserved for overblown metal bands. They're clearly working their socks off - the drummer's between-song banter consists of "Hi (puff) we're (puff) Truckers (puff) of (puff) Husk..." - and it's paying off: they are the discovery of the weekend.
Anyone hoping to hear the subtler early work of Sebastian Tellier (Uncut Arena, 4:30pm) probably went away disappointed. With a receding hairline, sunglasses and spiky '80s guitar, he has clearly abandoned his desire to be taken seriously. He plays a set of almost embarrassingly sexually-charged songs (one is introduced, "This song is about my sexuality") including 'Divine', his French Eurovision entry - no golf buggy entrance this time, unfortunately. Alas, his set is cut short and only runs to four songs, prompting boos and jeers from the audience. But four songs of sexed-up perv-pop is probably enough for me.
A double bill of slightly-past-their-peak acts follows on the Uncut Stage. The Coral (Uncut Arena, 5:25pm)'s slot is billed as an acoustic set, but it differs little from their regular performance. They draw heavily from their recent album 'Roots and Echoes' but debut a couple of impressive new songs. The cheers are, of course, reserved for hits 'Dreaming Of You' and 'In The Morning'. Five albums in, the energy and originality that they became famous for seems faded, and they don't seem to be having a great time onstage, but it's still a good show. A couple of hours later we return for Guillemots (Uncut Arena, 7:30pm), who have received a mixed reception for their even-further-overblown second album 'Red'. Their set is a welcome reminder of why so many people fell in love with them in the first place - they create a huge racket and Fyfe Dangerfield is bouncing around like a hyperactive child.
Tonight's headliners Sigur Rós (Obelisk Arena, 9:30pm) draw an enormous crowd, understandable as their glorious orchestral pop is perfectly suited to play the headline slot, which begins as the sun sets on Henham Park. It is, of course, hard to describe their set without resorting tediously overused descriptions like 'glacial beauty' - this really was stunning. The band are dressed immaculately in tails - appropriate seeing as much of their music veers into neo-classical territory and, in common with their recent albums 'Takk...' and (deep breath) 'Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust', they have a healthy cast of supporting musicians: their backing string band Amina and a brass section dressed all in white which appears first briefly taking a turn around the stage for their part in 'Se Lest' before marching off backstage, to huge applause.
The huge cast works perfectly for epics like 'Glosoli' and new track 'Festival', though the quiet sound of the main stage can't quite deal with it, and when these two songs explode into their finales after long buld-ups, it's not as huge as we hoped. The only problem with this setup is that it leaves little room for more minimalist tracks such as those from second album '()'. We do, however, get an eerie, gentle version of 'Svefn-G-Englar' which opens the show. But complaining about the lack of quieter material becomes pointless when we are treated to a dramatic version of '()''s untitled closing track. Building into a crescendo of violent noise, it betrays their stereotype as flimsy new-agers and surely finishes off the conversion of some of their sceptics. It's an inspired choice to end an inspiring set.
Joanna Newsom (Obelisk Arena, 12pm) is playing a show in London tonight, but she fits in a set at midday for us anyway. Stripped of the band and orchestra with which she's been playing recently, she admits she's nervous at the prospect of playing alone, with only that famous harp for company. But for the first half of the set, she plays perfectly: her harp playing is hypnotic, and her voice sounds far more gentle than on many of her recorded songs. If anyone in the audience is like me, they would have previously been slighlty intimidated by the strangeness of her lyrics and voice, but there's nothing to be sceptical about here, it's enchanting.
Halfway through 'Sawdust and Diamonds', from 2006's 'Ys', the nerves finally take their toll and she completely forgets the lyrics, resorting to audience prompts. She just keeps playing the harp as her facial expression turns from nervous to shocked, and she repeatedly apologises. Nobody minds, though - I'd happily listen to an instrumental set of that harp - and a woman in the audience shouts, "Nobody cares, Joanna, you're so amazing!". Spot on - that forgiveable little mistake only made this awesome performance more memorable.
The next two bands on the main stage can't quite live up to Newsom, though they both put in a good effort with their solid indie-rock. Fields (Obelisk Arena, 2pm)' new material gives good signals for their second album, while The Twilight Sad (Obelisk Arena, 2.40pm), who sound epic on record, can't quite make the most of the big stage. But this doesn't compare to These New Puritans (Obelisk Arena, 3.30pm) who, unfortunately, completely fall flat. Edgy on record, they sound generic and look disinterested live, failing to distinguish themselves from other scenester shout-and-stab-at-keyboard bands. Their singer looks the part, dressed in a top that looks like chain mail, but his attempts at semi-rapping are slightly embarrassing and are not helped by the songs' introductions ("These New Puritans! 2008! More fire!"). A very off day, perhaps, for a decent band.
It's up to Nada Surf (Obelisk Arena, 4:30pm) to restore the peace. This band are edging further towards the middle of the road with every album, however their live show is still a masterclass in introspective college-rock. We get a nice even selection from their recent albums, including an airing of touching ballad '80 Windows' from their excellent but underrated second album 'The Proximity Effect'. Singer Matthew Caws does a good job of getting the (smaller than deserved) crowd involved - there's the standard encouragement of singing along and an inspired idea to choreograph dancing to 'Inside Of Love'. The audience's swaying makes a nice accompaniment to the song's lazy mood. The only low point comes when the bassist shouts and cusses at the poor sound people for more power, storming off at the end before Caws has said the goodbyes, eerily resembling Ben Gibbard on Friday. Must be something in the water.
As Nada Surf finish, a swarm of what looks like 12-year-olds come to the front to see Foals (5:30pm, Obelisk Arena). As always, their stage setup, in which they play facing each other, makes them a great, kinetic band to watch. They're clearly in a fighting spirit, too: referring to the drama in Spain the previous day, they dedicate 'Cassisus' to "Johnny Rotten and his meathead friends". Their songs are deservedly played faster than on their disappointing album 'Antidotes', however their rise to fame has clearly gone to their heads: the several minutes of feedback which they throw in just don't seem necessary for such direct, focused songs.
Alas, the music is coming to an end, but there are still a couple of acts remaining. Okkervil River (Uncut Stage, 7.45pm) showcase their transformation from shy, emotional ballad merchants to confident showmen. Most of the songs here are from the louder end of their catalogue, and I'm surprised to hear 'Black' with its brutally honest lyrics ("But if I could tear his throat/Spill his blood between my jaw/And erase his name for good/Don't you know that I would") but upbeat melody. Great stuff, but it's a shame the short time slot doesn't allow for the slow numbers. Will Sheff's quiet alter-ego band, Shearwater, should have played too.
Finishing off the festival on the main stage are Interpol (Obelisk Arena, 9.30pm). They created a successful template of icy post-punk with their classic debut album 'Turn On The Bright Lights' and stuck to it for the following two records and their live show. They stride onto the stage in character - all immaculate black clothing, minimal lighting and fixed moody expressions. So it's a pleasant surprise to hear Paul Banks sound excited to be playing in the between-song banter. They have honed their performance to perfection - highlights like 'Obstacle 1' and 'Evil' are exhilarating. The formula gets a bit tiresome for a bit in the middle and some variety is craved, but by the brilliant encore of 'Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down', they've recaptured attention. It caps off the most successful, musically diverse and exciting Latitude yet. See you in 2009, darling, I'll bring the Pimm's.
More of Mike's photos from Latitude 2008 at his Flickr page