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Latitude: The Most Complete and Democratic Celebration of The Arts

Wednesday 31 July 2013

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Words Ailis Mara

When it comes to festivals, Latitude is all too easily dismissed as the one where Guardian-readers gather in a country park in Suffolk to high-five the high-brow and indulge in some intellectual mutual masturbation. I call bullshit on this notion.

 Yes, during Latitude Festival I admittedly ate my way around a small city zoo with each exotic meal. Yes, there was a dedicated knitting tent. Yes, I witnessed a giant outdoor yoga class. Yes, I spent as many hours watching poetry and performance art as I got sleep. Yes, I actually saw a toddler practising diabolo from the back of a caravan-shaped wheelbarrow that was being dragged by their parents. And yes, I bloody loved Latitude, yes, every bloody middle-class back-slapping cultural-trumping minute of it.

Expanding and honing year on year, the eighth Latitude Festival is now the most complete and democratic celebration of the arts out there. People that dedicate their lives to expressing themselves are given a platform to do so, and what a platform it is. In the beautiful surrounds of Henham Park, you can see ballet on a lake stage that floats like a lily-pad, watch avant garde theatre and cabaret performed in woodland clearings and experimental short films shown in a secluded shed. Latitude’s dedication to fringe culture is admirable, and under a Tory government, damn near essential. It is a place to wander, to let your limbs take you on a journey of discovery with unexpected and surprising treats at every turn.

Latitude is a family-friendly festival with measures taken to ensure all ages are able to enjoy its genial atmosphere of ideas and entertainment. Teenagers daubed in UV light glimmer like dragonflies, intent on living all of life in just 24 hrs. They burst into being, experiencing life through eyes stretched wide with youthful hedonism as they flit, fornicate, and fly around in a happy frenzy. Meanwhile grown-ups relive more carefree days back before children or as Richard Herring calls them – ‘sexcrement’.This conceptual portmanteau is described in hilariously vulgar language as part of a discourse on the shallowness of parental love in his midday Sunday set. Herring operates with intellectual precision while simultaneously delivering belly laughs. He is a highlight of what is a fantastic comedy line-up that includes an unhinged but brilliant Kevin Eldon, a charmingly anarchic Mark Thomas and a laddish Seann Walsh.

Teenagers and parents come together at various points in the weekend to share a moment like at Jagwar Ma’s Saturday evening shindig. The young Aussies clearly cock-a-hoop as their psychedelic indie-dance inspires the kids to jump around with wild abandon while tempting the dads to throw shapes like it was the Hacienda all over again.

Similarly the universal joy to be extracted from funky horn stabs and inappropriate groin-thrusting unites the young and old for the retro soul delights of Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires, Bobby Womack and Matthew E. White. Bradley’s time as a James Brown impersonator means that the transition to real deal mainstage soulman is no issue. With obscene dance moves, soaring vocals and a tighter that tight band, he is a revelation on Saturday morning. Matthew E. White’s country-gospel-soul is softer but still bristles with brassy energy.

Early on Sunday, Bobby Womack takes to the main Obelisk stage to rapturous applause. Like the audience though, he takes a while to warm up. When the master hits his stride though, it is something to behold- Picking tracks from a back catalogue spanning 50 years including songs from his acclaimed 2012 album The Bravest Man In the Universe as well as classics like Across 110th Street and Woman’s Gotta Have It. When his set time expires, he doesn’t want to leave the stage, stating defiantly: “They say I’ve got five minutes left. I’ve got as long as it takes.” Now that’s the spirit.

With the exception of Friday night’s indie-nostalgia double-header of Maccabees and Bloc Party, this year’s musical line-up is inspired. Take for instance Saturday evening and its trio of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Hot Chip and Kraftwerk – by anyone’s standards that’s quite a line-up and it doesn’t disappoint. Despite having the unenviable task of warming up for Kraftwerk, Hot Chip do the sensible thing and stick to what they do best – big-hearted electro-pop. It is impossible not to jump around in the evening sun to Over and Over, I Feel Better and One Life Stand as bass-lines bottle clubland euphoria and melodies tug at heartstrings.

Like the 3D projections that accompany them, there is a concern that Kraftwerk’s pioneering electro would seem a little crude compared to where artists have taken their sound in the intervening decades of their creativity. Thankfully, this is not the case. Although the 3D aspect was mixed – I can practically hear Mark Kermode grumbling dourly beneath the bass notes of Computer Love – the greatest hits set from the Germans show both why they were so influential and continue to be relevant. It is a rare pleasure to see them perform The Model, a re-worked Radioactivity, and Tour De France to a field of bespectacled fans. Most surprising is the level of emotional connection that their melodies inspire – a beautiful Spacelab is a triumph as a 3D satellite leaves the screen and makes its way across the audience to startled woops. With themes of man versus machine replayed again and again both musically and graphically, it seems fitting that it is Kraftwerk that remind us of what it is to be human.

Other musical highlights include the infectious globe-spanning rhythms of Melt Yourself Down. Frontman Kushal Gaya incants and whirls around like a tribal witchdoctor, intent on ridding the audience of every last drop of energy. Another rhythmical treat are Diiv who deliver a superlative amalgamation of Krautrock, shoegaze and Madchester in the Faraway Forest. It is to their testament that they can generate a groove of such intensity in just a few minutes while packing a melodic punch. Leeds’ Hookworms also successfully whip up a swirling cacophony in the woods with their chundering psyche-rock grooves.

Other noisy treats include Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan who violently contorts to scuff and twist anguished noises from his guitar whilst the rhythm section keep metronomic time. Fortuna Pop! signings Joanna Gruesome’s feisty teenage nihilism is also refreshingly acerbic. Back on the mainstage, the soul-shaking lower frequencies generated by James Blake are as impressively claustrophobic as his vague but emotionally-wrought lyrics.

As I find myself seeing out the early hours of Monday morning in the Faraway Forest, dancing in the dust to DJ Don Letts, I know that I’ll be finding thatwoodland detritus for days to come. And that is Latitude’s legacy – a reminder that fringe culture is alive and kicking up dust somewhere sometime, if you can only find it.

Words: Tom Spooner
Photograph: Laura Morgans