By Sam Cleeve
July 13-15, 2012
With a perfect balance between alternative entertainment, all fresh and full of inventive energy, and more mainstream concerns determined to keep the main stage camping chair crowd entertained, at this year’s Latitude there was–forgive the cliché–a little something for everyone. The site was as beautiful as ever–misty lakes and rabbit-hole forests and fluorescent-dyed sheep–and the crowd as age-diverse and (as many a comic over at the comedy tent gleefully pointed out) as middle-class as they come. So without further dithering, here’s the first part of our rundown of the weekend’s performances. (The remainder of Saturday’s coverage as well as Sunday’s review will be posted here tomorrow).
Friday’s first performance of note comes from London-based Canadian Cold Specks. Unsurprisingly, we’ve since learnt that Al Spx’s debut album under the moniker has been nominated for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize–the (perhaps unnecessarily) sunglasses-adorned mystery of the persona we’re greeted by today is captivating. I Predict A Graceful Explosion is a record that sees Spx’s soulful, characterful voice placed against a backdrop of atmospheric production, and that’s exactly what the audience is treated to at the i Arena this afternoon. The roaring force of her voice is only magnified in a live setting; her storied gospel vocals stunning the crowd into submission. While album cuts such as ‘Blank Maps’ are arresting, it’s Spx’s impromptu, blues-y, a cappella take on nothing less than the first verse of the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme tune that remains the unexpected highlight.
Over at the Obelisk Arena (the main stage, to the uninitiated amongst you), Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit put in a performance of their pacific, harmony-laden songs. While there’s no fish-slap-to-the-face unexpectedness here, the pair serve their purpose as a mid-afternoon main stage act well–their finely-tuned vocal harmonies and the reclined groove provided by the drummer on stage certainly keep the main stage campers happy.
– First Aid Kit (By Andy Sheppard)
Latitude’s second largest stage–The Word Arena–plays host to The Antlers later in the afternoon, in what must surely be a festival highlight. Swirling, immersive atmospheres provided by trio member Darby Cicci give the band their edge over other indie-rock outfits that are to take to this stage over the course of the weekend, and Burst Apart tracks such as ‘I Don’t Want Love’ and the haunting ‘Putting The Dog To Sleep’ are impeccably executed. Following some comments on the British vs. American pronunciation of the word ‘latitude,’ the band break into a rare outing of ‘Two,’ and it’s enough to break anyone into a billion different pieces. Stunning stuff.
As a complete change in pace, the London Contemporary Orchestra offer a programme of Radiohead, Metronomy, Xenakis and Reich over at the Film & Music Arena. There’s a modest but heartwarmingly appreciative crowd, and the reduced orchestra (here just string quartet, pianist and percussionist) do well to win them over with their opening gambit of In Rainbows cut ‘Weird Fishes,’ juxtaposed against Xenakis’s solo percussion piece ‘Rebonds B.’ Later joined by songwriter Mara Carlyle for specially arranged versions of three of her own songs, the performance proves an ideal way to ease the evening in. Exiting the tent, we walk past The Lake Stage, currently occupied by indie darlings Alt-J, and the audience is as expansive and enthusiastic as it is here all weekend. Having seen them play recently (and not about to get within the same postcode regardless) we give them just a cursory glance, but it’s enough to get the impression that they’re genuinely humbled by the reaction they receive.
– London Contemporary Orchestra (By Marc Sethi)
Friday’s crowning moment (and indeed–perhaps the weekend’s crowning moment) comes in the shape of a headline slot from the nine-piece touring beast that Bon Iver has become. Taking to the stage after fifteen minutes of microphone faffery (which, while testing for the impatient among us, did act as a timely reminder of just how dwarfing Justin Vernon really is–the roadie sound-checking having to arch his neck on precarious tippy-toes to even get close), Vernon and his band blast through the set like consummate professionals. From opener ‘Perth’ tearing every single member of that audience a proverbial new one, to ‘Skinny Love’ being triumphant with full-band foot-stamps and hand-claps, through to solo showcase spots for saxophonist Colin Stetson (whose circular breathing marathon never ceases to amaze) and violinist Rob Moose’s harmonic-looping ambience, the performance is flawless. And while you’re left with the (correct) impression that this band has played these songs night in, night out for months previously, and will do so for months to come, there’s rarely a hint of arrogance or disconnect–this band still seems to mean something to a large number of this crowd on a personal level.
– Bon Iver (By Andy Sheppard)
Saturday’s proceedings begin with a pair of singer-songwriter types on The Lake Stage. Sam Airey lives up to his name; wishy-washy songwriter concerns are the cornerstones of his performance here–it’s all tear-rolling-down-your-cheek loneliness and candlelight heartbreak, and as such it places him in the same league as the likes of Damien Rice–which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your taste-buds. A little more innovative was Paul Thomas Saunders, whose rocket-fuel singing voice in no way matched his meeker-than-meek transmittance of the spoken word. Expansive soundscapes provided by his three cohorts did well to prop up the theatrics of his vocals.
Elsewhere at The Word Arena, we catch afternoon performances from a ballsier, plugged-in Sharon Van Etten and bristled, world-weary troubadour Josh T Pearson. With the former’s set consisting largely of songs from her sophomore LP Tramp, she and her band do a marvellous job at injecting some adrenaline into the assembled crowd despite her billing as the stage’s opener for the day. Van Etten’s voice soars with the sanguine melody of ‘Leonard’ and heavy-footed drive of ‘Serpents,’ and it’s not long before we’re all thoroughly won over. Meanwhile, Pearson’s endless support of his record Last of the Country Gentlemen shows no signs of stopping. Perhaps the largest crowd I’ve seen him perform to (“I don’t usually play to crowds this size… they’re usually a lot bigger,” he dryly jokes), we can’t forget that it’s no mean feat to keep a festival audience in the palm of your hands when you’ve only got despairing, fifteen-minute, sometimes uncomfortably confessional heartbreak songs to work with. Nevertheless, Pearson takes it in his stride, throwing in the odd Willie Nelson blow-job joke for good measure (he’s told it before, and I’m sure he’ll tell it again–go see him live if you’d like to hear it). It doesn’t seem like we’ve been watching two minutes by time we’re snapped out of our reverie and thrown into the blinding sunlight outside the tent once again–hypnotic stuff as ever.
Check back tomorrow for Part II of this year’s Latitude festival coverage.
– Latitude 2012 (By Marc Sethi)