There is something distinctly odd about Southwold, Suffolk. On the surface, a well-to-do, tea and scones, Edwardian seafront and shops selling pricey driftwood kind of place, the concept of distance, and interrelationships of physical locations, seem to have an elasticity that belies the town’s outward respectability. After three sets of directions along the lines of ‘you just go straight down there,’ we were no closer to finding our rental cottage, or even the place where we picked up the keys. Eventually, we saw the latter – an old water tower – away in the heat-blurred distance, across The Common, which seemed to lend itself to a dramatisation of an MR James short story in which the hero is pursued by some nameless horror as the fog rolls in menacingly over the salt-spiked grassland.
Daughter and Heiress and I left the Redoubtable Mrs F to it, to catch the bus to Latitude. She was subsequently to discover that, by taking a short step further along the High Street, she could reach the water tower in about two minutes flat. And the whole of Southwold just seems to be like that – you walk for ages, and then turn down a side road to discover you’re nearly back where you started. Probably ley lines involved somewhere. Sound, too, seems to travel in unusual ways.
More of sound bleed later on. In the meantime, there were some bands to see, once we’d oriented ourselves in the Latitude site. For those of you who haven’t been, you approach through a wooded area which slopes steeply down to the river; there’s one small stage on that side, but over the bridge things open out to a rising slope which houses most of the rest of the stages, including the Radio 6 Music tent. Then, over the top of the rise, there’s the main stage, the Obelisk, where we encountered Kelis, our first act (apart from a rousing final chorus of I Don’t Want to Change the World, by Billy Bragg).
Kelis is an interesting chameleon of an artiste. The early part of her career featured her as a pop/R & B/dance style diva, with mainstream hits such as Milkshake. In her latest incarnation, after a gap of some four years between her previous and current album, she cooks up a wholesome diet of funky, brass-laden soul that James Brown or one of Saturday’s highlights, Booker T Jones, would nod approvingly along to. Her latest album, Food (she is a cordon bleu chef as well, so the culinary puns are a bit more warranted than usual) features one track, Friday Fish Fry, which is my personal favourite: a sassy, knowing, old-school slab of soul with a great, hook-laden, chorus.
The challenge for Kelis is to produce a live show that makes sense of the differing phases of her career, and marries the current material with her older songs in a way that makes sense. She managed this pretty effectively live, in a set that featured old favourites like Milkshake and Bounce, although highlights for me were the aforementioned Friday Fish Fry, and another song during which she and the backing singer – no mean chanteuse herself – did a vocal run that ended with the Kelis hitting a note that was just about audible only to non-humans. Boy, can that girl sing!
If Kelis didn’t quite manage to engage fully with the crowd beyond the front ranks, it wasn’t really her fault. The main stage is, like all main stages, a great big block of wood, canvas and electrics in the middle of a field, and allied to the rapidly dispersing acoustics that entails, she took on probably the hottest period of the afternoon when the thermometer was pulsing way past thirty and the audience was wilting. I would see her again, but only in a smaller venue with walls (I guess I say that about everything, to be fair). Special mention to her tight backing band, with the horn section most obviously to the fore, but also some nice guitar work (again, take into account guitar player’s bias, but soul music isn’t exactly natural territory for the guitar to stand out).
Next up were Temples, a very now band. In fact, the lead singer, James Bagshaw, told the audience it was exactly two years since he and his co-writer, Tom Walmsley, had gone to Latitude as fans and written their first songs. Now here they were on the Radio 6 Stage, tearing the place up.
To call Temples a guitar-based band is like saying Westminster Abbey is mainly stone-based in construction: the songs start and end on riff-heavy contributions from Bagshaw’s Gretsch, or on a couple of numbers, a 12-string Rickenbacker. This latter guitar, in particular, gives a clue to the style: Temples are solidly, irredeemably retro, with the Sixties jangly/psychedelic heritage evoked by the use of effects that derive solidly from that period. To be honest, when I heard their CD I was disappointed it was so completely rooted in that tradition: drenched in reverb-heavy, swirly guitars, it could have been recorded in 1967.
Live, though, the band were an enjoyable proposition; the songs-well constructed, and the sound having a bit more crunch and bite than the recorded sound in the confines of the Radio 6 Tent. Plus points also included the Walmsley’s hair, which Daughter and Heiress thought better than most girls’. An advertising jingle for Tresemme can only be a phone call away. More seriously, these guys are just getting going, and if they’re currently reaching backwards for influences, their musicality on stuff like Colours to Life suggests they might well develop into something entirely new.
Back to that sound bleed issue. We came upon our next act by accident – the Lake Stage is down by the water, and we were relaxing with a quick bite on the grassy slope above it, when we became aware of someone rather good on with an electric piano. Initially thinking this was Rae Morris, whom I had previously reviewed less than generously, I was interested to have a second listen – but to do so, we need to get much, much closer. Uphill and to our right, Goat were doing their goaty thing in the Radio 6 Tent; and much further away and behind us, Rudimental was pounding away with his heavy artillery on the Obelisk stage. Closer and closer we drew, to discover the curly-tressed songstress was not Bombay Bicycle Club’s former backing singer at all, but Norma Jean Martine.
Only in my Mind evokes K T Tunstall a bit, but it was really when she switched from guitar to piano that her songs really took off, perhaps partly for the pragmatic reason that the combination of the keys, another guitarist and drums were a bit more able to carry the day against the Rudimental/Goat bombardment. A New Yorker, vocally she bears some comparison to Regina Spektor, although her music and lyrics are just a bit more direct. She wisely finished with what I thought was her strongest song of the set, Game Over. Definitely the find of the first day.
Anna Calvi finished our first day. Previous listenings on Jools Holland’s show had convinced me enough to buy a CD of hers, but I hadn’t been totally convinced. Calvi just strikes me as doing her thing more with her head than her heart. That may be unfair. However, I wasn’t at all surprised to read in the programme that she was influenced by her father’s musical tastes, which ranged from Captain Beefheart to Maria Callas. Her vocal style incorporates an operatic element, and there were certainly a few runs on guitar which owed more to symphonic instruments than the usual blues-derived rock tropes (although she could do them too). Certainly, this is one woman that knows how to tote a Telecaster. However, I remained admiring but unmoved, I’m afraid.
And with that, we decided to cut out early, having decided that Lily Allen wasn’t as much our cup of herbal tea as Two Door Cinema Club (having said that, good wishes and peaceful intentions to Ms Allen: I hope the crowd was kinder to her in person, than some people had been on Twitter). Thereafter, there was only the taxi ride back to the holiday cottage to survive. Neither our taxi driver tonight nor the one on Saturday was to know where Church Street, which has surely run off the High Street for many decades if not centuries, is. That old geographic elasticity at work again, obviously.
Report on Saturday to follow.
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