andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Latitude, Day 2: Black Snot and the perils of stage programming

Black Snot.

A phenomenon, one’s reliably informed, more usually associated with exhaust gas-choked central London than the delightful Suffolk countryside. However, a long, hot spell leading up to Latitude Festival had produced a dry, dusty site which, when combined with the passing of many feet and a persistent west wind, meant the local soil permeated into all and any exposed orifices. Producing, in your blog’s case, the aforementioned olfactory by-product: in the case of those staying on site, one can only imagine other, direr consequences.

Minor inconveniences such as this aside, Saturday at Latitude dawned bright and breezy and full of promise of a full day of musical delights. This time the Redoubtable Mrs F sat things out in Southwold, so it was just Daughter and Heiress and myself bussing onto the site amidst the traffic chaos that comes from pouring several thousand music fans down a rural B road at once.

This year did seem a good bit busier than last, to be honest; and whilst that’s good for the organisers, it did on occasion cause a bit of discombobulation – especially when, as seemed to be the case with the later acts, there was an element of mismatch between stage and popularity of performer.

To recap from Friday’s review. There are four main stages at Latitude, in descending order of audience capacity: the Obelisk, big stage in a field with seating set half a mile back a la most festivals; the Radio 6 Music Stage, a tent – mostly enclosed – in the ‘bloody big’ category; the Lake Stage, technically probably capable of having a huge audience, but subject to sound bleed from the first two by nature of the site’s topography; and the iArena, tucked away in the woods, and consisting of a smaller tent with more gappy bits under the canvas so that one could – and did – experience a fair bit of the perfromance from the slope immediately outside the tent itself. There are other, smaller stages, but let’s stick with the main four for simplicity.

Pity, though, the job of the programmer, who has to decide which band should go where. So last year’s Lake Stage kings, Catfish and the Bottlemen, might reasonably be promoted to the Radio 6 Tent; but what of, for example, Leon Bridges, a soul singer who’d had more recent coverage in the music press than said programmer could reasonably have known, and was therefore to pack out the iArena? So many variables – not just the band’s own profile, and previous festival appearances, but recent appearances on Jools (which, let’s face it, is the first we Festival Dads and Moms may have heard of someone) time of day, and, crucially, who’s on at the same time elsewhere.

More on this later – but in the meantime, the traffic jams having caused us to miss Benjamin Booker, we had a brief look at Badly Drawn Boy, (not compelling enough on the main Obelisk Stage to keep us from the merch stalls) and then Sun Kil Moon.

To be honest, the main reason for giving the latter a go was the well-publicised spat between Mark Kozelek, the motive force behind Sun Kil Moon, and War on Drugs – ironically enough after sound bleed issues at a festival. No such problems here for your man in the Radio 6 tent, probably the most sound-proof of the stages, but he still wasn’t moving us greatly after a couple of songs, so we made our excuses and left him to his grumpy comments about how sweaty he was. Though some props to the guy for doing a cover of Nick Cave’s ‘Crying Song,’ presumably in sympathy for the recent death of Cave’s son.

We returned to the same tent shortly after, however, for one of the Daughter and Heiress’s picks: Wolf Alice. This turned out to be the gig of the day for your blog: the tent packed, but not so packed as to be a diversion from the excellent, heads down, driving rock the band produced; a charismatic front woman who was capable of roaring, screaming, and occasionally squealing in wave bands only audible, one suspects, to the sharper-eared canines in the audience, but also, as she showed in a rare slower number delivered with especial aplomb mid-set (‘Turn to Dust,’ appropriately enough?) singing, like, proper singily.

I’ve given up trying to keep up with the labels music journos give to bands’ sounds. To be honest, the song structures weren’t so out there as to have eschewed the sacred twelve-bar on occasion, and there was a bass, drums, and two guitars fed through distortion pedals. In other words, pretty much as it should be. And Ellie is quite some front woman: again, she isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, burning-eyed blonde to front a rock band, but she’s got oodles of it, whatever it is. One to watch.

Next, a diversion to the iArena to see the opening numbers of Leon Bridges, a soulful type who had received a lot of sympathetic press recently, and therefore filled the smaller tent to bursting and beyond. He sounded good, but it just wasn’t enough of our kind of thing to detain us from David O’Doherty in the comedy tent, a diversion from the True Path of Musical Righteousness that caused me guilty pangs (I’ve kind of taken a scunner (1) to stand up comedians since they’ve effectively taken over the Edinburgh Fringe (it feels) lock stock and barrel, and I had a personal code of honour to only go and see music acts, but stuff it, it was DO’D, and he does play that wee Casio keyboard after all).

Coming out of the comedy tent, we were in time to catch the last of Laura Marling’s set, which seemed strangely subdued, somehow. However, that may have been because we were sitting quite far out to the side of the Obelisk, where it was easy to feel uninvolved, or at least less involved than in the Radio 6 Tent in the midst of a crowd. I did wonder if Marling, despite being a Big Thing in terms of the pantheon of names appearing at the Festival, might have been better suited in the Radio 6 Tent. I’m glad I’m not that programmer.

By this time the hunger pangs were craving attention again, and Daughter and Heiress and I shared a half roast chicken, smothered in a green and yellow radioactive type material which advertised itself as ‘Lemon and Herb:’ to be honest, though, it was absolutely delicious, although the rapid attraction of dust particles to the dish, the sauce, our hands and, frankly everything else at this point deterred us from finding out if it was finger-lickin’ good or not. Sic transit festival food.

If all of this and the next paragraph’s whinge about crowd behaviour all sounds insufferably middle-aged and fussy, especially when your blog wasn’t even camping out on site but instead was staying in a well-appointed flat in town, well, maybe, but I really, really, did enjoy Latitude again this year, and would definitely come back. The atmosphere is great. The mix of people, and seeing people feeling it’s a safe place to take their kids is great – although the sight of parents holding their pre-schoolers aloft at the louder, late-evening gigs, like some sort of chubby, Boden- and ear-defender-clad sports trophy, did make you wonder whose benefit the whole thing was for; the chance to see such a range of new, exciting bands all in one sun-soaked 48 hour period is great. Most of all, the ability of the best of the music to transcend the fact that the toilets smell like an army latrine in the Gobi desert on one of its hotter days, Suffolk clay is silting up every available orifice, new species of biting insect are trying out their just-arrived mouthparts on a fleshy part of you, and your hands are covered in some form of radioactive lemon and herb goo, just reminds you that, well, great rock and roll can overcome almost anything.

Unfortunately, Catfish and the Bottlemen didn’t quite manage it.

To be fair, they just about did. This blog predicted last year that they were the coming thing, several more esteemed rock critics had agreed since, and interviews with your man Van McCann, the lead singer, had heightened the media interest. Tellingly he’d made a comparison in one article I’d read with Oasis, and the band seem to be aiming for that larrikin, bad-boy image the Gallagher brothers used so adeptly back in the day. Unfortunately, this seemed to translate with the Radio 6 Tent filling with more than its usual quota of teenage and pre-teenage lads and numpties, including one type who barged in beside me and insisted in waving some sort of home made banner with fish on it (Catfish, see what he did there?) all over your blog’s personal space, while his stunted offspring stood in front and jabbed sharp elbows about at groin level.

And – I’m sorry – but what is it with people moving about so much in these crowds? I totally get why a big conga line of twenty-somethings might want to plough, hands joined, to the front of the audience just before or even during the opening numbers. The serving system at the massively overpriced bars is Byzantine in nature, and anyway, the collective hive mind might take a bit to get going. I completely get that. But once you’re wherever you’ve got to, just stay there, okay? I mean unless you suddenly discover you actually hate Catfish and all his Bottlemen with a passion, can you not just stay in one place for the rest of the performance? They don’t last long, and trust me, if you needed the toilet, you would’ve bitten the bullet and gone before they started.

(And … breathe). Catfish and the Bottlemen delivered a high octane, raucous performance which had the crowd totally lit up. They’re not about to add a string section or collaborate with Brian Eno or anything, but if you like your rock straightforward, loud, and with stadium-friendly melodies, they are definitely a band to catch as they continue their inexorable rise. McCann is a compelling front man with an eye to the main chance. Probably better to be more lagered up than your blog was, is all I’m saying.

The last band we intended to see, again in the Radio 6 tent, was the Vaccines. They were on at the same time as Portishead were playing the Obelisk main stage, and it would have been interesting to see just how busy the latter was, because the Radio 6 was packed to the gunnels (if tents have gunnels) and beyond. In the interests of shielding Daughter and Heiress from some of the more extreme ruck-and scrum tactics of the crowd this time, I’d positioned myself against one of the metal posts that held up the back of the tent, with D & H in front. This strategy was also designed to give us a quick exit at the end in order to catch the bus back into the village – a strategy, which I quickly realised, which was flawed, when I turned round to see a crowd maybe 100 deep and 500 wide behind us.

What we saw of the Vaccines was really promising, and Daughter and Heiress has just found out they’re playing at the Usher Hall on 7th December. However, this time it was D & H, somewhat to my surprise, who said she’d had enough of being shoved and jostled, and we made our escape into the night, to where the taxi drivers circled like brightly-coloured tiger sharks round a crowd of other early exiters.

And so another Latitude Festival comes to an end for us. Our plans may take us elsewhere on holiday next year, although I would definitely like to be back some time. Festival economics dictate that this year’s increased numbers (I assume) will be something the organisers will want to build on. However, it is one of Latitude’s USPs that it’s a relaxed kind of affair, so I hope that’s factored in, as well as a willingness to take risks with the programming, particularly on the smaller stages. Until then, we shake the dust of Suffolk from the soles of our feet finally, although it will live on in our hearts.

Just not forever, we hope, in our nostrils.

 

 

 

(1) follow the link for a decent definition.

 

 

 

 

 

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