Latitude – A Reflection

Art & Culture

Of all the Arts-y, bring-the-kids weekenders to emerge from the 00’s boutique festival explosion, to the uninitiated, Latitude must seem eminently the most kick-able; unabashedly bucolic branding, a roll call of left-leaning speakers and media partners, broadsheet friendly Theatre and Dance performances, a proper, sit-down Blixen restaurant (bookings only, please) and vast family activity areas round out the very dictionary definition of ‘Middle Class Festival’. Meaning, if staggering out of a topless Sake bar in a retro-futurist burlesque shipping yard at 11am after a 9 hour K and dub-techno session is your idea of festival heaven it’s safe to assume Latitude’s not really going to be your thing. 

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like here. Henham Park is an exquisite location for a camping festival, all leafy bowls, bracken strewn woodland and a glassy lake arcing right through the main arena. The site is pleasingly functional too. Ambling around its bountiful stages and tents is a breeze, venues are spacious, accessible and loud, bar and toilet queues rarely more than a couple of minutes wait and your usual procession of sour faced security goons are spirited away in place of litter ‘Pixies’ and disarmingly courteous ‘Customer Support Officers’. To boot, this year we are blessed with near relentless sunshine, clear skies and long balmy evenings, lending the whole event the feel of an epic Pimms drenched picnic in the park.

Then there’s the impressively rangy line up largely dominated by mid-table buzz bands with a cerebral bent, but always sounding an accessible note. Warpaint, Django Django, Boxed In, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Ezra Furman and C.Duncan all impress in front of inquisitive but stoically attentive crowds. On Saturday night to a near reverential reception, Portishead dispense with one of the most wracked, hypnotic and immaculately rendered headliners your correspondent has witnessed in some 22 years of festivalling. Beyond the indie there’s a litany Comedy heavy-hitters, crossover techno types like Max Cooper, Herbert, Kiasmos, Clark and The 2 Bears. And lashings of tween friendly pop fluff like Years and Years, Wolf Alice and Catfish & the Bottlemen, all of whom pack out the 6 Music tent with triple the crowds in attendance for say, Savages.

Therein though lies Latitude’s achilles heel; aspiring to be all things to all men, women and children is more often than not its undoing. Heartening though it is to see names like Caribou and Jon Hopkins propping up bills here, both their sets on Friday are met with equal parts abandon and bafflement.  A panoply of niche stages and bookings makes for a line up with broad appeal but doesn’t necessarily engender the kind of unified “let’s all get in a mucky field and enjoy this together” atmosphere that is the cornerstone of the mainstream festival experience.

Improbably, Ed Sheeran, pop megastar and one of the few operational artists that could potentially unite a field of kids, tweens, twentysomethings and parents is shipped in for a secret set after the headliners on Friday. Undoubtedly this is a result for miniscule proportion of punters that catch it. But for the rest of us cluelessly streaming in our thousands towards the fabled woodland area for some after hours laughs and subsequently arriving to find the whole area at capacity and locked down for some two hours, it is a catastrophic Friday night vibe killer. 

Eventually enough of Sheeran’s gormless disciples slope off and we are allowed in. But the the woods are now a strictly atmosphere-free zone and not even one of the most reputedly versatile DJs on the planet Ben UFO can get the party back on track. Not his fault, one imagines his booking form read “Headline set in late night rave zone” rather than “Ed Sheeran after-show”.

I couldn’t help feeling that on its 10th birthday, Latitude had found itself at a crossroads, its mannered, pan-generational crowd heading in one way, its well intentioned but erratic programming heading in another. This was my 4th outing since 2008 and Henham Park felt sparsely attended by comparison; with a core of mid 20’s -30’s indie fans (at which let’s face it – the majority of the line up is aimed) conspicuous by their absence. With brands like Wilderness and Festival No.6 clearly taking cues from its groundbreaking Arts meets Music blueprint; Latitude would do well to refine and re-focus its approach to ensure its noble “pluralism uber alles” manifesto doesn’t alienate either its returning customers or new ones it wishes to attract.

Jim Brackpool