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July 16, 2012 5:38 pm
Even by Latitude’s easygoing standards, the main musical acts for this year’s festival looked, on paper, a touch on the mellow side. Bon Iver. Laura Marling. The occasionally anthemic but often introverted Elbow. Fine, thoughtful artists but all a bit low-key. Perfect for a lazy, sunny afternoon – but how would they stand up on a chilly July evening, when a festival crowd might strain to catch their subtle outpourings over the sound of the downpourings hitting their umbrellas?
You had to look further down the bill for more dramatic fare, such as Dexys. The first real Friday highlight, the band formerly known as Dexys Midnight Runners turned in a mesmerising performance, and not only because lead singer Kevin Rowland, immaculate in fedora, shades and double-breasted pinstripe suit, looked as if he had wandered into the muddy festival site by mistake. A wonderful set theatrically mixed up new stuff – this year’s album One Day I’m Going to Soar is the band’s first in 27 years – and old classics, including a marathon rearrangement of the 1982 hit “Come on Eileen” that electrified the crowd. Rowland couldn’t resist trying to go one better, following up with a marathon version of his most ambitious song “This Is What She’s Like”, a Dexys classic that, it turned out, rather fewer people can sing along to.
Lana del Rey is, like Rowland, drawn to the dramatic, though some have questioned the authenticity of her “ghetto princess” persona. (A curious argument to apply to pop stars – did David Bowie actually have to be from Mars to be Ziggy Stardust?) More worryingly for Friday’s audience, she has also been criticised for her live singing, but here at least her voice was note-perfect and the sculptured cinematic soundtrack never less than polished. It was, nevertheless, a curious “live” experience. Del Rey’s idea of a dramatic onstage move is to light a cigarette, although, as if conscious of her rather static stage presence, she embarked at one point on a meet and greet with the adoring fans in the front row. The hypnotic “Video Games” prompted the Word tent’s second successive singalong after Dexys.
Bon Iver were an interesting if indisputably hip choice to close the first evening on the main stage. The American band’s recent eponymous album is an addictive slice of ambient Americana but its spacier recesses don’t exactly shout: “Play me live to a mildly interested crowd in a large outdoor arena!” In fact, the band – led by the talented falsetto-singing songwriter Justin Vernon – produced a compelling performance, with crystalline guitars and drums that added power to precision opening up the songs brilliantly. “Perth” and the eerie “Holocene” stood out and earlier acoustic favourites such as “Skinny Love” and “Flume” were beefed up without losing their raw edges. Can Bon Iver stay hip when they surely become huge?
The omens for a similarly rocking Saturday were momentarily dented by the sight of Richard Hawley, the bequiffed, leather-jacket-wearing Sheffield seer, appearing on stage in a wheelchair with his leg in plaster. Yet despite being “slightly off my head” on painkillers, he drove impressively through his soulful new album and back numbers such as “Open up Your Door”.
The pace if not the intensity dropped for Laura Marling’s wordy, worldly songs. Last year’s A Creature I Don’t Know saw her move beyond the straight English folk of her first two albums; excellent versions of “The Muse” and “I Was Just a Card” from that album underlined her intriguing ability to lay herself bare while still being careful not to give too much away.
By contrast, the effortless bonhomie of Guy Garvey, singer of second-night headliners Elbow and sometime radio DJ, seems the antithesis of cool rock-star behaviour. But the rapport he struck up with the crowd from the moment he appeared laid the foundations for what was by some distance the weekend’s most spectacular show. Within a couple of songs, as the bucolic arena darkened and the crowd clapped along with “Mirrorball”, one was reminded of why outdoor festivals, even in the most dismal of summers, can make sense. Elbow have an impressive range, typified here by the subtle storytelling of new songs such as “Lippy Kids”. But they closed with an out-and-out anthem – refrain “One day like this a year would see me right”, which, as fireworks fizzed above the forest behind the stage, was a sentiment most of those in attendance might agree with.
Could Sunday’s headliners top this? First up was the Chinese piano superstar Lang Lang, making his first appearance at a mainstream festival – a shrewd move by Latitude, which has always prided itself on going beyond the traditional pop-in-a-field formula. He arrived at noon at the idyllic Waterfront stage by boat and soon had the crowd, which had been gathering on both sides of the lake for a couple of hours, eating out of his hand. Liszt was the first rock star of classical music, he told us, with the (possibly unintended) implication that we were in the presence of the latest.
He didn’t quite say “Here’s a little number from Schumann’s first album”, but swept flamboyantly through Liszt, Chopin and a Chinese piece called “On the Calm Lake”, which kept the eminently distractable festival crowd remarkably rapt. One of the weekend’s main events.
The volume was rather louder that evening as, following entertaining sets from Bat for Lashes and Ben Howard (a promising English take on Bon Iver-style American folk rock), Paul Weller brought the weekend to a close with a lean and mean run through his career. Unlike Garvey, the ice-cool Weller is a man of few words, at least on stage; he has, however, written a lot of songs, of which a few are bona fide classics. He hit us with the recent favourite “Wake up the Nation” and the best of new album Sonik Kicks before looking back to the mid-1990s and Stanley Road with “The Changingman” and “You Do Something to Me”. The resounding finale came from even further back, from his days with The Jam – “Town Called Malice” and “The Eton Rifles”, a snapshot of class conflict that is an unlikely favourite with David Cameron. Low-key headliners? Don’t you believe it.
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