Latitude Festival, Suffolk, UK – review

There’s not a lot of natural overlap between Latitude’s bucolic Suffolk setting and songs about German motorways but, from the moment we are handed 3D specs at the gate, it’s clear we have entered Kraftwerk’s world. Small children try the glasses on as if they’re watching the latest Pixar animation; teenagers intone “we are the robots” in cartoon accents. Other musicians allude to their presence. “We don’t like to blow our own trumpet but we also are appearing in 3D this weekend,” deadpans Yo La Tengo’s James McNew. Musically, too, it is not hard to see their influence on numerous performers.

John Grant is among them. The former indie rocker embraced electronica for his startling new album Pale Green Ghosts and stabbing, shivering synths are all over his all-too-brief set on Friday afternoon. It is his voice that hits hardest though; cavernously deep, it somehow contains as much vulnerability as it does power. “Remember when the tenderness stopped, and the kindness turned to pity and disgust,” is his opening salvo and relationship-wise things are pretty much all downhill from there. After a transcendent “Glacier”, about forbidden homosexuality, is dedicated to gay people in Russia, he is gone, and we stumble outside his world of darkness slightly surprised to find the sun still shining brightly.

It’s a strange thing to be at a festival at four o’clock in the afternoon on day one and realise that what you have just seen might be hard to top. There are excellent performances throughout the evening, though: longtime indie threesome Yo La Tengo’s perfectly judged mix of mellow noise interspersed with back-to-back guitar fuzz; a muscular Cat Power set that seems to teeter on the edge of some unspecified sudden drama; the surreal imaginings of the excellent Villagers.

As Friday evening cools, the day’s biggest and youngest crowd gathers for the Maccabees’ more straightforward Coldplay rock, while someone reports to their neighbour that the second stage is full of 42-year-olds with pushchairs who have rolled up to relive the twanginess of Texas’s late-1980s peak.

The nostalgic yearning of a slightly younger generation is in evidence for the day’s main headliners. Bloc Party may never recapture the vital urgency of their 2005 debut Silent Alarm – in fact this is their final show before they begin a second and “indefinite” hiatus – but thrilling renditions of “Helicopter” and “Banquet” have the twentysomethings in the crowd bouncing with the recollection of formative moments passed.

Saturday’s industrial grey skies are probably only to the liking of Kraftwerk. Jessie Ware stays upbeat to warm a crowd who probably hoped to be sunbathing along to her sleepy Sade-esque dubstep. Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires provide rousing 1970s soul style and King Charles mixes folk with everything in an invigorating early afternoon set. Jagwa Ma continue their mission to hook a new generation on the “baggy” sound of late-1980s Manchester. Daughter, who like Kraftwerk, can claim to have soundtracked the Tour de France – their “Youth” accompanied last year’s UK TV coverage – draw a large crowd with only a little help from the rain. And there are further nods to the headliners from charming Danish band Efterklang’s synth soundscapes and, later on, Hot Chip’s relentless rhythm.

Meanwhile, former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft is staging something of a takedown. As an intense solo set inspires mass singalongs of Verve classics such as “Sonnet” and “The Drugs Don’t Work”, Ashcroft mischievously extols the virtues of live music in general – it’s not meant to be perfect, apparently – and, more pointedly, informs us that he is “not a robot”. “I’ll take you down the only road you’ve never been down,” he croaks at the end of a climactic “Bittersweet Symphony”. Presumably not an Autobahn.

Ashcroft’s bracing rock star moment doesn’t, however, stop many people running from the tent to catch Kraftwerk. In fact what seems like the whole festival has turned up in the main arena, a rare occurrence at Latitude in my experience. Musically it can’t and doesn’t fail to deliver – “The Model”, “Computer Love” and “Tour de France” are rendered flawlessly and “Radioactivity”, augmented with Japanese to reference the Fukushima disaster, is a reminder of the band’s still-eerie prescience.

But in such a large space the vaunted 3D show, perfect in a contemporary art setting such as Tate Modern, seems just a little underwhelming. After a while people begin to drift away, perhaps to see Alt-J or to check out some of the stalls. After an hour and a half, four elderly men stop playing their keyboards and walk off stage and I start to think about John Grant’s show again.

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