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TAXI FOR MR STRANGE ?
:: British Sea Power :: I Am Kloot :: Antony And The Johnsons :: The Former Bullies :: Mojave 3 :: Product 01 :: Get Cape Wear Cape Fly :: Soft Hearted Scientists :: Howling Bells :: Camille ::
15 July 2006 / Latitude / Henham Park, Suffolk
By Cath Aubergine

"Taxi for Mr. Strange?" The receptionist in the office of the town's leading, or possibly only, cab firm is fielding incoming calls on two lines under her muscle-men calendar, as we attempt to pre-book our passage back from the Latitude Festival later that night. A blue-overalled driver slips through the door and stands in a walk-in cupboard behind us. We are in Oulton Broad, a one-horse town with two stations, although neither of them will be much use to us after 11pm, and as festival day-trip veterans (sleeping under canvas is always a last resort), we've all heard the words "Nothing for two hours…" or even "Nothing tonight at all", whilst sobering up shivering in some overcrowded car-park. One of the stations will serve us well to get there, or at least to the nearest village from which the shuttle bus will depart. "It should be over that bridge" says the spotty kid on a bike whose day we've just ruined by engaging with him. Should be?? Life is slow here and somewhat vague. Welcome to Suffolk, home of a brand new festival called Latitude which promises to be "much more than just a music festival" - there will be theatre, stand-up poetry, visual arts and political debate as well as five stages of live music. And getting there requires a grasp of logistics that would have military strategists scratching their heads. As the train pulls into Halesworth we brace ourselves for the inevitable queue - but the bus stop is deserted. With 45 minutes to wait for the bus we wander into a quiet pub, and there's little evidence anywhere, that a major festival is taking place just a couple of miles away - the can't-move-for-rucksacks chaos that is, say, Leeds city centre on Carling weekend this most certainly isn't.

Arriving at the site, the press office looks pleased to see someone, whilst my companion’s passage through the regular ticket gate is equally unimpeded. Into the main arena, hub for the eleven stages as well as bars and food stalls. If you're sufficiently interested in live music festivals to be reading this, you'll know how hectic these places normally are. But here, a few sunbathers are enjoying the afternoon heat and I walk straight up to the organic (of course) burger bar and have food in my hand within seconds. This is weird, bordering on spooky. Where is everybody?

Once upon a time there was Glastonbury and Reading. Donington for the rockers; the odd country-house do for the superannuated. In the ‘90’s a few entrepreneurs saw an opening in dance music, packaging up the spirit of the hounded-to-death illegal field rave culture and selling it back with added corporate sponsorship. Reading begat Leeds, Scotland sprouted T, to the point where there was barely a weekend last summer without an opportunity to spend three days acquiring heatstroke or trenchfoot in the company of your favourite music. Internet chatrooms raged over tickets that sold out in half an hour then appeared on E-bay seconds later with a starting price of three times face value. Then came 2006, Michael Eavis's first fallow year of the new festival frenzy era. And it seems every few acres of green space in the country has stuck up a stage, all desperate to convince you they're the True Alternative To Glastonbury. Add to that the dozens of 'intimate' gatherings promising lower-key acts but lower ticket prices (as in two figures instead of three) and you could probably spend every weekend from May to September living out of a bag - check the schedule of any band you like and you'll find at least three festival dates.

There's just one problem though. There are only so many punters to go round; few can afford more than a couple of big ones a year, and Latitude is an unknown quantity in a remote location without a Morrissey or Radiohead - headliners Snow Patrol, Antony And The Johnsons and Mogwai don't quite have that kind of pulling power. The site is beautiful, the organisation excellent, the line-up no better or worse than many others, but maybe it's a trip too far for most people. And as for local appeal, well back in Oulton Broad the hotel receptionist only became aware of it when some crew members booked in. The Oulton Broad Oracle's Diary for this weekend recommends a powerboat race and a brass band concert in nearby villages, but no mention of the international music acts on their doorstep.

We start the day, as you do, with some Francophone electropop courtesy of a rather commanding young lady in a posh frock called CAMILLE, who tried to get us all to "stand up for your daddy" (eh?) and bashes herself on the chest whilst singing - nobody does, and eventually she exits in a flouncy huff complaining that her set's been cut because she was fifteen minutes late onstage. Next, HOWLING BELLS' Juanita Stein is either heavily imbibed with the festival spirit or squarely off her box, and rambles sweetly about world peace and how she thinks she may have found Camelot. Not, presumably, the Lancashire theme park. Their pleasantly folky chilled space-country goes rather well with pear cider on a lazy afternoon, and strays into upbeat country-pop with lots of arm expressionism, like Hope Sandoval possessed by Kate Bush. But my North West radar's calling me over to the Music And Film tent for the FORMER BULLIES. The tent is almost deserted, and most of those who are there are familiar faces from closer to home - Nick Ainsworth even ends up exchanging introductions with the three people watching that he doesn't know. It's a shame as this is not only great festival music but the best I've seen the band, their hard-edged two-man grunge folk sounding tight and passionate.

Byrdsian country tones are seeping out of the Obelisk Stage tent courtesy of the Tiny Dancers; a bit of sunshine on the scorched yellowing grass and everyone's in touch with their Inner Country. Watching MOJAVE 3 with hot sun on my back is still not as warm as their recent Jabez Clegg gig, but everyone's still sitting down. "Is there a time at these things when we all stand up?" asks Neil Halstead. It's a brilliant set of lazy indie-pop Americana, Halstead's gentle acoustic strumming and dreamy vocals are beautiful. Over to the Lake stage next, where SOFT HEARTED SCIENTISTS are doing – well, yet more pleasant stuff. The trio's 'manifesto' states that "we will create music with a sense of wonder: like the sound of stars flying off the end of a wand or, if it were possible, the sound of plucking a spider's web encrusted with dew drops" - what this translates to is some gentle acoustica with nu-folk electronic leanings. "That was a nice song; this is a very bitter one - no, they're not about the same person, I'm not that fickle". Any bitterness is confined to the lyrics though - there's nothing to scare the horses here. Again. If this festival was a newspaper it would be the Independent On Sunday - and flicking through a music magazine I notice that Guilfest is also this weekend. With Guilfest's line-up largely drawn from the retro and reunion side of things - and my friends who went once remember lots of deckchairs and wine bottles - I can't help thinking that would have rather split the middle-class vote, especially with Guilfest being a few years more established and easily accessible.

Pleasant tunes laced with bitterness, is once again the order of the day back in the Uncut Arena where I AM KLOOT have, rather annoyingly, come on early. Johnny Bramwell knows how to work a crowd and with the usual matey banter interspersing a set of favourites from across their three albums, he soon has the crowd eating out of his hand as Pete Jobson sprawls stageside as usual, smoking over his bass. Does this man ever stand up? Songs like "Favourite Sky", "To You" and "Because" see the first real rapturous applause of the day, and from a crowd many of whom appear to have been previously unfamiliar with the band - good to know someone's going to walk away with new fans today.

After that it's a quick dash next door to the Obelisk tent, effectively the main stage here. BRITISH SEA POWER have typically taken advantage of the spectacular plant life on offer and drummer Woody appears to be surrounded by a full-scale garden grotto; and as seems to be the case whenever this band play a festival, a few people in the crowd have uprooted stuff to wave around. Hamilton steps up to the front wearing what seems to be a Dickensian peasant smock with a rug tied around his head and starts the set with the beautiful "True Adventures", augmented by the band's semi-regulation viola and cornet players. The latter is also wearing a cape, and as the tune ends we wonder exactly what the odd mechanical device he's dragging on stage might be. Singer Yan starts turning the handle, grinning like a six-year-old - fantastic, it's a genuine air-raid siren! This heralds an energetic "Spirit Of St Louis", probably the first rock-out moment of the day. The rest of the set is largely a festival-pleasing slab of singles including last summer's greatest festival anthem "Please Stand Up", and whilst the crowd seem appreciative their enthusiasm is largely limited to clapping along. The sound's not doing them any favours either, with the bass and backing vocals overriding pretty much everything else. New song "A Trip Out", an upbeat blast of pop that could have come from one of Julian Cope's more listenable albums, sees Hamilton returning to the lead microphone and goes down every bit as well as the more familiar tracks. Time constraints on festival sets mean the fifteen minutes of general nonsense that frequently ends the band's own gigs is rather reined in, although Yan does manage to sing half the last song whilst being dangled upside down with his legs round Noble's neck, which I suspect is harder to do than it looks, and the guitarist only just manages to avoid dropping him on his head. Mind you it wouldn't be the first time.

Afternoon turns into evening as we head back to the Lake Stage where one of the most talked about acts of the moment is about to go onstage - GET CAPE WEAR CAPE FLY. He doesn't, rather disappointingly, have a cape. Perhaps he could have borrowed one from British Sea Power if he'd thought ahead a little. And yeah, we're back in Pleasantville - he starts fairly conventionally singer-songwritery, as opposed to the more electronic sounds we'd been expecting for some reason. "Stand up!!" He sounds a bit shirty but it works, people do and the mood is transformed. The sometime one-man-show actually has a band with him today and sounds rather Liam Frost-ish, and he's drawing a lot of people in, despite going up against both Patti Smith and Gomez. He even gets an encore and finally the music is how we'd imagined he'd be, twisted laptop electrobeat sprinkled with nu-folk. It's a lovely little stage and we'd have liked to stay down here a bit longer but for some reason his 8.30pm set is the last here. Most of the other stages are also close to packing up. I also realise at this point that I have about enough money left for one more pint - you forget, between summers, the ridiculous amount of money you can spend on nothing much at a festival - six quid pizza, fiver burger, three pound fifty pint...

Back in the Music and Film Arena, a screen is displaying the evidence of several people desperately trying to load computer files; soon there's a lo-fi, vaguely Situationist influenced flash-screen animation, whilst a crazy looking girl sings waywardly over some gleefuly squidgy techno. What's this then? We check the running order. "9.30 - Crazy Girl plus animations." Does exactly what it says on the tin. A crowd gathers slowly though most seem more interested in the costumed gladiatorial dance-fest going on somewhere in the dark space in the middle of the tent. The band eventually introduce themselves as PRODUCT01 - maybe the listing was their working title - and finish with Blondie's "Heart Of Glass", musically performed in the style of 65daysofstatic (if that's not beyond imagination) although with a stunningly accurate Debbie Harry impression from Crazy Girl.

By ten o'clock options are pretty limited and people are starting to drift off site already - friends who are down for the weekend tell us how last night the nominally 3am bars and dance tents all started to give up shortly after midnight. Oh well, there's always ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS. The main stage sound is still muddy, and once you've got over the fact that yes, that voice you couldn't avoid on the radio last year really does come from that odd looking big bloke in a wig, musically we're not a million miles from Simply Red's palatably boring soul-pop. Time to go home, and thank goodness we pre-booked that taxi... we do hope we can find it OK at the pick-up point... and of course we can, there's nobody there but a few bored marshals. There seems little point storing the cab firm's number for next year as it seems rather unlikely now there will be a next year; I dread to think how much money has been lost. It's such a shame because more so than most festivals I have been to it seemed everything was in place here, except the crowds.




pix by CA 2006


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