Latitude festival review – bohemian stupor kept at bay by eclectic mix

Saturday headliners Mumford & Sons at Latitude festival.
‘Baffling adoration for a dreary, ersatz band’ … Saturday headliners Mumford & Sons at Latitude festival. Photograph: Pete Summers/REX/Shutterstock

If the Church of England is the Conservative party at prayer, Latitude is BBC Radio 4 at play. Now in its 12th year, this most rarefied and genteel of the UK music-based summer festivals is so gently eclectic that it is easy to see how it has earned its affectionately mocking nickname of Lattetude.

It’s certainly true that its more earnest bohemian affectations – the waterside ballets and yoga classes – are easily ridiculed. Latitude can tip into self-parody: the Sunday lunchtime crowd reclining on the grass to watch middle England and Classic FM icon Katherine Jenkins being punted across a lake to trill Somewhere over the Rainbow and You’ll Never Walk Alone could be Henman Hill transposed to Suffolk.

Yet this year’s Latitude bill is sufficiently varied and stimulating that over the weekend you get the sense that you might be missing out on numerous occasions: the litmus test of any festival. Do you want to watch Alison Goldfrapp, a vision in crimson from her dramatic mop to her thigh-high PVC boots, pout through her band’s lush electro-glam, or head to the Faraway Forest for Brexit: The Gameshow, a Have I Got News for You-style boggle at the ghastliness of Iain Duncan Smith and Paul Dacre?

Faris Badwan of the Horrors at Latitude festival.
‘Fey glam alien’ Faris Badwan of the Horrors at Latitude festival. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

On the main stage on Friday it’s clear that the Horrors, a band who can often appear derivative, are having a bit of a moment. They look to have mutated into purveyors of feral, agitated motorik with a chip on its shoulder, and Faris Badwan’s new fey glam alien image suits him.

On the comedy stage, Dara Ó Briain is regretting growing old and outdated: “The 1975 are headlining later, and I have no idea who the fuck they are!” His ignorance is not shared by the thousands of teenage festival-goers who flock to the Obelisk stage and dissolve into hysteria.

The 1975’s shrill electro-pop can sometimes sound like mid-chart TOTP filler tracks from 1985, but even when the songs are not all that, they get by on will and chutzpah. Matt Healy is a pop star to the toes of his winklepickers: “Festivals are great – too many drugs, but that never hurt anybody!” he smirks, arguably a tad inaccurately, chain-smoking and swigging red wine from a plastic pint glass.

Out on the fringes, literary event Come to Where I’m From sees writers muse on place and identity, with Kefi Chadwick sharing affecting words of love and betrayal in Brighton. Elsewhere, Cosey Fanni Tutti admits life in avant-noise pioneers Throbbing Gristle’s commune was not all plain sailing: “Gen [Genesis P-Orridge] used to hate me doing the Hoovering. He said it was too straight.”

Latitude’s musical bill is a seriously broad church. Karen Elson’s skeletal siren songs for love laid low suggest a 21st-century Sandy Denny, while the Lemon Twigs’ episodic, rococo rock nods to both Queen and Meat Loaf. Resplendent in a feather cut, the shirtless, high-kicking Michael D’Addario could be Ronnie Wood’s grandson: he’s been tagged as a hipster but looks a genuine rock’n’roll animal.

The field is packed for Saturday headliners Mumford & Sons but it is a baffling adoration. They are such a dreary, ersatz band: you grow your own beard listening to earnest pap like White Blank Page. Even the influx of vitality that is Baaba Maal can’t redeem the set: here is folk music for people who don’t like folk music.

Getting by on will and chutzpah … the 1975 at Latitude festival.
Getting by on will and chutzpah … the 1975 at Latitude festival. Photograph: Pete Summers/REX/Shutterstock

In a woodland grove on Sunday, Yorkston/Thorne/Khan meld guitar, double bass and Indian sarangi into skittering, wayward tunes that are as intriguing as they are incongruous, especially when they cover Ivor Cutler. The formidable Mavis Staples incorporates Talking Heads and Buffalo Springfield into her cabaret-like set, but the Jesus and Mary Chain, mumbling silhouettes swathed in smoke and feedback, are such a throwback that it is positively quaint.

Playing their first UK show for six years, final-night headliners Fleet Foxes take the stage to a half-empty field. This may be no surprise. The US band are noted for their gossamer melodies and golden, interwoven harmonies but, live, are not exactly renowned for their visceral thrills.

The craftsmanship underpinning new songs such as Fool’s Errand is immaculate but even a fan’s accepted onstage marriage proposal can’t prevent the crowd from gradually lapsing into a gentle stupor. The pounding dance beats bleeding into the field from Fatboy Slim’s neighbouring second-stage set just sound so much more fun: when it comes to its headliners, and with exception to the 1975, even Latitude may need to think less Radio 4 and more Radio 1.