People tend to sneer at Latitude. They’re fond of calling it “middle-class” – which always leads me to imagine what a “working-class” festival might look like. Presumably a field full of soot-blackened cockneys with their thumbs in their bracers, bending their knees and bellowing “‘ave a banana” every six seconds.
Except it wouldn’t look like that at all. A genuinely “working-class” festival would feature N-Dubz, Cascada and the very real possibility of being knifed in the guts, and it would be absolutely horrible.
I’m not going to lie. Latitude is posh. There was a moment on Saturday afternoon when a ballet was taking place on the banks of the lake. Gondolas were scudding past, laughter was tinkling in the air… it was basically David Cameron’s idea of a “cracking family day out.”
But that’s just one, easily ridiculed, part of what goes on at Latitude. In fact, this year it wasn’t the poshness that stood out, so much as the overarching flamboyance and theatricality. In the nicest possible way, Latitude 2009 was the gayest festival I’ve ever been to.
And by that I don’t mean that Thom Yorke came onstage dressed in a muscle vest singing Cher’s ‘Believe’. Merely that the acts who elicited the most enthusiastic reaction – Grace Jones, Pet Shop Boys, Patrick Wolf, Of Montreal, Wild Beasts – were ones who exhibited a measure of elaborate camp.
Pet Shop Boys went furthest in this respect. They were joined onstage by a troupe of dancers wearing lurid leotards and boxes covering their heads. A striking look, although possibly a hazard when navigating the backstage toilets for a pre-gig slash.
There were moments when PSB threatened to “do a Springsteen” – ie stubbornly play unfamiliar material until large sections of the crowd turn to stone.
But they rescued it at the end with a staggering, strobe-enhanced version of ‘It’s A Sin’, followed by ‘West End Girls’, which only fleetingly made me think of Flight Of The Conchords’ ‘Inner City Pressure’.
Meanwhile, their cover of Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ skewered the billowing vapidity of stadium rock in the same arch manner as their hi-NRG electro rendering of U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ did twenty years ago.
You assume Of Montreal were watching from the wings, because earlier on the same stage the Athens, Georgia band delivered a show that displayed Neil Tennant-esque levels of visual verve and inventiveness (although on about a millionth of the budget).
Highlights? Aside from frontman Kevin Barnes’ remarkable get-up – think Buck Rogers does ‘Swan Lake’ – we were treated to: three men in gas masks spraying poison at a fourth, a spandex-clad berserker smearing fake blood over his chest, and a bloke in a deformed pig outfit wriggling out of his skin before vaulting onto another man’s shoulders in one fluid movement.
It’s the kind of thing you just don’t get at a Kings Of Leon gig. It’s also the kind of show that makes everything you see afterwards seem tired and bloodless and hollow. We’re looking at you, White Lies.
Someone must have circulated a ‘be outrageously flamboyant’ memo backstage, because even Patrick Wolf excelled himself, striding onstage sporting a gleaming white breastplate in the shape of a treble clef, and bringing on a dancer who resembled a cross between Little Richard and the glossy-permed Soul Glo bloke from ‘Coming To America’.
The crowd were hypnotised by Wolf’s sheer self-confidence. He generally bestrode the stage in the manner a pop goliath riding a mechanical elephant in triumph through Wembley Stadium – rather than a middling indie musician who’s just scraped on to the 6 Music playlist.
You’ve got to admire the man’s balls. Although one suspects a supreme narcissist such as Wolf already spends enough time admiring his own.
Against this theatrical backdrop, you might expect Thom Yorke to seem a little downbeat – and to begin with he certainly gave the impression of being the world’s most pessimistic rock star. “This is a new song,” he told the crowd before playing the ‘Street Spirit’-esque ‘The Present Tense’. “So you know, go for a piss.”
But no-one was buying Yorke’s grumpy-old-man routine. This was a performance of jaw-dropping elegance and emotional heft.
Set-closer ‘True Love Waits’, in particular, was astonishing. One of Yorke’s most twisted and unsettling love songs (“I’ll dress like your niece/To wash your swollen feet”), here, in front of the weekend’s biggest crowd, it was almost indecently compelling.
There was even a bit of humour, towards the end. Referring to Grace Jones’ headline set the previous night, Yorke wondered aloud if he should come on stage wearing a G-string. Give the flesh-baring flamboyance on display elsewhere, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.