Highlights: Latitude Festival - Day One (17/07/2009)

Seb Perry | Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Highlights: Latitude Festival - Day One (17/07/2009)

It may seem odd to say, but there is such a thing as too good a festival. With Latitude's line-up this year positively overflowing with talent both old and new, there were inevitably scheduling clashes - meaning some agonising choices for the hungry music-goer. Ladyhawke or Fever Ray? Bat For Lashes or the Pet Shop Boys?

And that was just on the designated music stages. Taking a wander around the festival site in Henham Park, Suffolk, you could find all manner of unexpected musical delights. Reedy-voiced ex-Soft Boys singer Robyn Hitchcock strumming in the Literary Arena, for example, or the potty-mouthed, Jarvis-meets-Lily social commentary of Ruby and her Whorses - with biliously-titled songs like 'Turns Out I Hate You (You Sneaky Little Fuck)'.

Taking up a nightly residency on a floating stage in the middle of the lake, the Irrepressibles delivered ghostly string-laden operatics reminiscent of Antony and the Johnsons. Meanwhile in the film tent, Patti Plinko and her Boy served up raucous drinking songs, her Tom Waits-style vocals lurching between breathy, mouth-full-of-gravel whispers and frightening lupine howls. The screening of a documentary about Vashti Bunyan was followed by a musical tribute led by folk singer Adem, who treated us to beguiling covers of Tim Buckley's 'Song to the Siren' and '60s king of twee Donovan's 'Happiness Runs'.

Friday's line-up on the Uncut stage began underwhelmingly with Faroese indie songwriter Teitur, who squandered the up-tempo magic of his best-known track 'Catherine The Waitress' amid a succession of languid waltzes. All was redeemed, however, by the Mummers, who seem to have emerged into the spotlight with a wildly eclectic sound that is wholly their own. A melee of fairground music and brass band jazz anchored around Raissa Khan-Panni's gorgeous childlike voice; it culminated with a mash-up version of Passion Pit's 'Sleepyhead'. Why their debut album Tale To Tell wasn't nominated for the Mercury is a complete conundrum.

New Yorkers Chairlift followed, but struggled to maintain interest after playing 'Bruises', the track used to advertise the iPod Nano. Neil Hannon also made a welcome return later in the day with his new collaborative project The Duckworth Lewis Method, although its marriage of pop catchiness with smug whimsy hardly makes it a radical departure from his Divine Comedy days.

In the unlikeliest scheduling choice of the whole festival, Of Montreal lit up the main stage with their fuzzy guitar-and-electronica insanity, frontman Kevin Barnes revelling in Bowiesque androgynous costumery while lackeys in animal masks acted out strange dumb-shows behind him. Their albums can be infuriatingly self-indulgent, but here they wisely stuck to the most melodic and accessible parts of their back catalogue, such as the glorious 'Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse'.

For all that, the crowd were much more interested when Ladyhawke appeared, though Pip Brown's impassive poise is far less entertaining to look at. It's true there are a handful of killer singles on her debut, but too many of the songs dissolve into an indistinguishable blur - making her live set something of a snorefest.

Brown was later to be seen backstage watching the Pretenders' set - hopefully taking notes, because Chrissie Hynde put in one of the weekend's defining performances. She may be pushing 59 but her voice hasn't aged at all, and she had a limberness and energy onstage that put most of the day's younger artists to shame. The band mostly stuck to the hits - including a "cheesey" 'Brass in Pocket' and rousing 'I'll Stand By You' - but even a scattering of new tracks like 'Break Up The Concrete' stood up well alongside.

While Little Boots packed out the woodland Sunrise Tent, '80s new wavers Squeeze charged through a short greatest hits set - singer Glenn Tilbrook in fine voice - before giving way to Bat For Lashes. Now that she's been nominated for the Mercury Prize, there's probably going to be a backlash (batlash?) against Natasha Khan's Kate Bushisms, mystical mumbo-jumbo and penchant for preposterous costumes. Live, what really held the set together wasn't so much Khan's singing as the remorseless hypnotic rumble of Sarah Jones's drumming. Seriously, whatever the record company's paying her, they should double it. 'Pearl's Dream' and 'Daniel' in particular were stunningly rendered, and ample consolation for missing all but the Pet Shop Boys' closing song on the main stage, an impeccable 'West End Girls'.