Thursday, 23 July 2015

Latitude 2015 - The tenth, and best yet?

This was my eighth Latitude, and although I missed the first two I have still witnessed the steady growth in size and status of East Anglia's premier music festival. Despite loyally returning annually since that first visit in 2008, by last year I was beginning to feel that it had started to lose a lot of its 'wow' factor, perhaps through over-familiarity. Perhaps, like a lot of relationships, Latitude and I had developed something of a seven year itch. To be honest, the four days in Henham Park had started to become something of a routine, albeit a familiar and still enjoyable routine.

This year was heralded as a celebration of ten years of Latitude, and as such we were promised some surprises and changes. To be honest, the advance announcements did not seem to offer anything particularly earth-shattering in terms of line-up. Headlining the Obelisk Arena on Friday would be Alt-J, making it their third appearance at Latitude in four years. Portishead on Saturday was an exciting prospect for me, having never had the chance to see them perform live before, but three albums in 21 years hardly makes them relevant to anyone under thirty. Having never seen a Gallagher brother play live, and despite having followed Oasis since the days of Definitely Maybe, I was in two minds about Noel's High Flying Birds. Like a lot of fans, I really wanted to hear Wonderwall and Champagne Supernova more than I did a bunch of new songs, and there was no guarantee of that, any more than there was a chance of Melvin Benn persuading Liam to bury the hatchet and appear alongside his brother just to make the tenth Latitude more special.

Still, buy a ticket I did (paid for in cash through the Norwich Arts Centre, thereby avoiding all those booking fees, transaction charges and postage costs meaning that you only pay the face value of the ticket), and took the familiar 45 minute journey from just South of Norwich, via Beccles, to Henham.

One thing that has got progressively better each year is the signposting and stewarding on arrival. In the early days the advertised time of opening on the Thursday afternoon would frustratingly arrive and pass with queues snaking back from the campsite entrances whilst final health and safety checks were still being completed. Similarly, entrance to the arena was often tardy with security checks aggravating the bottlenecks, meaning that some performers were starting before the crowds had even managed to get in. This year, I was through the wristband exchange without any delay despite timing my arrival to coincide with the gates first opening, and breezed through the arena security checks each day without missing any of the first acts.

And it was nice to see that, after ten years, a bit of money had finally been spent on some new signage - the 'Latitude' lettering by the lake had been upgraded with some bright new shiny versions, as had the 'Welcome' fascia as we entered the arena, although the high-tech indudstrial metallic material (similar to the stuff currently being used to re-clad Birmingham's New Street railway station) seems slightly at odds with Latitude's rural and eco-friendly credentials. Whilst the BBC Radio 6 Arena's familiar blue and yellow striped big-top was back, and the I-Arena and Lake and Waterfront stages all looked exactly the same, we had a big brand new Obelisk Arena, complete with confusingly arranged Laititude lettering either side of the main stage. A stroll along the newly created 'Ollie's Walk' took us along the west bank of the lake, past the new swimming access, to a new structure, the corrugated iron and wooden 'Other Voices' stage. Resembling a cross between a chapel and a village hall, this small intimate venue was scheduled to host a programme of  from Young Fathers to The Unthanks.

Having got slightly disorientated by coming through the Stables Gate entrance instead of the more usual Tuttles Wood Gate, I ended up pitching the tent in a different spot to previous years. As I have got older, I have moved away from the noisier 'yellow' camping and now take up residence in the slightly calmer environs of  the 'red' areas, and this year ended up strategically equi-distant from the toilet blocks and the noodle van. The lighting from one of the nearby watchtowers also meant that I would not need to worry about fumbling around for torches in the middle of the night.

As well as being a day for arrival, Thursday is also a day for exploring the village, finding out who is giving away free samples (last year's McVities cereal bars almost meant that I did not need to buy any food), and hopefully finding some evening entertainment. In the past this has been a bit hit and miss - last year we had the amazing White Mink hosting in the Film and Music Arena, another year we had Nigel Kennedy on the Lake Stage, and one infamous year we had Tom Jones in the woods at midnight. This year was a chance to catch a spellbinding performance of 'Titanium', a mix of flamaenco, breakdance and hip-hop hosted by Sadlers Wells on the Waterfront Stage, followed by a floating spectacle, 'Un Mondo Pieno Di Sogni' (literally, 'A World Full of Dreams'), especially created by Studio Festi to commemorate Latitude's 10th birthday. To a classical soundtrack, performers are floated down the lake in dream-like costumes - giant ball-gowns, ballet dancers and an illuminated seahorse drift up and down the lake on motorised rafts to ethereal effect. As the performance ends a giant firework display erupts from behind the Obelisk Arena.

Passing on the chance to dance in the woods until 3am, I opt instead to conserve energy for the three days of music ahead of me. I have to be realistic. It is not just Latitude that is ten years older this year.

As predicted, the weather over the next three days was absolutely glorious, and instead of mud the arenas were transformed into a blanket of dust and fine straw that rose in clouds as we danced, and coated us with a fine layer that only a daily shower (or a swim in the lake) would ever fully remove. A lie down or a rest on the grass meant a five minute dust-down afterwards to remove the tell-tale dried vegetation from our clothes. This certainly helped to avoid the mass migration of picnic blankets and folding chairs into the Radio 6 big-top arena that happened in previous years everytime a cloudburst threatened, and meant that the Obelisk acts had a respectable audience right from the off. It also meant that more people were able to cram into the big-top for the most popular acts, and able to form giant moshpits for bands like Savages, Wolf Alice, and The Vaccines.

Personally, it seemed like a weekend of constant flitting between stages, catching half a set of a lot of bands that I half-wanted to see, having to be brutal in ignoring those that I had seen recently before, and prioritising those from overseas that I perhaps would not get a chance to see again in the UK for some time. There were, as always is the case at festivals, some regrettable clashes, meaning that I had to choose between Laura Marling and Jane Weaver, Warpaint and Years & Years, and Kwabs and The Boomtown Rats, and once again I failed to realise my ambition of visiting some of the other non-music stages.

New (to me) acts that impressed included 21 year old soul and pop chanteuse Izzy Bizu, Melbourne based punk-poppers King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Pensylvanian rock'n'rollers The Districts, and Scottish psychedelians Neon Waltz. Also promising on the Lake Stage  were Georgia and French singer Petite Mellor, although long delays setting up the sound for both meant that each had their set times cut back significantly.

Acts that I had wanted to see, and exceeded expectations, were Savages, Wolf Alice, Young Fathers, and Manic Street Preachers. Those that slightly disappointed included Summer Camp, Warpaint, Alt-J, Tom Robinson, and King Creosote. What I saw of Badly Drawn Boy seemed reasonable, although he apparently went off on one towards the end of his set. Laura Marling was lovely, although seemed so far away alone on the Obelisk stage, and I had to leave early to claim my spot to see Savages. Nitin Sawney was magical, and his trio of female singers absolutely matched his guitar and the tabla to hypnotic effect.

Public Service Broadcasting failed to use their unique-selling-point to full effect in the big-top, choosing to only show accompanying visuals on a small screen at the back of the stage rather than project them onto the two large screens either side of the stage. They also failed to play most of their latest opus 'The Race for Space', choosing instead to mix in tracks from previous releases The War Room, Night Mail and Inform-Educate-Entertain. A missed opportunity to impress cohesively, perhaps?

Sunday on the Obelisk Arena was spoiled for me by the take-over of reality television. Not only did we have to settle for a second-best 'lunchtime spot' with the appearance of Gareth Malone and his Voices choir, but later on Edith Bowman took over for the final of something called Guitar Star, which I believe is some kind of musical talent show on Sky Arts? Sorry Latitude, but this is unforgivable dumbing down. If you want to book a choir, bring back the Kolacny Brothers and Scala, but better still put Ed Sheeran and Thom Yorke up there where we can all see them, rather than smuggling them into the woods in the early hours to perform unannounced to the lucky few.

As this was the first time in eight years that I had actually watched all three Obelisk headliners, I guess that Latitude did, overall, come up with the goods, although Alt-J is still not exactly my cup of tea. However, Beth Gibbons' voice is something else, even after 21 years, and Portishead really did make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end.

Noel obliged us with some Oasis classics, and the obligatory barbs at Latitude's perceived audience of mainly middle-class, Guardian-reading, Waitrose-shopping, middle-aged hippies. He also accused us all of being animal-murdering farmers at one point, although he tried to turn this into a compliment, thanking us for continuing to provide him with a 'nice piece of meat'. I suspect his tirades are all well-scripted and designed not to further scupper his own working-class credentials, and a little glimmer in his eye suggested that we were not to take it too seriously. After all, as he pointed out, the royalties for 'Wonderwall' will continue to ensure that his kids will not go hungry for a while yet.

So, ten years on and what is the verdict? Well, Latitude is certainly convenient to get to if, like me, you live in Norwich. It certainly provides three packed days of music, including some big names, along with some pleasant surprises. Has it improved over the ten years? Undoubtedly, although this 10th anniversary edition still did not pull a name out of the hat to compete with Radio 1's Big Weekend earlier this year in Earlham Park. I guess Muse, Taylor Swift and the Foo Fighters were a big triple-act to follow, and may have proved ultimately to have pissed on Melvin Benn's parade. Nevertheless, on a gloriously hot July weekend, in the words of Clean Bandit, there's still probably 'no place I'd rather be'.

For a selection of my photographs of those acts that appeared at Latitude this year please visit my Facebook album at :

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Malaya Blue at the Walnut Tree Shades

I decided to take a bit of a walk on the wild side on Sunday afternoon. Despite having lived in Norwich for over thirty years I had never entered the small passageway that leads off Gentlemans Walk between Lloyds Bank and H.Samuel the jewellers. I had been warned that to stray up there could potentially lead to a life of slot machine addiction, and the thought of becoming reliant on the proceeds of petty crime in order to feed a small room full of one-armed bandit machines had never very much appealed. What I had not realised was that, if I made it past the amusement arcade a delightful pub called the Walnut Tree Shades awaited. And if I didn't want to run the gauntlet of marauding gamblers and their bags of twenty pence coins, I could even approach instead by skirting round into Castle Street and entering via Old Post Office Court (for that is what it is called), between Body Shop and Optical Revolution. Either way, thirty years was too long a time to not have a pint in a pub so close to all the city centre amenities.

This American-styled retro diner and watering hole offers a good value food menu upstairs that currently offers two main courses for £10, yet still retains a lot of the charm downstairs drawing from its Victorian past but updated with music and sports based memorabilia on the walls, a jukebox, and a useful range of beers. But the main thing that drew me here last Sunday afternoon was a rare Norwich appearance by celebrated local jazz blues singer songwriter Malaya Blue.

With her exotic name, sultry good looks and powerful stunning voice, Malaya Blue has created more than a ripple in the blues world since her self-released album 'Bourbon Street' came out last year. The last twelve months have seen her and her band travelling the country, including appearances at the Jazz Cafe in Camden and London's 100 Club. Unfortunately for me this has meant fewer appearances in Norwich so, despite being tipped the wink about her last summer it has taken me until now to actually hear her sing.

It is a tightly packed Walnut Tree Shades that welcomes Malaya Blue to the microphone stand and whilst it would be lovely to stand close to the band, the regulars and loyal supporters have bagged the best spots leading the three of us to find seats at a table further back. Whilst we may not have a front row view we still get the full meal deal when the band starts to play. This afternoon's lineup includes guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and sax, and the sound is set up just right to allow the vocals to carry right through the Shades' bar, yet still allow the instrumental solos to receive full appreciation. The band are tight, and whilst creating an authentic bluesy vibe their are still familiar influences peppered throughout, including occasional tell-tale snatches of The Animals' sixties-style keyboards and an 'Us and Them' inspired sax solo reminiscent of Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon'.

Malaya's voice rises seamlessly through subtle and mellow right up to a chandelier shaking rambunctiousness when she turns up the volume, yet the control and precision never allows a duff note to sneak past. The timbre is cleaner and more clinical than some of the legendary rock blues greats like Maggie Bell and Janis Joplin. At times their is a hint of country sneaking in à la Bonnie Raitt, but individuality shines through as she delivers one self-penned number after another, introducing only one cover into the entire set.

So, at the end of a late afternoon diversion from my usual Sunday routine I have to thank the friends that have repeatedly encouraged me to listen to Malaya Blue, and Claire and Dale at the Walnut Tree Shades for providing yet another fine live music venue within the city walls. I will certainly return for food and refreshment at some point in the not too distant future, and will also be scanning the listing pages for Malaya Blue's return to Norwich (she will be back at the Shades in November, and before that is a date at Norwich's Waterfront on September 23rd).

Keep track of what is on at The Walnut Tree Shades via their own website at
and if you want to check out Malaya Blue's touring schedule (or buy a copy of 'Bourbon Street') go to

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Marty O'Reilly and The Old Soul Orchestra at Norwich Arts Centre

It's not often that Norwich is graced with a visit by a top Californian bluesman, although Marty O'Reilly is quick to point out that his music is also influenced by Folk, Gospel and American Primitive as well as Delta Blues. He was first at Norwich Arts Centre last year, supporting fellow Californians Rainbow Girls, and like all good performers, harnessed the power of 'word of mouth' to ensure a good number of repeat attendees tonight. Indeed, some had already seen him play once already this tour at Maverick Festival in Suffolk only the previous weekend. The other noticeable thing about tonight's audience was the number of local musicians that had come along, some straight from their own performance as part of Norwich's 'Head Out Not Home' programme.

Appropriately enough, support tonight is provided by Andrew Duhon, a singer songwriter from New Orleans, and in the same way that you don't automatically expect bluesmen to come from California, you cannot expect musicians from New Orleans to automatically be bluesmen. Andrew's music is rooted in folk but with a definite Americana vibe. Often performing as a trio, tonight we get to see and hear him perform solo as he takes us through numbers from his Grammy-nominated album 'The Moorings'.

Marty O'Reilly takes the stage with his Old Soul Orchestra, comprising of drums, double bass and fiddle player, and soon sets out his stall, illustrating just why so many of tonight's audience are returning converts. Starting with a gospel number that takes us straight to the deep south, we are taken on a journey that may switch tempo, but never takes the foot off the gas when it comes to passion. Marty's voice and Resonator guitar perform like they are joined at the hip, whilst the other musicians add the rhythm and the embellishment to create a seamless blanket of blues based soul. His head just doesn't seem to ever stop rocking, as he crouches and contorts his body to wrestle out the last drop of emotion from himself and his instrument.

After a set which runs well past the one hour mark, and the statutory encore, we are all invited back into the Norwich Arts Centre bar area, where the band and Marty reconvene and deliver an impromptu 'unplugged' session for those not at risk of missing the last bus home. When you are treated to an evening like this, in the company of musicians who are dedicated to playing for the love of the music, things don't get much better than this.

Marty O'Reilly continues his UK tour with plenty more dates throughout July, before heading to Ireland in August. Full details on his website at , and the album 'Pray for Rain' is available on i-Tunes.

Andrew Duhon's album 'The Moorings' is also available on i-Tunes, and more details are on Andrew's website at 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Grant Lee Phillips and Sadie Jemmett at Norwich Arts Centre

It's apparently the hottest July day since records began, and lovely for those on the Norfolk coast or at the Royal Norfolk Show. Not so nice for those at work, or for those trying to get home through the numerous sets of roadworks that seem to be springing up all around Norwich at the moment.

We are now not only in the throes of our esteemed annual agricultural show, a chance for the farming community to pick the biggest bull and loveliest cow; today is also the third day of Wimbledon, meaning there are still a handful of British players still sweating it out in SW19; and we are now well into festival season, having hosted Radio 1's Big Weekend at the end of May, had a chance to watch Kanye do his thing on the telly at Glastonbury, and it is now nearly time to get our camping gear checked out ready for Latitude in a couple of weekends' time. Which means that the number of gigs takes a bit of a hiatus over the next couple of months, but not before tonight's real treat for fans of Americana.

Despite all this Summer sweltering and activity there is therefore a good crowd at tonight's Norwich Arts Centre gig featuring Grant Lee Phillips (formerly of Grant Lee Buffalo), as he performs a solo set as a conclusion to the UK leg of his current European tour. Next stop - Rennes in France.

But before Grant-Lee takes the stage we are treated to a female singer-songwriter whose name may well be new to some, although she recently played a couple of sets at Bedfords. Her name - Sadie Jemmett.

With a biography that is itself worthy of a film script, Jemmett has finally put down roots in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, after a ten year sojourn in London, preceded by a nomadic existence throughout Europe. A debut album in 2011, 'The Blacksmith's Girl', released on Judy Collins' Wildflower Records is about to be followed up with a second collection of highly personal self-penned compositions, 'London Love Songs'. In tonight's opener set she includes the title tracks from both albums, together with a selection of new songs, and the poignant 'Another Way To Be', written during the recording of 'The Blacksmith's Girl' in America whilst having to leave her young daughter back in the UK. On a sultry Wednesday evening, and battling to keep her guitar tuned in the heat, we are fed titbits of her musical and personal journey. The electric fan at the side of stage may not be cooling the air that much, but it certainly give her blonde hair the glamour effect.

Whilst Sadie Jemmett cites Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins amongst her musical heroes, the honest and confessional nature of her songwriting certainly reflects her own life experiences. Songs like 'Adventures in Sobriety' display her care for close friends, whilst 'Five Things I Noticed As I Walk to Camden Square' attempt a positive, almost nursery rhyme, spin on bringing up a child in challenging circumstances. With supermarket CD shelves forever racked up with so many pre-packaged short shelf-life artists it would be lovely to see a true talent like this emerge to reach a much wider audience. Spread the word.

Grant Lee Phillips has been driven across from Coventry by his road crew, but doesn't seem sure whether he is in the South or West of the country. Hell, what does it matter? He is here, and his legion of fans are treated to a solo set that covers everything from new, as yet unreleased, songs like 'Cry, Cry' and 'Smoke and Sparks' to the very first Grant Lee Buffalo album ('Jupiter and Teardrop' from the 1993 'Fuzz Box'). Often compared to Neil Young tonight, in the heat, a sweaty Phillips looks and sounds at times more like a laid-back Bruce Springsteen, and even manages to rock a little in 'Arousing Thunder'.

A member of the audience recalls having to eat baked beans for a month to save enough money to buy his albums, and a discussion about Crunchie Bars and Double Deckers confirms that it is a friendly and relaxed Grant Lee that is in the house tonight, clearly enjoying the chance to play an intimate set in the old church setting of Norwich Arts Centre ("I love what you guys have done with the place!")  to such loyal fans. He does not remember playing Norwich before, and apologises when he is reminded by those present on his last visit here in 1993. Abandoning the prepared setlist in order to ask the audience to shout out requests it comes as no surprise that 'Rock of Ages' and 'Truly, Truly' get a rendition. Another request, 'Vanishing Song' is performed perfectly as part of the encore, despite Phillips claiming not to have played it for ages. A true gentleman, and a much appreciated appearance, earning a standing ovation from many of the audience.

Back out into the sweltering heat of the Norwich night. Still no thunderstorm to clear the air, but a magical evening all the same.

Sadie Jemmett has a website at which includes full bio, links to social media pages, and a free download.

Grant-Lee Phillips has a comprehensive website at which has details of all Grant Lee Buffalo and Grant Lee Phillips releases.