“Son, go down to the water”: Mark Kozelek’s poignant tribute to Nick Cave

This year’s Latitude festival, set amid the lush greenery of Henham Park in Suffolk, will be remembered for its not-so-secret gigs. “Have you heard who the secret guest is tonight?” people would ask at random points, itching to tell you. Though the answer was always yes, everyone has, plenty of times.

All the loose lips created a logistical nightmare for staff at the ever-expanding festival (35,000 people attended over the weekend, up from 15,000 in 2006). It was summed up nicely by a reporter from the Telegraph: “The grand old duke of Yorke. He had 10,000 men. He marched them up to the top of the hill. And he kettled them in a pen.”

Ed Sheeran, Thom Yorke and Florence Welch performed lengthy sets to 1,000 or so excited teens, at around midnight, in a tent erected under a canopy of Suffolk pine. I’d never been to Latitude before — the two-tier “multi-arts boutique festival” that caters to, it seems, sixth formers and parents with children under 10 — but all the same, I didn’t fancy sacrificing my early morning hours to Yorke who, predictably, drove the captured kids to distraction with a set of minimal electronic noise.

My festival highlight, instead, was a cover of Nick Cave’s 1990 single “The Weeping Song” sung in a slow, emphatic drawl by the prolific Ohio-born songwriter Mark Kozelek. This took place in the sweltering circus-sized 6Music tent on Saturday afternoon. The track, which opens with the line “Son, go down to the water” and ends, “This is a weeping song, but I won’t be weeping long”, was Kozelek’s poignant tribute to Cave, whose 15-year-old son Arthur died last week after falling from a cliff edge on the East Sussex coast.

Latitude was Kozelek’s first show back after a much-discussed performance at the Barbican last month during which he made a series of poor jokes at the expense of a female Guardian journalist (the crassness of which became apparent to the singer, it seems, before he’d even finished making them). On stage, Kozelek wanders about like Hank from King of the Hill: belly out, military-trim hair unmoving, mic gripped like a beer can to his chest. His booming, distortion-inducing voice (quite the opposite of the way he sounds on record) kept breaking into squeals during the time it took to warm up, calling to attention the polite but bored teenagers waiting for lavish pop-rock newbies Wolf Alice to take the stage straight after.

Despite the small crowd, Kozelek seemed content. The heat was getting to him — “Throw me a fucking towel or something,” he cried mid-way through the set, “I’m sweating to death up here” — but he was having fun with friends, including Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and James Sedwards from the Oxford-based Nøught. Though billed as Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek played a number of songs from his personal catalogue, including “Ceiling Gazing” and “Caroline” from his stark but devastating 2013 collaboration album with The Album Leaf’s Jimmy LaValle, Perils from the Sea.

These are two achingly tender songs, rearranged on the day to suit the instrumentation on stage: Kozelek with two drummers and a single guitarist behind him (presumably just to get Shelley involved — the pair played largely the same beats) and a third floor tom that he whacked himself whenever the spirit moved him. The line-up lent his older tunes a more grungy, industrial sound, in keeping with the mood of his new album, Universal Themes, released at the start of last month.

This post was meant to form part of a Latitude highlights blog on www.newstatesman.com written by the magazine’s staff. The blog didn’t get made, though, so I posted mine here instead.