LIVE: Latitude Festival 2021
Envisaging 40,000 people in the same field, watching bands, not socially distanced, and getting pissed together would’ve been some stretch of the imagination had you predicted it a few months back. But this weekend just gone, there we were hailing the return of Latitude Festival, and it was glorious.
It was a real life festival, and a real occasion for the ages given the torrid time we’ve all had to endure since the beginning of 2020. Basking beneath the beating sun, shoulder-to-shoulder with a similarly giddy crowd, it was a sanctuary from the world outside and gave us genuine hope for the safe return of live music events, both on a big and small scale.
Though some quarters still deemed a gathering of this size premature, Latitude Festival was granted ERP status by the government so could go ahead with solid restrictions in place, even having passed so-called ‘Freedom Day’. A negative lateral flow test taken preferably on the day of arrival was required upon entry - equally for those that’d been double jabbed - with more air circulation catered for in larger covered stages, and even air purification systems in more enclosed areas. It made for peace of mind, and hopefully provides proof that festival’s can dramatically reduce rates of transmission moving forwards.
Enough about the science, let’s get to the reason why we were all there: to see some incredible artists who’ve been starved of playing to packed crowds for the best part of 18 months. Though, that sadly didn’t go to plan for Fontaines D.C., Arlo Parks, and Billie Marten, all of which had to pull out with positive tests in the run up. That coupled with the sketchy weather report before the punters even arrived, it felt like a bad omen of sorts. Other than spoiling a few itineraries however, it was anything but.
Ducking the mass crowd flocking to beabadoobee’s Obelisk Arena set early Friday evening, Sinead O’Brien was the first offering of music on our list. Shimmering on stage to her unique poetic post-punk, the demure Irishwoman was followed by Isle Of Wight-ers Wet Leg, one of the hotly-tipped bands of the year appeased the never-ending queue to see them by inciting a mass sing-a-long to their infectious indie jam ‘Chaise Longue’.
After that, clashes galore. Perhaps intentional programming to disperse the crowd as evenly as possible, it meant choosing between Squid, Chubby and the Gang, or Goat Girl. Squid got the nod and were the proggy, rhythmic madness we’ve come to expect from Warp Records’ golden children. Dry Cleaning were typically droll, typically electric, and were even embarrassed about their status as headliners of The Sunrise Arena when they had absolutely no need, alas, no right to be. Hot Chip brought the bangers to the BBC Sounds Stage, paying homage to Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springstreen by ending with a euphoric cover of ‘Dancing In The Dark’, echoing a sentiment that quite literally, we all craved.
Meanwhile at the Obelisk Arena, Wolf Alice were proving their worth as a bonafide headline act. Twice Mercury Prize-nominated, album chart dominating, and absolutely loving the occasion, the hard-working four-piece juggled their riffier early tracks with their newfound emotional depth, Ellie Rowsell looking, sounding, and acting like the female rock icon we’ve been missing on these shores for some time.
The next-day hangovers were too real, but were swiftly banished by some ingenious programming on Latitude’s part, with Supergrass appearing on the main stage for a special guest afternoon set. It proved to be a masterstroke as the Oxford veterans bopped through a career-spanning set with ‘Moving’, ‘Richard III’, ‘Sun Hits The Sky’, ‘Alright’ and ‘Pumping On Your Stereo’ all making the grade. Remembering the best-part of their lyrics was perhaps more of a surprise, but it provided the perfect excuse to get back on the crispy bois almost immediately.
Los Bitchos brought as much psychedelic Cumbian heat inside the BBC Sounds Stage as the sun’s glare was outside, encouraging a tent-wide Uruguayan hand dance; Damon Albarn was later escorted to the Waterfront Stage via pontoon; Bad Sounds weren’t that bad at all despite the misleading moniker. Saturday headliners The Chemical Brothers did what they did best later that night as the Obelisk Arena brimmed with expectant ravers, battling through the rain with their expertly executed big-beat wizardry. Admittedly, after that point, the evening became a bit of a blur.
Sunday morning, the clock was ticking to make the most of this dream-like scenario before crashing back down to reality, so cramming in as much music as possible under the searing heat was the order of the day.
Irish shoegazers Just Mustard brought mid-afternoon drama and hella feedback; Rick Astley rick-rolled the entire crowd, bragging about being “stinking rich”, embracing his cheese-bag status, and keeping everyone hanging on for ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’; Anna Meredith admitted she’d expected the forecast rain to bring people into the tent to see her but pulled a sizeable crowd regardless; Liz Lawrence’s captivating grooves and on-the-nose lyricism was the find of the weekend - eagle-eyed indie aficionados would’ve noticed former The Maccabees drummer Sam Doyle filling in behind the skins as her drummer dropped out for unknown reasons prior to the festival. And thank heavens they did.
By the time Sunday’s co-headliners Bombay Bicycle Club took to the Obelisk Arena, the sheer emotion from even being at a festival was getting to everyone. The gentle indie giants let the floodgates open - tears were streaming, everyone was hugging, it was soul-soothing. It also helped ignite the deep recesses of my mind, given I recognised virtually every track they played having not listened to them for nearly a decade.
Dodging a bullet with painful indie poppers Bastille, Sons Of Kemet blasted away any residual tears, whose frenetic polyrhythms sent the BBC Sounds Stage into astral territory with Nubya Garcia joining them on stage for a saxophone sesh. Their enviable energy was exhilarating but exhausting, which meant only one thing: heading to the packed-out Comedy Arena for an hour-long set of ABBA bangers. Guilty as charged.
Given the dreadful weather across the south of the UK, with Standon Calling being a wash out and flash floods hitting London, Henham Park was truly blessed with beautiful weather for the most part. The stars aligned, and the collective freedom was intoxicating. Yes, at times Latitude Festival borders on the cheesier side of mainstream music, but if it’s this laidback, this liberating, then there’s no reason to give a shit.
Festivals and live music events have been unfairly vilified and single-out throughout this pandemic as potential super-spreaders, as unnecessary risks. Give Festival Republic and Melvin Benn their due, as it couldn’t have been any further from the fallout of pilot events we saw at the Euros recently. With sanitised safety, there’s absolutely no reason why festivals can’t continue to go ahead. Vive la festivals.