LIVE: We Out Here Festival 2021
A lot of festivals like to refer to themselves, their performers, and their fans as ‘family’. Sometimes it can come across as a little trite or insincere, especially when there’s no identifiable link between each of the component parts other than happening to be in the same field for a few days. Besides maybe the latest Fast and Furious movie, you’re unlikely to hear the word family quite so much from the main characters as at We Out Here Festival, which returned for an eagerly-anticipated second edition proper over the weekend.
Where others seem insincere, however, it’s hard to argue too much with this sentiment underpinning the festival which bills itself as ‘A Worldwide Family Gathering’. In both the most literal sense – the event is organised and run by Gilles Peterson and the team behind his Worldwide brand – and also more generally as fans travel from across the globe, as much as is physically possible at present, to be there.
The festival’s origins (and name) lie in a compilation released on Brownswood in 2018, a key chapter in the growth of the modern UK jazz scene which has its roots in South East London but has now spread beyond the SE postcodes. A quick cross-reference between the festival’s lineup and the personnel involved in that project, as well on Worldwide FM and Brownswood, gives a strong indication of the We Out Here’s commitment to that scene and the styles which shaped it – jazz, soul, dub, Afrobeat, garage, jungle, broken beat, hip-hop and beyond.
Probably the highlight of the entire festival came courtesy of Saturday night headliners and scene stalwarts Ezra Collective, putting beyond doubt the extent of their potential crossover appeal and their ability to play to the biggest of audiences, with others sure to receive them with just as much raucous enthusiasm as their ‘home’ crowd at We Out Here. The fact they walked on stage to the Breakage and Newham Generals’ seminal grime/dubstep crossover track ‘Hard’ before erupting into a Fela Kuti cover perfectly encapsulated their influences and energy right from the very top. And their willingness and desire to pay tribute to those that helped them get to this stage, both literally and metaphorically, was touching.
More than anyone else, it was the musical education and development organisation Tomorrow’s Warriors and their seismic impact on the scene – one that really cannot be overstated – which the band were keenest to point out in an impassioned speech. But there was love shown to other adjacent figures who have been supportive of the broader movement; the likes of Jamz Supernova and Tash LC among the many getting singled out. Naturally almost everyone mentioned in that speech also had a set somewhere across the weekend, be it stages hosted by Touching Bass or Total Refreshment Centre, the future generation of stars being showcased in the Tomorrow’s Warriors bands, or DJs like Benji B, Shy One, Josey Rebelle, or the aforementioned Jamz and Tash playing late into the night in the enchanting forest’s stages.
It was a heartening speech which had echoes of Gilles Peterson’s late night appearance at Rhythm Corner on the Thursday evening as part of his resurrected That’s How It Is club night, as he jumped on the mic at the end of the set to reflect on his and James Lavelle’s early forays into in the club scene at the beginning of the 1990s, and how the spirit of those nights and the eclecticism therein had shaped everything that followed. It was an eclecticism reflected on the bill for the night as DJ Mr Thing, DJ Krust, DJ Die, Ben Wilcox, MC Moose and the aforementioned Peterson and Lavelle all appeared on a stage adorned with the original That’s How It Is set design.
Another highlight, and one which felt very in-keeping with the spirit of the festival, had come earlier that evening while taking brief respite from the joyful but intense energy of the crowd at the Lush Life stage as the quick-mixing garage don Wookie gave way to fellow genre legend Zed Bias. While taking a stroll across the site, the ground-shaking bass of the impeccable Lemon Lounge soundsystem was irresistible, drawing us in to what turned out to be Bradley Zero playing a surprise dub set, taking full advantage of the perfectly engineered speaker stacks which encircled the tent, pointing inwards to a midpoint which offered rattled chests but pleasingly unperturbed eardrums. It was a moment which again reflected the magic at the heart of the festival, offering an experience that could so easily have been missed (as it was by so many) but something that will live long in the memory.
Another ‘special guest’ on the programme, this one somewhat better publicised in the sub-headline slot on the main stage on Friday evening, marked an impressive coup for the festival as multiple Grammy Award winner and celebrated weirdo Thundercat took the chance to stop by on his way to Green Man for a suitably eccentric jazz-funk odyssey.
The performance, as well as demonstrating the pulling power of a festival in its relative infancy, also highlighted the strength of the others around the bass virtuoso on the bill. Having been camped out at the main stage all day, Thundercat didn’t seem out of place with Yazmin Lacey, Nubiyan Twist, Steam Down, and Emma-Jean Thackray before, or headliner Yussef Dayes after. Equally on other days, Joe Armon-Jones, Nubya Garcia, KOKOROKO, Moses Boyd, and Sunday’s headliners Sons of Kemet all offered up their own individual and distinct take on the jazz spirit which unites them.
Like many families, We Out Here wasn’t without some slightly shambolic elements, many of which seemingly spawned from the festival tripling in capacity from 5000 at the debut edition in 2019 to 15,000 this time round. Having been there at the first instalment, there was definitely scope for an increased audience, but the sheer scale of it was perhaps not reflected in the required infrastructure. A morning coffee brought with it an hour-long wait for the solitary stall, lengthy queues at food vendors were exacerbated by poor signal making card payments incredibly temperamental, and the admirable cup deposit wasn’t hugely well communicated, with a single deposit station meaning another lengthy wait to return cups that inevitably ended up in bins (somewhat defeating the object).
But these are all issues which can be ironed out if the organisers decide to continue with the event at this size. And while the bigger crowds had the potential to detract from the intimacy of the family gathering feel, the sheer popularity of the event is testament to the scene and community which birthed it – one which has created a festival where Joy Orbison closing his set with drill edits felt every bit as justified in its inclusion as Dennis Bovell playing the lovers rock sounds that he pioneered. A family needs the different generations, the different approaches, the different attitudes. And at its heart, We Out Here is clearly created out of a love for the music which makes it.