The first proper festival returns after Covid and 40,000 revellers are in the fields again for live music and entertainment.
I feel like saying to the coach driver, “Load up the time machine and take me back 2 years” as I board a ‘Big Green Coach’ from Leeds to Suffolk. I’m double jabbed and Covid negative and heading on a 6hour journey to take me back to a time where we danced in the sun, rain and mud, completely carefree, to the latest bands and artists on stages set across fields and forests.
It is surreal, and at first daunting to see so many people in one place, but once you are through the gates, the masks are off for 3 days and we behave as if nothing had ever happened – 2 hours in and you had actually forgotten about there being a world pandemic outside this festival bubble.
This is my first trip to Latitude, as I’m normally at Kendal Calling on this weekend, but as that festival fell, as so many did earlier this year, I looked to see which events were part of the government pilot scheme to guarantee that they would be on, and Latitude was top of the list.
It’s a bit posh for a northern lad to be honest, they say ‘Graars’ instead of ‘Grass’ here but the kids are very polite, and there are a lot of them, all ages from babies upwards – this is a family festival where the children roam free – mainly to collect the beer cups which they exchange at a rate of 10p an item – that’s a decent currency for an 8 year old!
There are more areas set aside for campervans, pre-erected tents, glamping and family camping than your bog standard camping fields, so it is clear about the audience they are trying to attract. Lots of charity stalls – the Woodland Trust, Greenpeace, RSPB to name a few – no end of great causes that you can contribute ‘the price of a cup of coffee’ per week to. That’s some expensive coffee I’m thinking, but maybe that’s the normal price here, I’m used to a cheap mug of Yorkshire Tea and there is definitely no sign of that in Henham Park.
There is also a ton of stuff other than music to get involved with, plenty of discussions at the Spoken Word tent and a fantastic comedy roster, with Katherine Ryan herself turning up only 1 month after giving birth, to deliver a set mid afternoon from notes written a few days previously. There is punting on the lake and even a wild swimming section, a huge kids field with helter-skelter and rides, an exclusive seated restaurant (already booked up – so forget it) and some zen healing fields too. You could quite easily get lost for a few days and to be honest I’d rather live in these 3 days forever, than go back to the ‘new normal’, which becomes more apocalyptic with every week that goes by.
The one thing that feels weird and everyone who attended will tell you this, we actually talked to each other, complete strangers, we laughed, chatted, ate and drank with people we have never met before. Sharing experiences of the last 18 months of hell and it was a cathartic experience. To the point where every minute was cherished, there were no downsides to this weekend – apart from the packing up and lugging your belongings back to the coach for your return to 2021 and the fresh hell of whatever stage the pandemic is at and finding that climate change is upon us already. This was 3 days of complete bliss, an escape so magical that the coming down to earth on Monday felt epically distraught, and all you wanted to do was to go back to those happier times.
What of the music I hear you all say? – Oh yes, let me tell you about that, as it’s really the whole point of the review right?
It was my first experience of seeing live music on a stage since Frank Turner played a solo set at York Barbican in March 2020. The first band I saw this weekend were on a small ‘Trailer Stage’ in the woods, and it was emotional – there were tears, of the good kind. I’d never heard of them, but they played the kind of music I wanted to hear, a low-fi country folk rock sound like Neil Young had joined the Black Keys for a night. They were a trio called ‘William the Conqueror’ and they probably couldn’t believe the audience of eager watchers in front of them – whooping for more and cheers of “One more song” which made them come back for another classic slice of Americana that would be forgotten come daybreak. The important thing was to prove we could all still do this – stand, nodding our heads approvingly, and then when the realisation that live music and festivals are back, a wave of feelings hit you like a freight train and you find yourself exaggerating all your emotions – hence this grown man in tears still trying to take photographs.
Straight after came Pete Pamf, who had mislaid his band so he had to play his guitar to backing drum beats and a few effects pedals, loops etc. Lyrics like “You’re a f*cking bitch” repeated several times over, with a dancing hula hoop girl in a silver outfit accompanying him. This did nothing but enhance the overall experience of the first evening – we hadn’t even started the weekend proper yet!!
Across the whole weekend, the artists trotted out on to the stage with a WTF expression on their faces, as if they were in a parallel universe, in most cases this was the first gig in 18 months and both band and audience were as one on that front. No social distancing meant we had some stage diving for Sports Team, Shame and a handful of others.
This line up was a good balance of the new and less new. We had The Chemical Brothers who brought 2 hours of dance music and lights amid lightning and the only rain during the weekend, which didn’t dampen the spirits.
Wolf Alice finally headlined a festival and deservedly so, their set on the first evening was a professional job, with a great mix of old and plenty of new stuff from their latest album. Probably the biggest rock noise on the main stage which tended to house more popular singer/songwriter types than full on noise merchant spectacles. That space was either the 2nd stage where Squid tore through an impressive and eclectic half hour and Dream Wife took the roof off with their infectious energy that just bursts through every song. Never have I witnessed the art of building a set to maximum energy at the final moment – they are a band to watch and potentially a headliner in years to come.
We also got a secret set from The Vaccines – with the perfect name for any post covid festival, they pulled out all the hits ending with ‘Post Break Up Sex’ and a huge singalong from a crowd that were spilling out of the sides of the tent.
The welcome return of Supergrass was an out-and-out highlight for me, and hearing the summer anthem of the 90’s (‘Alright’) played in the sunshine at a festival could not be bettered.
Jack Steadman from Bombay Bicycle Club played 2 sets, one as Mr Jukes earlier in the weekend and the second in BBC, who should really have headlined the Sunday night. Their appearance started with a shower of confetti for ‘Eat Sleep Wake’ and progressed through the best tracks of the last 2 albums. Bombay Bicycle Club gave way to Bastille with an orchestra, which felt a little lost on me after the brilliant performances earlier.
Bill Bailey was greeted like a rock god on the main stage and seemed to have more instruments than any person needed for a half hour stand up routine, although we did get the ‘Enter Sandman’ Metallica horns. Elsewhere on site Damon Albarn drew a huge audience at the waterfront stage, but his current preference for self indulgence washed over most that attended, that is, until he played Blur’s ‘This is a Low’, which ironically was the high point of his set.
Mabel and Self Esteem brought the dancers on for each of their sets on the main stage, Mabel winning for me on the day, and the main stage also saw inspired performances from newer artists like Maisie Peters, Griff and Beabadoobee, for once the girls were taking centre stage at a main festival – lets hope other organisers take note in the future.
One of the most welcomed returns was for Rudimental and the timing of their energy filled performance won them plenty of new fans, they probably also won the prize for most band members until Bastille’s orchestra appeared.
There was a lack of choice in alcohol unless you were keen on Carlsberg Lager or Somersby Cider – you were not given an alternative in the main bars, and as a result the only craft beer stall ran out on day 2. That however, was the only oversight of a truly fantastic family festival, which felt very safe and ran like clockwork, which under the circumstances we find ourselves, was a massive achievement for the organisers.
All in all, whilst I thought that it was about missing the live music element, I quickly realised that it was actually the loss of the whole festival experience that I had been grieving over. Even the lack of washing and toilet facilities were overcome by just being here again and enjoying the company of strangers, the fantastic array of streetfoods to try – I had squid!! The sights and sounds throughout the day, even trekking up a hill about 20 times to see a band I’d never heard of wasn’t a chore, it just felt like I’d come home.
Latitude – I will return!!
All words and photos by John Hayhurst (@snapagig)