Time again for Latitude – my tenth. My first was in 2012; and notwithstanding the mud, I got the bug. I’ve been every year since then, with the exception, of course of lockdown year, 2020. Accompanied always by my friend Jon, who started the year before me, and a revolving cast of family and friends – though never our wives!
Last year was special for being the first event we could attend after the lockdown restrictions began to be lifted. I remember how weird it felt as we drove to the festival – were we really be allowed to gather again and enjoy live music? Allowed – we had been deprived of such basic freedoms, the activities that raise our spirits and nurture our creative souls; and for the most part had meekly accepted it. The new normal was retreating into ourselves, or communing online – and then slowly but surely we emerged from our shells. Some countries, some communities, faster than others. Some recklessly, perhaps; but we wanted our lives back. We knew the restrictions were necessary; but we know now how easy it is to lose our freedoms, how easy it is for the state to control us, in the face of an external threat. No wonder dictators everywhere regard the creation of external enemies and hidden threats as a crucial tool in controlling their populations.
So Latitude 2021 was the first step back into freedom. Momentarily it felt extraordinary – and emotional – as we cast aside our masks and reacquainted ourselves with the joys of live music. The south London band William the Conqueror will always have a place in my heart for playing the first live sounds I’d heard for sixteen months. There in the Trailer Park on the Thursday evening, that first guitar solo brought a tear to my eye.
One thing was starkly missing last year – the Lake Stage. This was always one of our great favourites. With the acts curated by the BBC’s Huw Stephens, it was a fantastic showcase for up-and-coming bands and artists. Its position by the arena’s main thoroughfare meant that you’d often stop by and see performances that you hadn’t planned to see. And discover some great artists in the process. That’s where I first saw Idles, whose raucous show in 2017 was followed by a massive conga into the woods on the other side of the lake! In 2019, I got myself a paella one afternoon and wandered down to the Lake Stage to see who was on. The sounds were jazzy and soulful, the singer’s voice strikingly beautiful. It was Celeste. It was so good I stayed for the rest of her show. Lots of other people did the same. She was soon to become a star.
The hope was it was a temporary absence, the result of the pandemic. But no, when the line-up was first published this year, there was no Lake Stage. Pushed out by the need for more space for sponsored bars and more food stalls. This year we had new, branded bars for gin, vodka and tequila, as well as a new wine bar, all in prime territory. We lost the Poetry Tent a few years ago; now the Lake Stage has suffered the same fate. Victims of the creeping commercialisation and gentrification of the festival. Very lucrative for Festival Republic, I’m sure; not so good for the poets, the singers, the bands hoping that Latitude could help take their careers to a new level.
Still, if it helps the festival to remain viable and to create an experience that appeals to people of all ages, to families as much as individuals, then you just have to remind yourself that everyone gets different things from the festival. Everyone has their own Latitude. And I appreciate the greater variety and quality of food as much as anyone. Nor do I hesitate to step into the Taphouse, now our meeting point of choice for a beer after a show. And where is it located? Bang on top of where the Lake Stage used to be!
Jon and I are slowly turning the Latitude experience into a week’s excursion. Last year we stayed overnight on Wednesday in a Suffolk village called Campsea Ashe, so we’d only have a short drive to Henham Park on Thursday morning. That worked so well, we decided to go up on Tuesday this year and have a day’s walking on the Wednesday. The Suffolk coast, with its long shingle beaches and nearby marshlands, is a walker’s delight. We kept it fairly simple on Wednesday: seven miles or so, first along the beach from Walberswick to Dunwich – where the cliffs are slowly falling into the sea – and back through woodland and then the marshes. Breathtakingly beautiful under those big skies.
We were six this year: me and Jon, Louis and Gab and Hywel and Rebecca, who’d joined us for the first time last year. I think they’ve got the bug now! Thursday was the usual mixture of setting up camp, whiling away the afternoon, catching a bit of the limited music on offer, and sitting in various bars. Jon and I chose a table outside the new wine bar as we waited for Louis and Gab to arrive mid-evening. On the site of the much-loved Danish bar, itself the usurper of… the Poetry tent.
The musical highlight of Thursday, or more precisely Friday morning, was a band called Cooks but we’re Chefs. They hail from Ireland and play a very catchy jazz funk-rap fusion that took me back to my 80s soulboy days (oh yes!). I caught them by chance, as I walked by the Trailer Park, on the way back to the campsite. I could hear dance music from a sound system and thought I’d take a peek. But as soon as I entered I could hear those jazz funk rhythms coming from the music stage. It was 11.45. I thought I’d stay for ten minutes. I left at the end of the show at 12.30. Loved it. Great music and very engaging performers. Latitude knew they were onto a good thing – Cooks but We’re Chefs were booked for a late show on the Trailer Park every night of the festival.
Friday 22 June
We started the music with a double dose of modern punk in the Alcove, now the main venue for new bands, though that was always its essential function. First up The Oozes, described as a London-based queercore band. They were new to me, but they have a dedicated following and a strong focus on gender issues. And they rocked! I loved their sound, which had plenty of punk thrash, but also some jerky, danceable beats. And then there were the screams. I did worry about the singer’s vocal chords at one point! There was a real energy about them – and they looked like they were having fun. They might be addressing some serious issues, but they clearly appreciate the value of just making a good rock’n’roll noise. I’m not quite sure why, but the Sex Pistols came to mind a few times, though the more obvious parallel would be the New York Dolls. I think it was because they were just a bit different to your average punk band – like the Pistols, and Johnny Rotten in particular, they were challenging you to react. After the show I watched them mingle with their fans – again, it was striking how much fun they were having. A genuinely engaging lot.
Sniffany and the Nits were next. Imagine being one of the band members and introducing yourself to someone. I’m with the Nits… Sniffany has a strident voice, and again, gender issues are high on the agenda. But the sound was a bit more conventional than that of the Oozes. Enjoyable, but a bit samey.
It was through the Woods after that, for our first visit to the Sunrise Arena – always the favourite venue. The band was KEG, one of those bands who will always be described as a bit like Squid. Similar jerky rhythms, scratchy guitars, odd time changes and bursts of trumpet or violin or whatever. Lots going on, and plenty of shouting. A very popular indie sound these days, with a clear debt to the likes of Talking Heads, Gang of Four and XTC. I enjoyed their set, which had real energy and a good dash of humour. They’ve got a song called Kids, which includes the priceless line, Daddy! I want an Itsu. Modern life, eh? Down south, anyway…
Another double in the Alcove for me next – unprecedented. First M(h)aol (pronounced male) from Dublin. More punk with gender issues to the fore – must have been intended by those curating the line-up. More Siouxsie and the Banshees than the Damned, on the punk spectrum. I liked the single Gender Studies, which 6 Music played a lot last year, and was expecting good things on the basis of that. I was a little disappointed to be honest. It didn’t get better than Gender Studies and singer Roisin Nic Ghearailt talked a bit too much. Now, the problem is usually the opposite – bands who say nothing. So, good on her for giving us a bit of context to the songs, but we probably could have done with a little bit less. Might have had time for another song.
Next was a band I discovered at Wide Awake festival in May, Modern Woman. I find them intriguing. Singer Sophie Harris, very striking in her flowing red dress, looks like a folkie; but such notions are dispelled the moment she starts banging out the post-punk chords on her white Fender Telecaster. She sings like a folkie though – a wild one. Put that together with the free jazz beats, the shards of violin and bursts of synth, and you’ve got something that sounds like Fairport Convention merged with Black Midi! I really enjoyed the set, which was over too soon. I’ll definitely be looking out for future London gigs.
It was up to the Obelisk next, for Rina Sawayama. I don’t know too much about her, but Louis and Gab are both fans. I enjoyed the show, even if that mix of dance and pop with a hint of rock isn’t particularly my thing. Having said that, I did detect a bit of Prince in the arrangements, and that will always be a good sign. Louis and Gab, who were up near the front, loved it; I think their verdict is more pertinent than mine.
The temperature was in the low 20s on Friday, a welcome contrast to the searing heat of London, which hit an unprecedented 40C on Monday and Tuesday. But it was getting a bit chilly as evening approached, so I took a break and went back to the tent to put on some warmer clothes. That added two miles to my walking tally! Back at the arena, after a very nice Jamaican jerk pork with beans and rice, I caught a bit of Maggie Rogers on the Obelisk stage – nice enough but a bit bland – before heading down to the Sunrise for Melt Yourself Down. They are big favourites of Jon’s, though he missed them for Crack Cloud – even bigger favourites. This was a party, a concoction of thumping beats, pumping saxes and chanted choruses, with a strong African influence. Not much in the way of melodies, but that didn’t really matter as we were exhorted by the singer to clap, dance, punch the air. And the crowd responded to that. It was hot, hot, hot! I particularly liked the way the two saxophonists interacted; the singer I found a bit overbearing after a while. But it was good, high energy stuff.
Melt Yourself Down finished at 9.30; it was time to get a drink and head over to the BBC Sounds Stage for the first time that day for Phoebe Bridgers. It was a shame to miss A Certain Ratio on the Sunrise, less of a shame to miss Lewis Capaldi on the Obelisk. I got to the tent with time to spare, so went closer to the front than I generally do – partly for photo purposes, but mainly because I really like her, and have done ever since I heard Scott Street from her first album Stranger in the Alps. I loved the follow up Punisher, which came out in 2020. It was a more polished work than the debut and had a profound impact on a lot of people during the pandemic. Phoebe Bridgers had become big. I watched her recent show at Glastonbury on the BBC iPlayer. It was a real triumph – she had made a particularly strong connection with the young women in the audience. Not so surprising; but it seemed like she was really speaking for them, particularly as her show coincided with the US Supreme Court’s retrograde judgement on Wade vs Roe. She returned to that subject tonight very powerfully. The set was much the same as at Glastonbury, a tour through the highlights of her career so far. Brilliantly presented, beautifully sung, with the sound of the trumpet providing an elegant embellishment. It all ended, of course, with I Know the End, Phoebe crowd-surfing as the song reached its dramatic conclusion. One of the highlights of the weekend, for sure.
Blimey, my feet hurt though, standing rooted to the spot for an hour. The problem with being anywhere near the front is that loads of people pile in at the last minute, and that space you thought you had, that clear sightline, completely disappears. You know it’s going to happen, so it’s a conscious choice. I consciously chose to hang back for the rest of the festival!
Saturday 23 July
Getting warmer, mid-20s today. Mostly sunny too – perfect festival weather. After last week though, and ten days in sizzling Spain recently, I’d learnt to seek out shade. Standing in the sun at the Obelisk, drinking fizzy Carlsberg was not the most attractive option. Nonetheless, I started the day there, catching the last few songs of Shed Seven’s set. Britpop revival – apparently the band are really popular at the moment, filling sizeable venues across the country. They certainly attracted a big crowd at the Obelisk. Can’t say I was ever a big fan, but I enjoyed hearing the likes of Going for Gold and Getting Better again. They also did a decent cover of Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds.
Over to the Sunrise after that for a couple of shows. Starting with Samantha Crain, an artist with native American heritage whose music I’ve liked ever since I first heard the wistful Kathleen and Elk City from her 2015 album Under Branch & Thorn & Tree. File under folk/Americana. She’s had a bit of a revival recently, with songs like Bloomsday and Pick Apart getting plenty of airplay on 6 Music. Musically they are a little more upbeat than her earlier work. She started her set with Bloomsday, but mostly it was gently strummed melancholy. I lay on the slope and let the sounds waft over me. An unassuming but rather lovely set.
I got on my feet for the next performance, from New York-based guitar trio Wilsen. I’d not come across them before, but the programme notes suggested that they might be that rare thing at Latitude – a proper rock band. They were, but a dreamy, shoegaze one. Which is fine by me! I really liked their sound, which had some resemblance to another New York band who I like a lot called Lightning Bug. Check out their song The Right Thing is Hard to Do – it was my most-streamed track on Spotify last year.
After catching two or three songs by Los Bitchos on the Obelisk, I decided to retreat to the Woods again, this time visiting the Lavish lounge, where the BBC Introducing stage is situated. This is usually a pretty relaxed place – they even have loads of sofas to lounge on. It was very busy this time though. I suspect this was as much the attraction of the shade as the band coming up, though the notes suggested there was a bit of a buzz around them. The band being Lilo, two women, Helen Dixon and Christie Gardener, from Winchester. The music was described as indie folk, as well as slowcore – a new one on me. Anyway, they played a short set of enjoyable, if slight, folkie pop songs which reminded me of the early Staves, though Helen and Christie’s harmonies weren’t quite as spectacular as those of the Watford sisters. A pleasant interlude – except for the dust. The Lavish Lounge won the prize for the dustiest venue at Latitude. It got everywhere (as blowing your nose proved!). It actually made me hesitant about returning there. A bit of straw matting surely wouldn’t have been that expensive.
It was now time for the music to go up a gear, with what turned out the best run of bands of the weekend. It began with Caroline in the Theatre Arena, somewhere I’ve never been to before in my ten years of Latitude. And it was an actual theatre, indoors with seats. Luxury! Caroline are a south London-based collective who have created a sound like no other band that I am aware of. Their self-titled debut album came out in February. It is worth a listen, but live is where they really sound extraordinary. This was the third time I’ve seen them. I caught part of their set at Green Man last year, then saw them with Jon and a couple of other friends at Cecil Sharp House, near Regent’s Park in April this year. That last show was pretty amazing, but this one at Latitude was even better. In the darkened theatre, the band illuminated by simple lighting, the atmosphere was entrancing. It’s hard to describe the music, but if you combined medieval chanting, psychedelic folk, Black Country New Road, avant-garde jazz and post-punk guitar you might just get there. The band stand in a circle, or a semi-circle in this case, feeding off each other. The music proceeds in staccato bursts – you are never sure what is coming next. Sometimes the sound is eked out of the instruments, scratchy, half-formed; and then there is an explosion of sound, be it guitar, violin, trumpet, sax. Wow! I sat there, genuinely moved at the quality and inventiveness of it all. Like I said, extraordinary.
The Obelisk could no longer be resisted for the last two shows of the day. It was starting to cool off in any event. First up was Little Simz. As I write, her 2021 album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert has been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. It must be one of the favourites to win. I’ve always quite liked her music, but in small doses. Whole albums have started to drag a bit for me. Her rapping could do with more cadence, I find. It’s all a bit downbeat, though there are moments of real invention and beauty… Well, forget all that, I thought she was brilliant tonight! Her performance was confident, engaging, humorous even. She was relaxed and was clearly relishing the occasion in front of an adoring crowd. The music was refreshing, upbeat, varied. It was an absolute delight. I’m going to have to go back to those albums and reappraise them. In fact, I can’t wait to do that. Little Simz bossed it!
And finally, headlining the Obelisk for the second time, Foals. The first time was 2013 – how time flies! I was a bit ambivalent about that performance at the time – much as I liked their first two albums, which had a strong Talking Heads influence, I wasn’t so sure about the move towards a stadium rock sound, which featured on their 2013 album Holy Fire. And while I’ve always taken an interest in their latest moves, I’ve never really listened to a lot of Foals since. Louis, by contrast, regards them as one of the best bands around. He really wanted me and Jon to enjoy their show this time, but was worried we wouldn’t. I know how he feels – I’ve been like that at Latitude with Honeyblood, Alvvays and, last year, Maisie Peters. But he needn’t have worried, because Foals produced one of the great Latitude performances. They were absolutely brilliant, the highlight of the weekend. Only Caroline came close, for me, and that was in a much more intimate environment. Foals did it on the main stage. The energy, the connection, the quality of the sound, the passion – it had everything you want from a headliner. The performance never flagged over the hour and a half. It was sharp, it was funky and then, in the encore it went into full-on, visceral rock, with Black Bull and What Went Down, before they finished with Two Steps Twice from debut album Antidotes. Singer/guitarist Yannis set us up for the encore, talking about the frustration and anger of missing out on three years of performing live. And they let it all out tonight. This show meant a huge amount to them, and we could feel that throughout. The band showcased their 2021 album Life is Yours, of course, but we had some wonderful highlights from the past, not least an epic rendition of Spanish Sahara. That alone was enough to make the evening memorable; but everything was good, and that encore… sensational!
We went for drinks in the Taphouse afterwards and exulted about Foals… and Little Simz, and more besides. Latitude always delivers.
Sunday 24 July
A hot and windy day, with temperatures reaching 29C in the afternoon. We took it easy in the morning, though Jon made it to the Sunrise for a singer called Tina Boonstra at 11.45. I lingered over breakfast with Louis and Gab until it was time to head for the BBC Sounds Stage for just what you need to kick start the day – the guitar and drum thrash of JOHN. So-called because both band members are called John. Jon and I – that makes four of us – saw JOHN at Green Man last year, again at the start of the day. It’s straightforward stuff: pounding drums, relentless riffing, and shouty vocals from drummer John. Not a lot of variation, but a great rush of energy. I love ‘em!
It all went bitty after that, until we reassembled in the BBC tent for jazz keyboardist Joe Armon Jones at 3.25. I wandered up to the Obelisk for Tribes, described in the notes as a Camden rock’n’roll band. That sounds alright, I thought. Turned out to be fairly standard indie in the Catfish and the Bottlemen mode. After a couple of songs I decided to check out JP Saxe in the BBC tent. He’s popular in the US I think, and duetted with Maisie Peters on her song Maybe Don’t in 2020. He was OK, but I found it a bit feeble, and it was time to meet up with Gab and Louis at the Sunrise for a band called Hudson Taylor. One of Ireland’s most popular bands, the notes said. Worth a go. I’d completely forgotten that they played on the Obelisk in 2018, if I ever knew. There was a big crowd at the Sunrise. On they came, very cheery. Then they started. The singer’s whine immediately grated with me. The songs were jaunty country pop, all a bit predictable, the lyrics the most obvious rhymes you could come up with. During the third song, I said to Louis, I can’t take any more of this. He agreed; Gab was a bit more positive, but not as positive as most of the audience, who were swaying and clapping and singing along. Sometimes you just have to accept that something’s not for you, even if a lot of people are loving it. We decided to go and get a beer and relax in the BBC tent.
Joe Armon-Jones is a great keyboard player, featuring in recent times with Ezra Collective and Nubya Garcia. He makes his own music too, but is a reluctant frontman, as he told us more than once during his show. There was more of a reggae element to today’s set than what he has been doing with the aforementioned jazz bands, and much as I love reggae, I like his jazzy side better. There was plenty of that in the second half of the show, and it was a great set to chill out to – metaphorically, as the tent was heating up a bit. Jon, Gab and Louis all took the opportunity to lie down and get some shut-eye – wish I’d taken a photo! An enjoyably soporific 45 minutes.
Everyone emerged from their slumbers for the next band on the BBC Sounds Stage, the awesome Crows. Full-on hard rocking from these lads. We saw them on the Sunrise in 2019 where they were ear-splittingly loud and proud. Singer James Cox had his shirt off in no time at all and spent a lot of time in the crowd. It was a stunning performance. This time, the black T shirt stayed on and there was no surfing. But it was the same high energy rock’n’roll. Jon and Louis went closer to the front and saw members of Fontaines DC catching a bit of them from the sidelines. I’ve seen Crows described as punk. In attitude maybe; but I find their music to be closer to 70s rock and metal. Not a band I’ll listen to much at home, preferring the originals, but always great for a live outing.
I parted company with the others for my next show, first treating myself to an ostrich burger and chips with crumbly blue cheese. It wasn’t bad. It was time for Freya Ridings on the Obelisk. I quite like her music; but really, there was just one song I want to see her play. That was Lost Without You, which I think is a wonderful ballad. It first came out as a single in 2017, and it still moves me. When she played in the BBC tent in 2019 my enjoyment was marred by a bunch of young lads who turned up right in front of me just as she played the first chords of the song on the piano, chatted, took photos then left as the song finished. Aaaaagh! I needed some closure, and I got it towards the end of the set this time. Still had people walking past, going to the bar or whatever. Not remotely interested in one of the loveliest, most moving songs of recent times. Those different Latitudes. But I had space to observe and absorb. I was happy.
Jon and I then took a punt on an Aussie band called Lime Cordiale, who were playing on the Sunrise. As soon as they came on, with their bright 70s-style suits, Bee Gees/Monkees hair cuts and synchronised guitar moves, you knew they were going to be fun. Musically, they run through most of the classic pop styles. They have a nice interaction going between themselves and with the crowd. There were some humorous intros, and a rather weird German spoof, which was like British comedy circa 1980. The bassist also played trombone, which went down well with the crowd, a fair few of whom were Aussies. It was great entertainment; and I wasn’t surprised to hear that they were playing another set at the Trailer Park at midnight.
We stayed on at the Sunrise, joined by Gab and Louis, for Pip Millett. She’s one of the new generation of soul/R&B singers, which includes the likes of Jorja Smith and Joy Crookes. She’s from Stockport, on the fringes of Manchester – that will please one of my good friends Andy! I was particularly keen to see her because she is a great favourite of my two daughters, Isabelle and Rebecca. And she was excellent – when she made it onto the stage. She lost 15 minutes of her 45 minute set, as her band members waited for her to come on. I don’t know the reason for that, but she hit the groove as soon she started. She has a beautiful voice and slinky soul sound that reminded me a little of Erykah Badu at the time of her brilliant debut album from 1997, Baduizm. With some modern twists of course. I wanted to hear more, as did the crowd, who were loving it. But Latitude is ruthless on finishing times, and rightly so. I’ll definitely be looking out for her gigs in London in the future.
And that left one more show. Snow Patrol on the Obelisk was resistible, though I wouldn’t have minded catching Run and Chasing Cars, both classic anthems. (And Ed Sheeran guested, apparently.) It was a shame to miss Let’s Eat Grandma on the Sunrise; but it had to be Fontaines DC in the BBC tent. Their performance at Green Man last year was the highlight of the festival, a brilliant run through their greatest hits. Since then they have a released a new album, Skinty Fia, so of course a fair bit of that features in the new set. I’m not too familiar with it yet, so that affected my perception of tonight’s show, which, while powerful and dramatically lit, was sonically a bit messy. Even familiar tunes from the first two albums seemed drowned in a sea of guitar distortion. A deliberate move away from the short sharp sounds of their early songs, clearly; but when they played a relatively straightforward version of Boys in the Better Land towards the end, it was greeted like a long lost friend. Fontaines are a great band, and constantly interesting as their music evolves. This was a good show, but by the time we see them at Brixton Academy in November, I hope they’ve found a better balance between their punk brilliance and the more diffuse sounds they are exploring at the moment.
We mulled over this and what we’d loved about this year’s Latitude over a final couple of drinks at the Taphouse afterwards, as a hint of rain began to quench the parched earth. We might grumble a bit about the gentrification, the loss of the Lake Stage, the rather safe choices of bands on the Obelisk; but this was another wonderful festival, full of magical moments, new discoveries and re-discoveries. Latitude is still the best.