Latitude offers a Beacon of Hope

Latitude 2021 review

By David Vass | Published: Wed 28th Jul 2021

Latitude 2021 - around the festival site
Photo credit: Jamie Cooney

Latitude 2021

Thursday 22nd to Sunday 25th July 2021
Henham Park Estate, Beccles, Suffolk, NR34 8AN, England MAP
currently £210 for the weekend
Daily capacity: 35,000

First, let’s deal with the covid shaped elephant in the room and then perhaps be done with it. For Melvyn Benn to put on anything even vaguely resembling a festival, let alone something with the scale and ambition of Latitude, was frankly astonishing. It was brave, too. As innumerable other festivals quite understandably excused themselves this year, Benn doggedly insisted Latitude would happen, and used every wiley means at his disposal to make it so. His masterstroke was to steer away from mitigating measures within the festival, favouring instead using the security fence as a literal protective ring. In short, you only get in if you’ve tested negative, and you therefore only mix with other people in the same boat.

After eighteen months in the cultural wilderness, I think he could have set a series of ice-cream vans in a circle, and had the punters happily dancing to their competing jingles. Intuitively, however, Benn recognised the importance of the festival feeling normal, in as much as listening to music in a field can ever be thought that any more. So instead of half measures, we got a committed, almost evangelical, attempt to offer up something that was pretty much indistinguishable from any other festival you might have been to. It had proper bands, improper toilets, comedy, wristbands, infuriating clashes, poetry, beer, art, tents – remember the drill - and all done on a grand scale. That said, this wouldn’t be much of a review if it simply stated that everything was awesome, so although I sort of feel that way, emotionally if not intellectually, let’s dive into the detail.

Latitude has been drawing its Thursday night horns in for years, so it’s hard to know how much of the stripped back entertainment on offer was due to  policy, and how much was due to the strictures placed by the pandemic. There was still a fair share of music knocking about, with both William the Conqueror and The Mighty Flux playing what must have felt like a lifetime highlight to a euphoric audience in the new Trailer Park arena. Reminiscent of yesteryear’s Lost Vagueness, for those that can think back that far, I thought it a fun addition to the Latitude landscape. It’s a pity that its chosen location meant the demise of Solas, though. The Solas arena had only been going a few years, but I thought it had established itself as a laid back, ambient alternative to rockier treats elsewhere, so this was an intriguing shift in tone.

Another new venue was the Outlook, a simple tented awning at the centre of a part of the festival that has struggled to establish itself. In previous years we’ve seen the Little House, the Wellcome Trust and the Town Hall, all fail to establish an identity, or indeed an audience. On Thursday it played host to the mesmeric voice of Sam Lee, a superbly individual folk singer I was very much looking forward to. Sadly, the quiet melodies he offered were drowned out by his next door neighbours, as a disco shed blasted retro classics. The shed has its fans – I’ve seen an audience of several dancing outside it on many an occasion – but if you’re going to put on acoustic folk in the tent next door, then someone’s not thinking things through. I left after ten minutes, aware I was both annoyed and embarrassed for Mr Lee (no one wants to be either of those things at a festival) and made my way to yet another new venue – the Listening Post.

This venue is what is left of Latitude’s formerly impressive commitment to the written word. Where once we had the literary tent and a poetry tent, we now have an uncharacteristically brutal looking venue. It does the job, but is best described as functional, mostly offering up live recordings of podcasts. Fortunately, tonight it played host to the excellent Luke Wright. Always good value, you have to wonder how he felt performing opposite the empty space where the poetry tent he once curated used to sit.

On Friday morning, I realise I’m still not entirely comfortable with large crowds, but not to worry, as there’s always tiny gems to be found if you poke about. Who’d have thought I’d be so taken by a ninety minute creative writing class by novelist Kate Moss, but such was her infectious enthusiasm and supportive manner, I think I could have sat and listened to her all day. Not an option, however, as the Theatre Tent beckoned, hosting the thought provoking Godot is a Woman. Silent Faces’s cheeky jab at the Becket estate was one of the few “proper” plays at the venue this year. The theatre has always been excellent at Latitude, but this year it was probably the hardest hit by the pandemic. In previous years, it has been full of innovative and interesting shows, but these were drawn from a pool of Edinburgh fringe previews. There is no Edinburgh this year, and barely any theatre - a stark reminder of the devastating, long term impact of the pandemic on the performing arts.

All of which made the Waterfront Stage’s dance program all the more impressive. TRIBE//RISE and James Wilton’s Four Seasons were the two I chose to see, and both were beautifully realised. They were both significantly marred, however, by sound bleed from other stages. You are, of course, going to get this at a festival, and sometimes it has its own curious appeal. But the dance on show was invariably made up of short, sharp pieces. Why didn’t someone take a look at the timings on the main stage, and slip them in discreetly during the set up time between bands?

Conscious I’d yet to visit the main stage, I opted for Beabadoobee, one of countless acts on that stage unfamiliar to me. She had her fans singing along, but it was lost on me. The fay charm of her recordings seduced me into turning up, but she seemed unable to deliver live. Latitude has had to dig deep to fill all the stages from available talent in the UK, so I guess slack should be cut, but it was a horrible noise. So regretfully, given the superb weather, I skulked back undercover. Sam Lee, the man who suffered sound bleed on Friday, was battling rather more successfully in the Listening Post, singing haunting a cappella folk songs and chattering about Nightingales. Self-deprecating Jon Osbourne followed, giving us supermarket aisle based poetry (yes you read that right), after which Mark Kermode nattered with a mate about films. Sinead O’Brien then made a pleasing racket in a stripped out Alcove, but I was by now crying out for something of substance.

Wolf Alice: Latitude 2021

It came, in the form of Squid on the BBC Sounds stage. Their rise seems meteoric (I saw them at the last Glastonbury on the Greenpeace stage, mid-table, along with half a dozen other people) but also entirely explicable. Eccentric, acerbic and fearlessly original, they were the highlight of the festival for at least an hour, after which Wolf Alice blew away all competition with a magnificent, anthemic set that fully justified their headline slot. I’ve been told Hot Chip were no slouches in the other tent either – what a great way to bring the first day of the festival to a close.

Here’s a question we have surely all asked ourselves. What was the last thing you saw before lockdown? Three days before 16th March, I saw The Remains of Logan Dankworth by Luke Wright. I can’t imagine he performed it after that, so the Saturday morning show must have been even weirder for him than me. It was as involving and morally complex as I remembered, and a brilliant, if exhausting start to the day. His face, while he took a standing ovation, said it all. Luke Kempner in the Comedy tent demonstrated that being a brilliant mimic is no substitute for being funny, before Supergrass burst on to the main stage with a liberating set that had the crowd shaking off the last remnants of hesitancy, with a timely reminder we were there to see our friends, see the sights, feel alright.

Mark Thomas ranted on in the Theatre, as he does, and is always good company, but apparently I should have seen the incandescent LYRA instead. I was told this by an avuncular gent who offered me a swing of gin he had hidden inside a fake umbrella. I graciously declined, yet it struck me that he somehow perfectly summed up the people that come to Latitude. Courteous, yet opinionated, they are unfailingly polite, yet can be wilfully contrary if pushed, and nowhere near the snooty posh folk that some claim. A case in point was the left-leaning audience for Jess Phillips MP, in that there was one. It’s hard to imagine an MP attracting a crowd so big they were gathering around outside the tent, but bear in mind that when I subsequently checked out the Theatre of food (Cindy Zuria was talking about Sourdough) I couldn’t even get in. There’s a huge constituency of people that want (indeed expect) more than music from their festival, and Latitude – for all the cheese paring – still does that better than any other.

Up in the woods, the Lavish Lounge was effectively taken over by the BBC for the weekend, though in fairness they did a pretty good job. Typical of a long list of quality up and coming acts was Ishmael Ensemble from Bristol, whose cocktail of jazz and electronica was made all the more palatable by the very comfy sofas they had up there. Rather less successful was Kate Simko and the London Electronic Orchestra on the Waterfront stage, whose pleasant but inconsequential fusion of strings and synths where something of a disappointment.

More disappointment followed with Damon Albarn on the same stage. This was an idea to be filed under “seemed like a good idea at the time” as the crowds stretched across the bridge, on both banks of the river, and up into the woods. It could have been a “Latitude moment” but unless you were one of the lucky few up close, Rudimental on the main stage clashed horribly with Albarn’s more reflective music, making the latter all but unlistenable. Every cloud, however, as this pushed me on to one of the big surprises of the weekend. The Sunrise stage, nestled in the woods, always has some of the most interesting performances on offer, and Working Men’s Club proved to be just that. Imagine Ian Curtis on guest vocals for Holy Fuck, and you’re getting somewhere close to the cathartic, energising retro-racket these fellows pumped out, putting me in just the right frame of mind for the Sleaford Mods. I’ve never understood the appeal of The Chemical Brothers’ identikit, knob twiddling carnival, and so was delighted that the Sleaford Mods, full of sound and fury, were the last minute replacements for the covid hit headliners Fontaines DC. Judging by the modest crowd, I guess I was in the minority on both counts, but I thought them magnificent in their splenetic fury and unremitting gloom. At least they admit it’s all on a laptop.

Nearly done for the day, it was time to be brave and pop my head in the Ballroom. I was really looking forward to seeing this new venue. The old Cabaret tent and Film and Music venue were well past their sell by date and would be no great loss. In my head, bringing them together in one big, ballroom shaped venue made perfect sense. Sadly, the idea remained in my head. The Ball room turned out to be the old Film and Music Arena with a new sign stuck on the front. It was as claustrophobic and unappealing as ever. A pig wearing lipstick is still a pig. Inside, a naked man was lip-synching to It’s My Party – it was time to go to bed.

Sunday kicked off with one of the most anticipated acts of the weekend, and jolly Bill Bailey didn’t disappoint. Folk have been suggesting that big ticket comics would work on the main stage for years, and Bailey proved them right with a winning combination of daft anecdotes and astonishing musicianship. He was followed up by another last minute addition, Self Esteem. Her power pop may not be to everyone’s taste, but she has a voice that demonstrated what real talent sounds like.

Over in the Comedy tent, Nina Conti did pretty much the same thing she does every time I see her. Monkey deconstructs ventriloquism for a while, after which someone from the audience is mercilessly ridiculed. It should get repetitive, but she does it with such charm and wit she was hilarious, winning the biggest laughs of the weekend. This is more than can be said for Martin Creed, who inexplicable took his trousers off in a near-empty Ballroom – this Turner prize scamp really should stick to switching lights on and off.

I have banging on for years at the regretful loss of heritage acts – some of the finest performances of previous years came from Echo and the Bunnyman, OMD, Blondie and Hall of Oates. Well, be careful for what you wish for – an entire festival got rickrolled when Mr Astley took himself far too seriously on the main stage. Fair play to the bloke, though - like everyone else in the arena, I knew all the words.

Back on sturdier musical ground, Anna Meredith offered up what was, for me, the best set of the weekend. This was a stunning exhibition of brilliant musicianship that was adventurous yet accessible, and included an inspired cover of Metallica’s Sandman. “You always worry,” she said, “that someone more famous has already performed the same song.” I wonder if anyone dared tell her that Bill Bailey did exactly that, a few hours earlier, albeit on comedy car horns.

On the home run now, the crowd-pleasing Kaiser Chiefs charged through their back catalogue with obvious glee. Ricky Wilson’s stage antics can be a little tiresome, but his obvious delight at being let out for the afternoon was infectious. Over the weekend, I’d seen so many acts overcome with emotion at being able to play live, and none more so than Wilson, who captured the mood of the masses perfectly. John Cooper Clarke, however,is not a man to be overcome with emotion, and in truth he struggled with remembering much of his set. Such was the audience affection, however, it didn’t really matter – he still is the godfather of all performance poetry, and we saluted him for that.

The main stages on Sunday closed with a performance from Sons of Kemet. Shabaka Hutchings’s jazz combo was the dictionary definition of a brave headliner, made all the more so by the absence of tuba player Theon Cross, which left Hutchings and his two drummers to do all the heavy lifting. Fortunately, mesmerising musical skill turned out to be enough, not least when they were joined by guest saxophonist Nubya Garcia. She turned up again later as the special guest of the Lavish Lounge, as did Strawberry Lace, with their intoxicating blend of Rock, funk, reggae, and metal, proving that some of the very best things at Latitude can be found in the most obscure corners.

There were things on after that, but the party was pretty much over. Astral Projections were projecting a retro liquid light show in the ballroom. I didn’t really see the point, but neither did I want the evening to end. Pondering what to do, I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation behind me. “I’d rather slit by wrists than watch this,” said a teenager to his companion. He had a point - it was time to admit this fantastic weekend had come to an end.

From top to bottom, for obvious reasons, absences popped up throughout the weekend, acts were hastily re-sequenced, and you were never quite sure what you were about to see. The schedule very quickly started to resemble a gap toothed smile. But it was still a smile, and that is the point. I’ve heard niggles about special treatment, and moans that Benn had to get into bed with a government that has scandalously abandoned an industry that now lies in tatters. Maybe there is something in that, but I say Benn did what he had to do, and hats off to the bloke for pulling off an extraordinary feat some thought impossible, many thought reckless, and everyone thought audacious. If we all drop down dead in a few weeks’ time, I guess it won’t then look like such a good idea, but judging from the euphoria I witnessed again and again, both in the crowds and on the stages, if felt like just what our poor, tired, jaded minds and bodies needed. Right now, I’m finding it hard to believe it actually happened.

review by: David Vass

photos by: Jamie Cooney

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