Latitude 2021 review: exhilarating headliners and breakthrough acts galore

Henham Park, July 22–25: Wolf Alice cement their place as legends of British music, while Griff and Wet Leg fly the flag for the next wave

Minutes before Supergrass are due on stage to kick off day two of Latitude 2021, Adam Buxton walks up to the microphone and begins to tell the crowd some bad news. “Gaz Coombes has just been pinged and needs to self-isolate,” the comedian begins. He pauses for a second as a rumble of disappointment ripples through the crowd before delivering the punchline: “In a portaloo for three days.”

The legendary Britpop band might be safe to perform, but Buxton’s gag highlights the unpredictability of putting on festivals in a world that is yet to enter its post-pandemic era. And through the weekend, Latitude’s line-up fluctuates constantly as other artists receive the dreaded notifications telling them to quarantine. Worse still – some test positive themselves. Fontaines D.C., Billie Marten, Arlo Parks and Alfie Templeman all have to pull out at the last minute. The announcements serve as a reminder that despite the scene in Henham Park looking like a return to “normal”, things can still fall apart again in an instant.

Perhaps that’s why, this year, the Latitude audience feels more committed than ever when it comes to drawing every last drop of fun out of the weekend. Only hours after the gates open on Friday, rowdy circle pits form as Dream Wife blast the BBC Sounds Stage with wiry punk anthems – a sight that feels exhilarating, liberating and oddly moving. The sense of intimate, euphoric celebration that’s contained within the crashing of strangers’ bodies only grows stronger as the festival progresses, right through to Shame’s Sunday night set where frontman Charlie Steen throws himself into (or on top of) the mix too.

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Moments that might previously have felt like a chance to take a breather and sit back, soak up and appreciate inspire big reactions too. Bastille’s ReOrchestrated headline set on Sunday maintains the beauty of the orchestra and choir’s takes on the band’s beloved songs but is also a supercharged last chance to party (for now). Over the last 11 years, the band have become masters at dancing through the world’s darkness; it feels more than fitting that they should be the ones ushering us out of this period of separation from live music.

Bastille’s set also throws the spotlight over to one member of a new generation of artists who’ve had to start their journeys in a more virtual world. Griff joins the band for ‘Of The Night’ and ‘Happier’, capping off a day that’s already seen her excel in her own main stage slot. Her cool, confident performances of singles ‘Forgive Myself’ and ‘Mirror Talk’ earlier on in the day mark her out as a new pop leader on stage as well as off.

Before festivals were forced to go on a break, each weekend usually had its own breakthrough new act, drawing huge throngs to tents too small to hold them all. Isle Of Wight duo Wet Leg reunite us with that tradition as a queue to get into their slot at The Alcove stage snakes around Latitude’s picturesque site. Their set offers a chance to hear more than the one song – the addictive ‘Chaise Lounge’ – they’ve released so far and proves they have plenty more up their sleeves in golden, endearingly wonky songs coloured with hints of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Bikini Kill.

The FOMO draw of “secret” sets isn’t something we’ve had to deal with for a while, but for those who get stuck outside of the BBC Sounds Stage when The Vaccines turn up on Sunday, it’s time to get reacquainted. Under the canvas, Justin Young and co. race through their bulging catalogue of indie classics, and dip into new material that could easily become their next festival anthems.

One silver lining of the continuing pandemic travel uncertainties means plenty more rising British acts get their chance to shine this summer. Kawala are a ray of light on the main stage with their feel-good folk-tinged indie, while Hull’s bdrmm transform the Sunrise stage with a thrillingly claustrophobic wall of sound. It feels like the dingiest of small venues rather than a field in the middle of the afternoon.

Credit: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

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The UK’s old guard are out in force too, with Chemical Brothers taking on the job of providing Saturday night’s biggest main stage party. The elation of their set feels hits a ceiling though, not quite matching the underlying urgency of the festival crowd’s go-hard attitude. Damon Albarn’s Waterfront Stage performance was never going to go off in the same way, and its only disappointment is how hard it is to see or hear the icon given the stage’s lack of space, and the number of people vying for a spot.

Wolf Alice might not be old guard yet, but their Friday night headlining performance makes their future incredibly clear – legends of British music who top bills on the regular. Armed with the instant classic tracks from their recent third album ‘Blue Weekend’ they look more confident than ever before as they perform beneath a rectangle of neon lights reminiscent of the bus stop on the album’s sleeve.

‘Smile’ ferociously rips open the set, before the band seamlessly move through more emotional moments like the cloud nine divinity of ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ and ‘Feeling Myself”s sexy, smoky sways. A breakneck version of ‘Space And Time’ rattles into a burst of The Velvet Underground‘s ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ and back again, while their second album title-track ‘Visions Of A Life’ provides a sludgy, stomping final chance to head-bang it out with the country’s best band. The piano-led ‘The Last Man On Earth’ is an impeccable choice of closer, building to an epic close that’s as poignant as it is invigorating.

“We don’t have the words,” Rowsell says breathlessly at one point. She might be talking about the feeling of their biggest festival headline set so far, but it’s a sentiment that sums up both Wolf Alice’s performance and the weekend as a whole – something almost unbelievable and incredibly special.

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