Standing in a field, wearing glitter, watching bands, with a warm pint in blazing hot sun: these human behaviours had to be relearned for the first full-capacity UK music festival since the pandemic began. Some 40,000 unmasked people are taking part in Latitude’s trial as part of the government’s events research programme – results are as yet unclear but its success or failure could inform the staging of other festivals this summer.
A lateral flow test before entry and a daily health screening are the only obstacles to normality. It’s overwhelming – risky, even. But it all quickly comes rushing back: the giddy thrill of dancing next to strangers in a tent, queues for halloumi, the stamina it takes to pace across the site to see as many acts as possible. The only real difference is that men are washing their hands after a trip to the toilets.
There are clear challenges in booking overseas acts, so Latitude leans on beery Brit biggies (Kaiser Chiefs, Bastille with a guest orchestra, a “secret” Vaccines set) and dance mainstays (Chemical Brothers, Hot Chip) among the usual comedy draws (Bill Bailey has a rockstar welcome on the main stage on Sunday). Otherwise, the fest is a joyous celebration of the best new homegrown alternative and pop music, and everyone from brooding singer-songwriters and post-punkers to star saxophonists get a look in.
On Friday afternoon, some are jumping gates to get into the tent to see freshly signed post-punkers Wet Leg play their debut track Chaise Longue – an arch, innuendo-heavy single about “big Ds” and buttering muffins – and the look on the duo’s faces when the crowd sing it back suggests they’ll remember that moment for ever. It’s the same for more established acts from this loose scene of misfit bands, many of whom released their first albums during lockdown: Squid play their blisteringly oblique (and hugely cathartic) tracks from Bright Green Field with the guttural intensity of a fox trapped in a dustbin. Wolf Alice, meanwhile, rightly take their place among the British rock greats as they headline Friday night with a PVC-slick show, cranking out the pop-rock of new album Blue Weekend with the force and poise of a Smashing Pumpkins or Garbage.
In the context of the past year, songs take on deeper meaning. Hot Chip end their techno-pop rave with a cover of LCD Soundsystem’s ultimate hug-yer-mates ripper All My Friends. On Saturday, Supergrass’s Alright in the daytime sun is a hopeful beacon. DJs play Ultra Naté’s Free at any opportunity. Uplifting messages of love, justice and sex sung by south London’s rising soul star Joel Culpepper are a highlight – his nimble set slide steps from sun-dappled soul to hip-thrusting funk with a diamond-sharp falsetto and some Prince-indebted numbers such as It’s in Your Sex. “This one’s not perfect for kiddies,” he warns, as the mums watching fan themselves.
Over at the Waterfront stage, Damon Albarn is the special guest, presenting a folk-reggae-classical revue of his solo work and tracks by side projects the Good, the Bad & the Queen and Gorillaz; with Femi Koleoso of Ezra Collective replacing his late mentor Tony Allen on drums, a cover of Allen’s Go Back is a touching tribute. The crowd is big, though there are some impatient glances at watches before he sates fans by closing with Blur’s This Is a Low.
By Sunday, the forecasted thunderstorms have held off and Latitude is beginning to seem even more like an oasis – even a hyper-real Truman Show. The crowds are treated to the exceptional new live show from Self Esteem, who fills in at the last minute for Billie Marten (one of the eight or so dropouts due to Covid across the weekend). The mantra “keep lyrics uncomfortable” written on the drum riser, the Yorkshire singer confirms that she is one of the most exciting acts of 2021 with her knowing pop bangers about dating app disasters and social anxiety, backed by attitudinal formation dancing. New pop sensation Griff wins over the crowd, too, with her second ever festival performance, her vitality and charm like a Disney princess by way of Lorde.
Nowhere is the inspiring force of live music felt more than during Sons of Kemet’s closing show on Sunday, however, as drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings turn the tent into a sweltering, shamanic rave of brass and beats as many other artists stand at the sides, watching in awe. They’re joined by fellow saxophonist Nubya Garcia for lengthy improvisational numbers that sound like a dystopian carnival. In a way, that’s how the summer feels going forward. It’s uncertain whether we’ll carry on having the freedom that Ultra Naté sings about, but, for a weekend at least, Latitude gives a platform once more to a UK music scene whose invention has endured through the pandemic.
• This review was updated on 25 August with a correction: Theon Cross did not appear with Sons of Kemet.