From headliners Wolf Alice and Bastille to newcomers Wet Leg, Latitude sets 2021’s festival season off with a bang

The biggest festival to take place in the UK for almost two years kicks off with a bang.

We’re back, baby. The biggest festival to take place in the UK for almost two years kicked off yesterday (Friday 23rd July) as Latitude threw open its grassy fields for a celebration of the best in British music. Sure, it was probably because no other country is currently allowed to travel to the UK, but that doesn’t take an inch of shine from how celebratory today feels.

And if we’re talking the best in the country, then it only seems right that Wolf Alice finally step up and headline their first major festival. When we spoke to them earlier in the year, vocalist Ellie Rowsell seemed unsure about the band playing huge venues like The O2, but there’s no hint of nerves as they run, dance and skip onto Latitude’s Obelisk Stage tonight. Kicking straight into the gnarled, mosh-pit instigating ‘Smile’, Wolf Alice bring a much-needed dose of chaos to the fields of Henham Park. Without taking a breath, they pivot to the loving ode to friendship ‘Bros’. At one point, Ellie stands alone in the spotlight, in-ears out, and sings the refrain along with the crowd. It’s the sort of beautiful, unifying festival moment that most bands would keep for the closing moments of the set. We’re less than 5 minutes in here, though.

The rest of their 70-minute set bounces between rage and love as Wolf Alice tear through riff-laden rock anthems (‘Visions of a Life’, ‘Play The Greatest Hits’, ‘Giant Peach’) and deliver tender moments that massage the ol’ heartstrings (‘Lipstick On The Glass’, ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’, ‘Silk’). “I’m very fucking emotional right now,” declares bassist Theo Ellis before the band “try something sensitive” in the form of the twinkling cinematic ballad, ‘Safe From Heartbreak (Never Fall In Love)’. As soon as it finishes, he tells the packed field that this “feels like an absolute dream. It’s mega,” before he wants them to “fucking ‘ave it” for the soaring urgency of ‘Space and Time’. And ‘ave it, they do.

Earlier in the day, the next generation of superstars proves that time away hasn’t dampened their hunger. Lucia & The Best Boys power through a slow-burning, emo set that leans into the controlled cinema of their ‘The State of Things’ EP while Lynks‘ opens up the main stage with their unique take on dance music. Lyrical commentary on imposed life expectations draws in the young crowd before these edgy verses give way to heavy choruses that enable the first mosh pits in… well, it’s been a while. Parents are quick to cover their young children’s ears.

The energetic show opens the floodgates of energy and prepares festival-goers for the cathartic weekend of a lifetime – an appearance from Shame’s Charlie Steen doesn’t go amiss either.

Later on the same stage, Beabadoobee shows off her strange magic. First, she makes the entire crowd clap along without uttering a word, then her warm vocals somehow chase away the clouds, bathing the entire field in glorious sunshine. Her set is just as warming, tearing through the blissful ‘Coffee’, the heart-storming ‘Last Day on Earth’ and set closer ‘Cologne’ with an effortless cool that’s only broken by her beaming grin.

Declan McKenna slides onto the Obelisk stage with a rock star swagger, complete with The Best Jacket Of The Weekend, to give new record ‘Zeros’ its live debut. ‘Beautiful Faces’ sees the entire crowd singing their lungs out, ‘Be An Astronaut’ transports the field to a different time, drama and delusion free, while cosy new single ‘My House’ makes a field filled with tens-of-thousands of people feel intimate and safe. That serenity doesn’t last for long, though, as the closing ‘British Bombs’ comes with a side-order of angst and an explosion of purple confetti.

Having recently received multiple bouts of acclaim from Taylor Swift, self-declared’ emo-pop girl’ Maisie Peters is gearing up to release her debut album, on Ed Sheeran’s ‘Gingerbread Records’. It’s no wonder the crowd is so busy, especially with rumours Ed might make an appearance.

So, with everything to prove and a lot of eyes on her, Maisie runs onstage after a hype-building introduction, takes a breath and shouts into the microphone… “I can’t hear anything.” It’s not the smoothest of starts, but after the technical problems are fixed, she delivers a set of peak indie-pop empowerment with a sound ready for the big leagues.

Someone already topping those big pop tables is Mabel. Having amassed hundreds of millions of streams, you’d expect the star to easily whip a crowd of every demographic into an ecstatic frenzy with her instantly recognisable pop tunes. Today all that was required was the unveiling of a silver ‘M’ and a few smoke machines. A flurry of instantly recognisable tunes dominates the arena as Mabel delivers, in her own words, “bangers on bangers on bangers”, backing dancers supplying the arena-ready spectacle.

Perhaps the most exciting band of the day, though, are Wet Leg. Yes, the Isle of Wight duo have one song to their name, but it’s so good, it’s got the 200-capacity Alcove full to overflowing. There’s a queue to get in, and one frustrated fan even tries to jump the fence to get a glimpse of indie’s brightest new stars.

Those inside the tent see Wet Leg, a five-piece live, charge through a set of weird, wonderful and wonky rock-pop anthems. Every song feels like a hit as the band makes good on all that promise, while ‘Chaise Longue’ turns the packed room into a giddy, physical celebration. “It’s so nice to know there are other strange people out there,” says the beaming Rhian Teasdale. “We’re not on our own.”

The morning after the night before, Latitude knows how to wipe away the cobwebs. It’s not just the idyllic surroundings, the relaxing lake or the opportunity for a refreshing stroll through a literal dream forest. It’s the music, too.

Part of so-hot-right-now pop collective NiNE8, Nayana IZ lacks no confidence as she struts into the Alcove, producer Angel Gabriel already running laps around the audience. With a balanced mix of chilled and hype-inducing tunes, she cuts her live teeth with plenty of new material. A barebones presentation gives a hint of where Nayana is heading next -one that demands a massive ramping up of the volume dial.

Over on the Obelisk Arena main stage, weary Sports Team would be forgiven for both mentally and physically limping onto site after a chaotic day at their own Margate mini-festival. Not that that’s stopping Alex Rice – skipping in to Robbie Williams’ ‘Let Me Entertain You’ and diving straight into it, he’s clearly working to get his own veins pumping as much as those of the crowd.

Pints are thrown left, right, and centre, the quite obviously hungover group as spritely as ever – except band member Ben Mack who… well, who is about as enthused as always too, actually. Finally giving a well-earned airing to their infamously quite-well-charting debut record, it’s a welcome return for an act sure to become a festival staple.

No festival line-up is complete without some fan favourite indie darlings. This year KAWALA fit that role, trying to charm the crowd with their easy-going alt-pop. It works wonders, their cross-generational audience falling into a groove during ‘Animals’ and ‘Moonlight’. Fresh from releasing a new mixtape, they debut ‘Back Of My Head’ with a few tears spotted. They quickly bounce back to their light-hearted selves for ‘Do It Like You Do’, though. KAWALA are band-shaped sparks of joy, ready to cheer up anyone in need.

Holly Humberstone‘s gentle chords and delicate vocals provide a low-key introduction amidst a short but sweet set that pulls the focus of the entire BBC Sounds tent onto a singular focal point. Gliding between a baby blue guitar, synth pads and keys, Holly flexes a cohesive command over her own natural aura, ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’ proves Humberstone’s career foundations have been laid firm.

Offering a fondness for detail that leaves no stone unturned, Holly can make a story about a house into a heartbreaking ballad with ease. Sincere meaning is expressed in her own awestruck way, a live presence established for an artist who has grown so much during the pandemic.

Like the bunch of hardcore indie rockers that they are, Sea Girls take the stage by storm. Starting with ‘Call Me Out’, they don’t stop shooting bangers. After throwing energetic bombs ‘Violet’ and ‘Do You Really Wanna Know?’ they debut a new tune, ‘Sick’, about being fed up with this shitshow of reality and wanting to go back to childhood years. Instead, they stick around, smash ‘All I Want To Hear You Say’ and jump into the crowd. Class.

Working Men’s Club suck us in instantly. There’s no time to think, just dance in this cult of raging electronica and post-punk. Frontman Syd Minskey-Sargeant leads the way into the mayhem, manically jumping around the stage and occasionally down the barrier. With a strong hit of their new stuff, mixed up with a few oldies, Working Men’s Club are genre-hopping and piss-taking professional visionaries.

If we could choose the way we start every Sunday, it might well be like this. Right of the bat, Self Esteem takes over the Obelisk Arena. Performing new single ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ live for the first time, complete with backup dancers, she’s giving off much more splendour and sparkle than we would expect at 1pm on Sunday. ‘Favourite Problem’ only adds to the illusion, feeling like a Friday night hitting the streets with your most fun girlfriends to talk shit and drink yourself away. As cliche as it sounds, it can be purifying – a point Self Esteem proves well. Her noughties-flavoured pop rides on an unapologetic wave of confidence and star-like stage presence. A proper power move.

Fierce, fab and flamboyant. That’s all you need to know before a first encounter with Scottish sensations, Walt Disco. James Potter doesn’t waste any opportunity to twirl across the stage, flirtatiously winking at the crowd as a warm-up to their most recent single, ‘Selfish Lover’. It’s an all-inclusive deal with limitless nerve, talent and theatrics. Finishing with a storming’ Past Tense’, Walt Disco leave us wanting for more in the best possible way.

Griff appears on stage to a live drum and keys backing that raises the volume while not being too harsh on the nasty Sunday hangovers. Declaring that she’s “never played to a crowd this big”, she’s is in a similar position to many new artists stifled by restrictions. With them gone, she cements her status as an artist with a name to watch.

Testing the waters, Griff tries out the songs showcased on her recent mixtape while the sun glares down. Instilling a sense of promise for Latitude’s final day, she slays title-track ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’, exciting fans while introducing a new talent to the daytime crowd.

The Vaccines make a glorious return with their not-so-secret set in the BBC Sounds tent, riling up a packed out crowd with a definitive discography of indie rock belters. The key moments come in the form of glimpses at new material, though. Having played Latitude four times in the last 10 years, this time around, ‘Back In Love City’ – the title track from their upcoming fifth album – cuts through the anthemic soundscapes with pulsating pop production.

Ever a live force, they succeed in building cascading walls of sound through thrashing guitars and new disco-rock elements. Peaking energy levels with ‘If You Wanna’ and spiralling into sprawling with ‘All In White’, The Vaccines succeed in providing a release for casual festival-goers while teasing their new chapter.

Surprise confetti bomb? Twice? Why not, think Bombay Bicycle Club when opening up with ‘Eat, Sleep, Wake (Nothing But You)’ from their most recent album ‘Everything Else Has Gone Wrong’. After seven-year hiatus, any tricks are allowed – even covering Selena Gomez’s ‘Lose You To Love Me’ in a beautifully funky way. A jazzed up ‘Feel’ and emotive ‘Is It Real’ really pop live. Bombay Bicycle Club’s buoyant indie to the setting sun is definitely something special.

Shame have this weird effect on people that makes them go completely nuts. Tonight is no exception. A second after Charlie Steen takes over the BBC Sound tent, charismatic as ever, the crowd go wild. This isn’t a gig; it’s an exorcism, a long-awaited catharsis dripping in strangers sweat and spilt beer. ‘Alphabet’ and ‘Human, For A Minute’ cause mass hysteria, Steen joining his mad comrades in arms and crowd-surfing. All built-up emotions purged, Shame are onto something big – and they know it.

With two headline acts out of the way, the final push for Latitude 2021 comes from Bastille. With their Reorchestrated project providing reinvigorated energy to their previous material, frontman Dan Smith acknowledges nothing he says can surmise just what tonight means.

An orchestra infuses sombre songs with a strengthened melancholy and big tunes with a fresh twist. ‘Blame’ mixes marching band vibes with a trap beat, ‘Two Evils’ evolves from a wallowing ballad into an introspective pop track, while more recent ‘WHAT YOU GONNA DO???’ transforms the group into a classic rock outfit.

Latitude’s finale is an expansive show incorporating multiple eras by a multifaceted act. With a new album expected before the end of the year, it’ll be as interesting as ever to see how Bastille choose to apply their talents next time around.

Words: Alex Brzezicka, Finlay Holden.
Photos: Frances Beach, Patrick Gunning.

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