Latitude festival: Magical, emotional… and a little bit frightening

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  • Latitude Festival

image copyrightPA Mediaimage captionPop star Mabel performed "banger after banger after banger" as the sun set behind Latitude's main stage

"We've had so many dreams about this," says Dream Wife's guitarist Alice Go, as the band prepare to play their first show since January 2020.

"Dreams and nightmares," corrects her bandmate Bella Podpadec.

"I had a dream that we couldn't find any food until just before the show – and when we did, we were so hungry we gorged ourselves," she continues.

"Then we couldn't play because we were too full… And actually, I'm quite full now. I'm worried about digestion time."

"The nightmare is coming true," laughs singer Rakel Mjöll.

On stage an hour later, there are no signs of gastric problems as the punk trio head-bang and high-kick their way through a set so raucous it might register on the Richter scale.

"Rock and roll is an extreme sport, kids," Mjöll informs the sweat-drenched crowd. "And that was the best work-out ever."

image copyrightGetty Imagesimage captionDream Wife (pictured in 2019) gave one of the most incendiary performances on Latitude's first day

Like everyone else, the band are overwhelmed at being back in gig-land for Latitude – the UK's first full-capacity festival since 2019 (alongside Sheffield's Tramlines, which also takes place this weekend).

Part of the government's live event pilot scheme, Latitude has brought 40,000 mask-less but Covid-tested fans to Suffolk for three days of music, comedy, drama and entertainment.

But this is no normal festival audience. Walking around Henham Park, there's an unmistakable sense of liberation amid the densely-packed music fans – many of whom started the day with a Disco Yoga session and followed that up with an old-skool hip-hop singalong in the BBC Sounds arena. They're that enthusiastic.

image copyrightPA Mediaimage captionThe festival will admit 40,000 people every day this weekend

When the relatively-unknown alt-pop artist Lynks opens the main stage at midday, he's instantly taken aback.

"A mosh pit on the first song? I love it!" he marvels.

"I can't believe this is my first crowd back," says pop star Mabel later in the day. "You've given me enough energy for a lifetime."

After 18 months indoors, its almost like the pandemic never happened. Everyone is crammed together, whether they're dancing to Hot Chip, queuing for the portaloos or throwing paper cups of water over their fellow festival-goers. At least, I hope it's water.

"Remember to stay hydrated and pace yourself when drinking alcohol," pings a message on the festival's official app at 15:30. It's already too late.

Not that everyone's gone feral – that was never likely at the toddler-friendly, hedonism-free Latitude – but there's a carefree abandon that's oddly reminiscent of a bygone era (ie 2019).

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For the artists, the atmosphere is no less euphoric.

"This is very momentous for us," says Theo Ellis of headliners Wolf Alice. "We're super-emotional, super-buzzy, super-nervous."

"When we arrived and we were given our passes, there was a real unspoken moment of everyone just being incredibly emotional," adds pop singer Maisie Peters – whose cherubic pop ballad Favourite Ex is an early crowd favourite.

"Performing was perfect. It felt exactly right – and like what the point of everything is. Wonderful and affirming."

image copyrightPA Mediaimage captionMaisie Peters drew a huge crowd the Obelisk Stage on Friday afternoon

But many bands are also aware of how precarious the live music scene still is, especially as the UK experiences a steep rise in Covid cases.

"Arriving here was surreal and magical – but a little bit frightening at the same time," says Dream Wife's Podpadec.

'Breaking the rules'

Backstage, some musicians are staying in bubbles so they don't jeopardise future shows. And three acts – Fontaines DC, Alfie Templeman and Arlo Parks – have had to pull out after testing positive.

Parks told fans she'd been struck down on Friday, despite being "as careful as possible" in the run-up to the festival.

"As recommended, I'm now stuck in isolation, sniffling in bed, feeling very upset to let all you angels down," she wrote on social media.

image copyrightReutersimage captionArlo Parks tested positive for Covid on Friday morning, a day after being nominated for the Mercury Prize

"Even though it's very safe and everyone's been tested, I felt like I was breaking the rules," says Camilla Staveley-Taylor – whose band The Staves play a quietly spectacular teatime set on the BBC Sounds stage.

"We've got gigs every weekend over the summer," adds her sister Jessica, "and the reality is that we have to isolate between shows because it's a job where, if you can't go to work, no-one can cover you."

"There's also the pressure of how that affects the crew and the rest of the band," says Camilla.

"Everyone's had a really hard time this last couple of years, so if I get it [Covid], then all of them are out of work. So we're not really having much of a life until the summer is over."

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Almost everyone describes the event as "surreal"; a relic of the before-times. And it turns out that playing to an audience after 18 months of livestreams takes a bit of getting used to.

"I felt like I'd been teleported on stage," Camilla says,

"I was sort of remembering the chords for the songs," Jessica adds, "and then I was like, 'Oh no, there are some people here as well!'"

image copyrightSequoia Ziffimage captionThe Staves played without their sister, Emily (right), who is currently caring for her one-year-old daughter

But if anything, the fans' enthusiasm spurs the musicians on. Mabel has to leave the stage on three separate occasions because, she says, the audience is "making me [dance] so hard, my earpiece is falling out".

The biggest beneficiaries are opening night headliners Wolf Alice, who draw a crowd of thousands to their blistering, euphoric set.

Opening with the ferocious alt-rock anthem Smile, it's a masterclass in dynamics and pacing, as they intersperse their biggest hits (Bros, Don't Delete The Kisses, Moaning Lisa Smile) with the dreamy, layered soundscapes of their latest album, Blue Weekend.

image copyrightGetty Imagesimage captionWolf Alice played an intimate warm-up show in Bournemouth the night before their biggest-ever festival slot

Highlights include the snarling Giant Peach and a tender, acoustic version of Safe From Heartbreak – after which the band catch each other's eyes burst into laughter, relieved at getting the harmonies right.

Towards the end of the set, the band's normally implacable frontwoman Ellie Rowsell surveys the sea of people and smiles, "There are no words. No words."

And as the final chords of The Last Man On Earth ring out, the band turn and blow kisses to the crowd, who respond in kind.

It's a fitting reminder of how much both sides have missed each other.

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