There had been monsoon warnings; there had been reports that yoga would be taking place on site this year, but nothing had prepared me for a more shocking event at Latitude Festival on Friday – there was dancing. Lots of it.
In the past few years, at least, this has been a rare occurrence in front of the main stage at the Suffolk music and arts festival – partly because the indie-rock bands that normally dominate the line-up make your head nod more than they make your feet move. Partly, too, because Latitude is a family-friendly event and no one wants to dance with their dad.
But, halfway through an expertly judged early afternoon set of Housemartins and Beautiful South favourites by Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, there it was: people were definitely dancing to the old Housemartins hit “Happy Hour”. It was a good omen and there was more frugging straight after for Billy Bragg’s bouncy opening number, “Sexuality”. “I love that disco stuff,” the Essex twangster pronounced wryly.
The dancing mood was partly inspired by scorching weather but it was also down to a clever choice of opening-night performers. Kelis brought a crystal-clear band, a brass section and a salvo of dancefloor favourites such as “Milkshake” and “Got Your Money” that were lapped up by the crowd.
There were also surprise guests, unveiled only that day. Rudimental, who have become a kind of default house band for festivals in the past year, bounded on, prompting the kind of mass pogoing more often seen in a drum-and-bass club than in this polite setting. “Rudimentary” might be a better word for some of their set but much of it was excellent – “Waiting all Night” remains a thrill no matter how many times you’ve heard it.
By contrast, Editors’ unshowy rock initially signalled a resumption of solemn head-nodding and subtle foot-pumping across most of the crowd. But the opener “The Weight of Love” set an impressively intense pace and by the time the band got to “Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors” they too had got the crowd going.
The rest of the night belonged to Lily Allen, who arrived amid reports of a “Twitter storm”. Some festivalgoers were apparently unhappy that the brazen Londoner was the last-minute replacement for the original headliners – the unassuming Two Door Cinema Club.
Allen’s response was typical. One song in, she donned a Two Door Cinema Club T-shirt and launched into a hastily rapped version of their songs. It was a sweet moment but also one requiring no little effrontery. “Sorry I’m not Two Door Cinema Club,” she smiled, leaving us to wade through several layers of meaning.
The end result was never in doubt after that. Allen bounced through party numbers and ironic broadsides like “Hard Out Here” with equal conviction and even threw in her slightly odd cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know”. The spectacle of a middle-class festival crowd singing along to the theme song for the John Lewis Christmas shopping ad was entertaining in its own right.
Fast forward 24 hours and Damon Albarn – he of Blur, Gorillaz, Chinese folk songs and countless other hip sidelines – was on stage with a clown, a man in a yellow suit and a ukulele, and a gospel choir singing a song about a baby elephant. Oh, and there was a spectacular light show courtesy of a memorable electrical storm.
It was a delirious end to the show. Albarn had already invited erstwhile Blur partner Graham Coxon on stage for “Tender”, a moment topped only by the Gorillaz hit “Clint Eastwood”, the crowd dancing obliviously in the downpour as said clown pretended to stalk Albarn with a foam pie. Then it was the turn of the choir, who ripped through a jubilant “Mr Tembo” (the elephant song) and a final soaring “Heavy Seas of Love”, the beefed-up arrangements taking Albarn’s excellent latest compositions to an even higher level, as they had all night.
The early evening had been made for two Latitude favourites, with Bombay Bicycle Club and First Aid Kit returning to the line-up. Both pulled big crowds for their respectively upbeat and wistful sets – although for those who wanted a moment of high-quality introspection, Conor Oberst was brilliant and Afghan Whigs’ carnal grunge sent shivers down the spine.
For many the highlight of the day was Hall & Oates, whose show could have been filled twice over. The crowd – many spilling over on to the grass outside the arena – were richly rewarded with a set of easy virtuosity and blue-eyed soul standards including, lengthily, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”. Eighties hitmakers plus a nostalgia-hungry crowd plus a tent in a field – the perfect music festival storm.
There was plenty more rocking to be done on Sunday as a string of high-quality guitar bands took prominence. The still-superior alt-country of the Jayhawks deserved a bigger crowd, as did the loudly laconic Parquet Courts. West coast sisters Haim were hugely popular and the galloping Black Keys brought the festival to a close with maximum volume and minimum fuss. Best of the lot, though, were War on Drugs, whose Lost in the Dream will surely be one of the albums of the year, and whose set here captured their soaring sound beautifully.
At the other end of the sonic spectrum, the pop-classical ensemble Clean Bandit played a wildly acclaimed set that proved the dancing was here to stay. It ended in a mass singalong of their breakthrough song, the refrain, “No place I’d rather be”, providing the happy audience with a handy summary of their weekend.