return sports team

Back with a bang: The return of live music

Jamie MacMillan speaks to musicians and venue owners across the country as live music make a riotous return, bringing hordes of hungry music fans together without restriction for the first time, 18 long months after the pandemic began.

Jamie MacMillan
  • By Jamie MacMillan
  • 20 Jul 2021
  • min read
It seems to only take a little while for it all to feel normal again. The queues at the bar, the crackle of electricity in the air, the rumble of heavy bass in the gut, the kinetic surge and tumble of the first legal and open to everybody moshpit in nearly a year and a half. Of course, no reminder is needed as to how, and why, we ever lost that feeling in the first place — the stress and trauma of the last year still roaring around the world on a daily basis. But the live music industry is nothing if not resilient and, as the country returns to the nearest to normal life that it has been since last spring, it has begun to bounce back into life. An overnighter at London’s The Oval Space fires the starting pistol on restriction-free live events, the 00:01 festival beginning at the stroke of midnight, before the new dawn is welcomed in by a host of gigs around the country the following night.

Excitement is only one emotion being felt by everyone of course, with an understandable sense of apprehension and nervousness running through everybody involved in these early shows — venues, artists and promoters alike all intent on making them feel safe and stress-free for all concerned. Any cheesy talk of ‘Freedom Day’ couldn’t be further from the truth. ‘I think for a long time, everybody was expecting that there would be a day when the church bells rang and we could all run out in the street and hug’, explains Frank Turner, as he prepares for opening night at The Clapham Grand. ‘But it’s not quite that now is it? It’s complicated.’

There’s no escaping the stark statistics that emerge on the news every day, but everyone involved in these opening shows is resolute in their belief of, 'If not now, when?’ ‘I hope there aren’t a group of people who feel like they might be excluded from it,’ admits Alex Rice (Sports Team) a few days before his band take to the stage at Banquet Records in Kingston. ‘Whether that’s health fears or personal anxiety about going back to gigs. I do think that we’ve got to the stage where it’s probably as safe as it’s gonna be.’ As Turner explains, these early shows are built on a solid base. ‘Nobody in the music industry is interested in making things worse, you know?’ He says, ‘But at the same time, we’ve done a series of pilot events that had extremely good data come out of them.’ With ambiguity in the air however, venues are having to build their own approaches to gigs coming back from scratch, something that Mark Davyd, chief executive of Music Venue Trust explains. ‘It’s never just been about getting them open again,’ he says. ‘We want them to be open and to be safe to go to.’ After hugely successful campaigns (over £5 million was donated by the public to keep venues open), he is justifiably proud of this moment. ‘I think this is absolutely a perfect illustration of what people can do when they set their minds to it,’ he says, ‘About how important these grassroots music venues are to their communities, to artists, to audiences. They simply wouldn’t let them close.’ 

alex rob
For Ally Wolf, general manager at the Grand, it's fitting that it's Frank Turner who is welcoming in the new era. ‘I wouldn’t want to work with anyone but him on this first show’, he says. ‘With all the stresses involved, to know that it’s him and his team, they’ve been part of our journey. It is poetic.’ For Turner himself, after having played a test event and putting on a live stream there, it is like coming home — both location-wise, and as part of the music community. ‘It’s not just live music’, he explains to me. ‘It’s that the moments of gathering and commonality are extremely important to people, to their sense of themselves, and their mental health.’ It’s a theme that many artists return to. ‘Life’s pretty dull during a pandemic. Our lives are usually punctuated by these kinds of extreme cathartic, transcendental moments,’ Rice explains, ‘Where you feel part of something bigger than your own petty problems. When you’re in a band, it’s the only way you actually get a sense with how your music is connecting with people.’ ‘The event is the thing that creates the community,’ is how Davyd puts it. ‘If you’re at all unusual in your outlook in any kind of rural town, you congregate towards that little beacon of counter-culture, where the interesting stuff happens. Losing all of that would have been dreadful.’

The following night, the rest of the country has its chance to get involved as doors are thrown open everywhere. In Manchester, The Goa Express are one of the first to play. Having spent lockdown writing and rehearsing, it is a chance to get back to doing what they do best. ‘It’s a communal thing isn’t it, being in a band?’ suggests frontman James Douglas Clarke. ‘You don’t start a band to isolate yourself away from people.’ After all those early shows at the likes of Hebden’s The Trades Club and The Golden Lion in Todmorden, he admits to a relief that they are even able to open at all after everything they’ve been through. His hopes for the show are plain and simple though, and refreshingly honest. ‘I want it to be sweaty, up close and personal. Everything that lockdown wasn’t.’

Back in London, Rice is just as thankful. ‘Our album’s been out so long, it’s like going to see Neil Diamond or someone like that’, he says, tongue only possibly in cheek. ‘For us and a lot of our fans, we’ve all had a lot of formative experiences together to it, so I think it could be quite emotional. To be honest, if venues hadn’t reopened this time, I’m not sure I would have been able to take it any more. It would have been me, Andrew Lloyd Webber and the cast of Cats in the slammer at Belmarsh Prison.’

Over at Clapham, Turner is also preparing quietly for an emotional night. ‘I’ve been thinking about it a lot ahead of tonight’, he says. ‘At any gig in ‘normal’ times, it’s divided in participation levels from the crowd. Some people want to be down the front moshing all night, while others want to watch quietly from the sidelines. I think those divides will be in sharper relief now.’ Sure enough, that’s exactly what happens at Sports Team, a judgement-free mix of carefree and caution amongst the crowd in a venue where attention and care has been given to live music in a safe setting.

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As the confetti begins to settle on these first shows back, attention turns cautiously to the future. ‘First of all, it will be bruises and a hangover’, grins Mark Davyd when asked what big challenges will be come The Day After gigs return. Sadly, he goes on to reel off a terrifying list of very real issues currently facing venues around the country. But, at last, there is a sense of optimism to balance against worries of the battles to come.

‘I think you don’t realise how good something is until it’s gone or you think you might lose it,’ admits Ally Wolf. ‘Something like this does really make you sit up and take note of how lucky you are to have the job you do. It makes you realise what an amazing asset it is to the nightlife industry, and how important it is for people to go out and be entertained.’ For now though, it's a time to enjoy and celebrate the return of proper gigs to the clubs and venues of England. ‘Having my culture and my passion be switched off for a year and a half has been incredibly hard’, finishes Frank Turner, ‘I think I’m going to allow myself a moment to celebrate having it back.’ The same goes for all of us on that one.

Photos by Jamie MacMillan