The Daily Telegraph
Live music pandemic-style, strange but also reassuring
Live music is back. Sort of. After four months of making do with pop stars streaming half-hearted semi-acoustic sets from their living rooms via Zoom, 2,500 revellers assembled in an open space at Gosforth Park to watch local hero Sam Fender (he grew up in North Shields, eight miles away) thrash an electric guitar, and deliver a loud, passionate performance of full-blooded rock and roll. “Newcastle, we’re making history tonight!” yelled Fender, and it was hard to blame him for being so excited, even if he was performing to a crowd all separated into small groups by crash barriers and policed by masked stewards in case they got too carried away and strayed out of their demarcated space. Welcome to socially distanced pandemic entertainment.
The ambitiously named Virgin Money Unity Arena is a pop-up venue created at Newcastle Racecourse by local promoters SSD. Virgin Money are the sponsors. Unity is the aim. But calling it an arena is a bit of a stretch. It’s a field with a big stage at one end. The area is vast, 45,000 square metres, the equivalent of six football pitches. In normal circumstances, it could host 40,000 people but capacity has been reduced to just 2,500 by small square platforms enclosed in railings, each spaced two metres apart and accommodating up to five people. Effectively, there are 500 social bubbles. The set-up reminded me weirdly of the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason, on which hundreds of hospital beds were arranged on a beach in a monument to uniform sterility.
In other circumstances you might describe the 26-year-old Fender as rabble rousing, but first you need a rabble to rouse. I last saw Fender at Brixton Academy last year when his fans formed spontaneous mosh pits, singing along at the top of their voices in a frenzy of joyous rock and roll community. This was … a little different. As his band launched into the fierce, churning rocker Spice, he said: “Normally, when we play this one people end up in A&E. But you’ll probably be safe tonight.”
Live music has been decimated by Covid-19, putting a billion-pound industry at risk of complete collapse. SSD promoters are really the first in the world to come up with what looks like a viable pandemic set-up with close attention to every detail. They are hosting 29 events over the next 25 days, with shows by Van Morrison and the Libertines among others, as long as there’s no virus spike in Newcastle leading to a local lockdown. It is an expensive set-up for a relatively small audience, only made possible by generous sponsorship. No one seems to know how viable it will be in the long run but the point is really to give hope to an industry on its knees.
Fender and his tight, driven rock band played a fierce, uplifting set, and the crowd responded with a unity that defied isolation. I’m not going to pretend it was the greatest gig I have ever been to in my life, or that I had some religious epiphany at the return of music to a public stage. But at a certain point in the evening, when darkness fell, the stage lights blazed, the sound boomed crisp and loud, the band roared and the crowd’s voices rose into the sky, it felt like watching a rock gig in any other festival field on a cold, wet night in August. And that in itself was reassuring.