by Ali Lewis
I didn’t really allow myself to believe that this gig would happen until the moment itself, but as the staff at the Bristol O2 Academy usher the queue inside, it seems it is actually going to happen. It’s an incredibly surreal and poignant moment- my first live gig since 1st March 2020. After all this time, some things are the same and some are different, and these things are not necessarily what I expected.
I saw Bombay Bicycle Club perform at Glasgow Barrowland in January 2020. At the time they had just released their fifth studio album, the now eerily prescient “Everything Else Has Gone Wrong”, though frontman Jack Steadman tells the crowd tonight that they meant it optimistically at the time. He has worried a bit over the past year, he says, that it might have jinxed everything. It seems unfathomable now, but in January 2020 thousands of us stood stuffed together in that massive room, not a mask in sight, jumping on each other a bit for the heavier numbers. We danced to Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” as we shuffled out happily at the end, and none of us saw what was looming. There was a virus in China, but the news was telling us that it was never going to affect us. I went home happily, dreaming of my next gig. In mid-March the shutters came down on society and on live music. Between October 2019 and March 2020 I had gone to seven gigs up and down the U.K. It was a huge part of my life and then it was just gone overnight. I’m glad that I had no idea back then that it would be so long before I would experience that again. It might have broken me.
As a society, we readily accept the importance of some things to our lives as humans, sport being a prime example. Much has been made of the loss to football of having the crowd in the stadium, for both the players and the supporters. The importance of the arts, including live music, tends to be trivialised. We’ve looked on as large football matches have been allowed to go ahead in the UK with sizeable crowds, whilst concerts and plays and musicals remain out of reach, seemingly not a priority for the government. Yet for so many of us, music is in our DNA. It soundtracks our lives, enhancing the good times and shoring us up in the bad times. I feel this way about Bombay Bicycle Club and so many of the songs they play tonight. I first properly discovered the band in summer 2016, ironically just after they had split up, sold their instruments and I thought I would never hear them play live. The bands who become our favourites establish a visceral connection with us: this can’t be forced. It just feels different: we hear a song and there is a physical reaction. I feel unbelievably lucky to have seen the band twice, on either side of lockdown, and it feels appropriate that it should be this way when their music helped me get through that time.
Some things are different, some are not
I’ve chosen to spend a not inconsiderable amount of money flying down to Bristol to this gig, as in Scotland, where I live, and in many other countries around the world, gig venues and nightclubs remain closed. It’s been arranged at short notice, following a government announcement that from 19th July most Covid restrictions will no longer be legally enforced including, crucially, masks and social distancing. This gig and one show in Northampton are warm-up gigs for the band’s set at Latitude Festival in Suffolk the following evening: the festival that almost no one expected would go ahead. It’s a landmark moment and it truly is only when the support act comes on stage that I actually believe we will get to experience it.
Some things about live music after lockdown are different. I join a queue as normal, but I’ve had to take a Covid test within the previous 24 hours and show my result at the door to get in. If you’ve received both vaccines at least two weeks prior to the gig or have natural immunity, you can also show proof of that as an alternative. They’ve asked us to wear masks, though they can’t legally enforce them, and the staff all wear them. I had wondered how it would feel to stand shoulder to shoulder with a crowd after eighteen months of social distancing and severe restrictions on freedom. As it turns out, it feels normal again very quickly for me and seemingly for all the people around me. The 1000-strong crowd look overjoyed to be here. Few people are wearing masks. At the barrier, most of us are wearing them at the start of the gig, but the atmosphere soon becomes hot and oppressive and by the end of the gig almost no one is still masked up. It’s a difficult one: I wonder how it must feel for the band to see the front row in masks and be unable to fully see the smiles on their faces or hear them singing. On the other hand there’s the staff in front of me, who don’t have a choice but be here, and the very lovely couple to my right, who keep theirs on throughout. I eventually settle for moderating the volume of my singing and shouting and moving away from them a bit. Everyone will have their own thoughts on masks and whether removing them is selfish, irresponsible and so on, but what strikes me is that the majority of the crowd tonight are more than happy to unmask. At some point after all, whether now or not, we are going to need to take them off and see what happens.
Other things, more positive things, are different. The first is the sheer joy on everyone’s faces. This feeling starts before we even enter the venue when a random man walks past, asks what’s on tonight, says it’s fantastic that gigs are back and wishes everyone a great time. Even people who aren’t actually going, sense the importance. The excitement in the air is palpable: the support act, solo artist Tamu Massif, gets a more than usually enthusiastic welcome and rapturous applause at the end. He says several times how meaningful this is, and you can tell it’s absolutely sincere. A few times, he looks like he might cry. Lockdown has been particularly hard on new artists, deprived of the audiences they need to learn their craft as performers. Tonight, he’s really getting that chance.
A livestream cannot do this
When the band take the stage, Jack Steadman tells the crowd that they all will have massive grins plastered to their faces for the entire gig, and they do. It’s obvious what performing in front of a crowd means to them: when Steadman crosses the stage to jam with guitarist Jamie MacColl or bassist Ed Nash, or MacColl goes round and joins the rhythm section for a song, they look like they’re genuinely bursting with happiness, playing alongside their bandmates. You can’t get that from an online gig, and God love them, they tried, doing more than many bands a decade into their careers to connect with their fans during the many months of lockdown. Steadman attempted a solo Insta livestream in May 2020 which was hampered by wifi issues, gritting his teeth and smiling through it. In December 2020 the band performed a livestream gig to celebrate the release of a live recording of their decade-old first album “I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose”. It was as good as livestreams can ever be, but what I remember most is the poignancy of Steadman suddenly going quiet at one point, then hastily saying “I’m sorry- the crowd usually sings that bit”. He looked momentarily bereft, and I remember wanting to dive into the screen and give him a hug. Steadman did another solo acoustic livestream in January this year, on the anniversary of their fifth album’s release. It was during the depths of a third lockdown in the UK, where any hope of normal life resuming seemed further away than ever. He sang a stripped back version of “Everything Else Has Gone Wrong” and I cried when I watched it. The line “Keep the stereo on- everything else has gone wrong” hit particularly hard- for any of us who love music, new songs and albums seemed our only little gifts of lockdown. They kept us going in the dark. I was crying too for what had been taken away. As Steadman says, it was supposed to be an optimistic song. It was never harder to be optimistic than in January this year amid the dark, cold and bleakness.
Tonight though, the song feels restored to its original intent. Another unexpected change I notice is in how I consume this experience tonight. At some gigs in the past, I’ve watched at a remove, through the screen of my phone, half thinking of capturing a good video for later, or a good picture for social media, as shallow as that seems. Tonight, my phone mostly stays in my pocket. I want my eyes to be on the stage, on the band’s faces, on Steadman’s feet dancing manically, his face shining with happiness, Nash’s thrumming, electric bass lines, MacColl’s guitar solos. I want to take in every moment, every movement, and imprint it across my memory. I’m entranced by how much more alive the band look in front of the crowd. Steadman smiled his way through all the livestream performances he did but it pales in comparison with the hyperactive, child-like energy that he exudes tonight, jumping up and down and repeatedly reaching his hands towards the crowd. When I do capture a few short videos, it’s the crowd reaction inspiring all of this energy that I’m filming: their singing and clapping and whoops and yells and cheers, their sheer, human happiness. This is what we’ve been missing in music for so long.
And in the end, the most fundamental thing that hasn’t changed is the energy that people get from being with other people. Not all people feel this but many, many people do, many, many more than we perhaps realise, especially those who need music to feel fully human. Even after eighteen months without this connection, it comes back instantly because it’s such a natural impulse. At the end of the gig, as the lights come up, “All Night Long” by Lionel Ritchie is played again. This time nobody on the floor wants to leave and I film the crowd singing at the tops of their voices, grooving, getting down to the music. It’s a beautiful moment because we all know now how suddenly and brutally these experiences can be whipped away and how important it is to grab hold of them while they are there. Tonight, when Steadman sings the lyrics of “Everything Else Has Gone Wrong” it feels like we’re heading in the right direction: “I guess I’ve found my peace again and yes I’ve found some hope again….and yes I‘ve found my second wind”.