Gigs Are Back: Thoughts on Live Music After Lockdown

I went to my first gig this weekend.

Well, my first gig after a year and a half without gigs. Incisions played a secret set at The Peer Hat in Manchester, under the pseudonym The Big Arse. It seemed like the best time to dip my toe back into the gig-going pool, a secret warm-up show before diving in headfirst. 

The first thing I’d forgotten: the heat. Descending the stairs into the venue’s basement, the oppressive heat of 40+ other bodies was oppressive and surprising. The artificial climate of a punk show is entirely different from a natural heatwave, or the noisy buzz of my electric heaters in winter, and I’d forgotten to expect it. 

The second forgotten thing was the hand stamps. At some point, I visited the toilets – incidentally full of red-eyed women holding private conversations with girls they’d just met – all the cubicles miraculously free. When I went to wash my hands (happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you), I suddenly remembered not to wash too thoroughly, lest I should clean my admission stamp off. Waking up the next day, I gazed at the faded black stamp on the back of my hand, wistfully remembering all the ones I’d struggled to scrub off in the past.

Finally, I’d forgotten how bad gigs can be. And how that’s not a problem. A bad gig isn’t bad as such, because it’s a good time. On this occasion, the band was great but the sound was not, The Peer Hat being to sort of haphazard basement venue that sounds completely different depending on which corner you’re stood in. In the back, where the mixing desk is, the drums sound full and rich, but at the front where the crowd is, it sounds like someone’s bashing ladles onto wooden bowls. At the front, I could hear the fret noise of the bass with such precision that it overpowered the vocals, but at the bar, I could understand every word. 

Halfway through the set, the vocalist, Jordan Lloyd, apologised: “I’m sorry if you’re thinking we’re like this because we’ve not played in a while. We’re actually like this all the time.” If I wanted to listen to a precise rendition of Fuck The World I’d be sat at home with the album spinning. I’m not here for a spirited classical recital; I’m here for the chaos, the sweat, and the rib-rattling force of the PA. I’m here because no two gigs are alike. I cannot hit pause to make a cup of tea, nor rewind the best bits; I can’t even talk over the dull bits; I can only live in this one-off moment of time before it reaches a crashing end.

The best thing about being at the gig was the faces of all the people around me. Stood towards the front I was, once again, surrounded by friends, some of whom I used to only see at gigs. Over the lockdowns, some of us had made the effort to hang out, some of us hadn’t. That’s fine; there are some people you’re only supposed to remember in crowded basements. As well as the band, I was watching these other people having a good time. There was a human pyramid – the signature of any Manchester punk show – that happened so quickly that I forgot that I was probably supposed to climb on it. Jordan crowd-surfed from the stage and nearly headbutted a projector. Drinks were spilled, the floor was a hazard.

The Big Arse live at The Peer Hat, Manchester (7 August 2021)

I expect many people are experiencing the same, strange thrill currently: doing something normal that feels exceptionally strange. The UK’s been through three lockdowns, and Manchester was under restrictions for even longer, so I’ve not been to a gig since February 2020. It’s now August of 2021. The prolonged break isn’t the only source of anxiety; I’m also nervous about catching or carrying the virus. I often think I’d feel more assured if I did trust the government, and their plan to lift restrictions, but I wouldn’t be much of a punk if I wasn’t questioning the authority’s choices. 

I’m not a touchy-feely person. I enjoy my own personal space. I am not a massive fan of hugging under normal circumstances, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic. I am a big fan of the ironic elbow bump. This added layer of concern has renewed any social anxiety I may have had about gigs (and any social event, really). The morning after The Big Arse show, I found myself worrying about how many people I’d come into contact with, ruminating over the potential incubation period for COVID-19 and how long I would have to wait before I knew if I was safe or not. Should I hold off going out next weekend, if I’ve got big plans the week after?

Anecdotally, I hear it’s even more complex from a band perspective. People who’ve not played for 18 months are both excited and nervous to return to the stage. A drummer friend said that he’s simply not fit enough to play a gig at the moment. A vocalist said her voice just can’t hold the same notes when she’s out of practice. In the last two months, a lot of bands have pulled out of shows because one member was self-isolating. Booking and playing shows is more complicated than ‘normal’ right now.

There’s also an assumption that all bands and fans will want to pick up where they left off. There must be some bands who have moved onto new projects, lost interest in their old sound, had a change of lifestyle (a child, a new job, relocating to Australia, etc.). Fans are expected to flock back into gigs en masse as soon as they restart, but it’s possible their priorities have changed. I’d choose to see my family and friends over going to see a band right now … I’m just lucky that bands are my family and friends, so I don’t need to make that choice.

There have been a lot of gig announcements recently; my weekend calendar is full through December and beyond. Although I am excited to see as many bands as I possibly can, I’m trying to carry some lessons from lockdown through to the ‘new normal’. Enforced isolation has helped me to understand just how important solitude and sleep are to my mental wellbeing. Whilst working from home, I also need the motivation to get up and get on with my job every day, which I struggle with if I’ve been out the night before. All this has me asking myself this question: “You may want to go to that gig, but is it good for your wellbeing?” 

I haven’t found the answers yet, but I do intend to take a quality-over-quantity approach to attending shows over the next few months. Whilst I want to go to every single gig, I don’t want to wind up a burnt-out, hyperstimulated, sleep-deprived caffeine vamp by Christmas. It’s going to be hard to maintain that self-control when there are so many great gigs booked, though.

I’m going to my first all-dayer tomorrow. Wish me luck! 

Written by Sarah Williams.

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