The First Gig Back

(Photo credit – CapturedByCorinne)

Last night I played an actual, real-life, no-fooling, human-attended GIG. The first one since March 15th in Southend-On-Sea. In the interim I’ve done 26 livestream shows, but this was the first one with people in front of me, rather than my phone, my wife and my cat. It was quite an evening.

The gig came together like this. One of the venue benefit livestreams I did was for the Clapham Grand – a 120-year-old music hall run by my old friend Ally Wolf. I actually went to the venue for that one, and the fact of being in a room with a stage, a PA and a dressing room upstairs affected me emotionally much more than I’d been expecting. It changed my mind about the worth of doing a reduced-capacity show, should the occasion arise.

Meanwhile, the government here in the UK recently announced that they’d start permitting indoor performances from August 1st, dependent on a series of pilot events. Mark Davyd, the hero of the Music Venue Trust, was charged with sorting that out, and he called me to ask if I’d be interested in performing, in part as a thank you for the Independent Venue Love shows I’ve been doing. I readily agreed.

There was then a titanic bit of faffing around on the part of the powers-that-be (I’m aware that we’re in an unprecedented global pandemic, and that government infrastructure is under great strain, but fucking hell, this government couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery), it was arranged that the show would take place on Tuesday July 28th at the Grand. While there had been a musical theatre pilot event at the Palladium last week, under the aegis of Andrew Lloyd Webber, this was to be the first indoor independent music gig since lockdown started. Historic stuff.

Ally is an old friend – we met back in the Nambucca days – and he and his staff at the venue are the real heroes of this story. After we’d agreed to the show, Ally then called me to explain the regulations and restrictions required for it to go ahead. Among many other things (reduced capacity, track and trace, one-way systems, table service, temperature checks and more), there was a requirement that the audience were not allowed to sing. That brought me up short, and nearly made me change my mind about the show. Getting the crowd involved in the performance is at the heart of what I do on stage, and the shows I play work towards a moment of unification, where the barrier between performer and audience breaks down. That wouldn’t now be possible (or at the very least would be much harder). The reason, of course, is to to with aerosol diffusion from people’s voices – and as part of that I had to be 3 metres back from the front of the stage. I get that, but it was still galling to hear on the phone.

In the end I decided to go ahead – mainly by thinking about the alternatives. The government has requested that pilots go ahead. Collectively, as an industry, if the artists and venues respond to that by saying “no”, then, well, we’re just stuck where we are. Something has to happen to break the logjam and get us all moving forward.

So our aims with the show were threefold. Firstly, to demonstrate willingness to try. The live music industry is full of people who are triers, problem-solvers, go-getters, by its ver nature. We have to show that we’re game to find a solution to the problem posed by the pandemic. Secondly, we wanted to show that both performers and audience could successfully abide by the restrictions posited by the powers-that-be (in which we were successful – more on that shortly).

But thirdly, in a weird way, we wanted to show that this specific set-up doesn’t work. The Grand was at less than 20% of capacity (around 200 people), but Ally had to double the number of staff working, to meet all the guidelines. There was no talent spend (I didn’t get paid), and no advertising spend (the show sold out pretty much straight away), and yet it still lost money. And the Grand is a versatile space, as an old music hall, in a way that many independent venues are not. We needed to show that this isn’t a complete solution or a workable model, that either restrictions need to change or more funding is required; essentially that fight is far from over.

All told, it felt like the right thing to do – and of course, it’s what I do. Lockdown meant the immediate and total collapse of the industry I work in, a complete halt to my earnings, but most crucially, a body blow to my own identity. I play shows, that’s me, I’m that guy. Not being able to do that (streams aside) for the last four months has been weird and hard. I really, really wanted to play a show.

I got there on the day at lunchtime, for a long afternoon of press and a soundcheck. I’d sort of forgotten that gig days are hectic outside of your time on change – it’s funny how quickly we’ve all adapted to the situation. I went through my lines with journalists, checked the sound, and took stock of the layout of the room. Ally and his team had gone to enormous lengths to make everything safe and controlled as required. It felt pretty weird, but at the same time, it was still definitely a show. Hell, I’ve played to fewer people than this in larger rooms in my time!

Everything was set, and the time for doors to open rolled around. Ticket holders had been given staggered arrival times to prevent any crush, but Ally still had to chase off a couple of tabloid photographers who, as far as we could tell, had come down specifically to try and get a compromising shot of people breaking the rules. In the midst of the hard work and good will around the show, it was a reminder that some people are just dickheads. Thankfully they left empty-handed.

In no time it was showtime. First up was the amazing Ciara Haidar – another friend from the Nambucca days who briefly played keys in my band before Matt Nasir. In a way the honour of “first show back” goes to her and her wonderful, haunting set. The audience were respectful and enthusiastic, whilst obeying the rules – more foot-stamping than cheering. Everything was going swimmingly.

Next up, Jay (Beans On Toast), who likely needs no introduction for people reading this. He opened with a new song called “Save The Music”, which brought a genuine tear to my eye, so perfectly did it capture the moment. I think most artists will have written “lockdown” songs (myself included), and I think this song will put most of those to shame.

Unsurprisingly, Jay had the whole of the room in the palm of his hand for 30 minutes, and then he was done. I found myself feeling properly nervous, which is unusual for me, with the amount of shows I’ve done. Usually I know roughly what to expect, but it was different now. I congratulated Jay in the dressing room, and he told me: “You have no idea what’s about to happen to you, emotionally, once you step on that stage.”

And he was right. I think all three of us playing last night had become a bit blasé about it, not least because we’d played on that stage to no audience a month prior, for a livestream benefit. So mentally, well, it was just the same again. Except, of course, that it wasn’t. This time there was an audience.

I took the stage and felt the power of what jay had been warning me about. After months of playing to the back of my phone, this was something entirely different. It was powerful, slightly nerve-wracking, magical, and it felt like coming home, all at the same time. I opened with a new lockdown song of my own called “The Gathering”, which is about the moment when we’re allowed back into our hallowed communal spaces for the shows that give our lives such meaning. Today was not quite that day, given all the restrictions and financial strictures, but it was getting closer.

The set flew by. The audience were amazing – appreciative but respectful. Ally brought cardboard cutouts of some silent types – Marcel Marceau, Mr Bean and Charlie Chaplin (who last walked that stage in 1901 – really!) – up to remind people about the singalong rules. And at the end he triggered the traditional balloon drop. I left the stage sweaty and elated.

So there it was. This is not the start of a series of shows like this – that’d bankrupt everyone involved. But it was, as I say, a gesture of cooperation, an attempt to feel out the situation with an eye to taking steps in a better direction. But most of all it was a fucking GIG. I have missed that, for sure. It turns out, live music really, really matters.

The fight is not yet over, not by a long stretch. The Music Venue Trust’s excellent #saveourvenues campaign is here.
The Grand have a fundraiser with signed items for sale here.

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