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Live music returned to Liverpool after 14 months as part of the government’s Events Research Programme. Elliot Ryder reports back from the shows taking place at Bramley-Moore Dock and Sefton Park to consider what it all means for the 21st June reopening.
“Unbelievable… wild… fucking boss,” responds ZUZU when asked to describe playing to a non-socially distanced crowd for the first time in 14 months. Sat behind the 6,000-capacity big top tent at Sefton Park shortly after coming off stage, the magnitude of the occasion is still yet to sink in for the artist given the “honour” of opening proceedings. “I haven’t processed it at all,” she adds. Her face is a mix of happiness and disbelief when recalling the adoration from the tightly-packed bodies just a few metres away. “I didn’t realise how much of an impact live music had on artists’ lives until we couldn’t do it anymore. That first show back was beyond amazing. I’m so, so grateful that we got to do it. I was crying all the way off stage.”
Within earshot, Wigan’s THE LATHUMS pick up the baton from Zuzu and rumble into their opener. Later, Stockport’s BLOSSOMS will play to a near-full capacity tent.
Today’s event forms part of the government’s events research programme – a series of live events from which data is being collected and monitored in the hope it will inform the roadmap to allowing large scale events and gatherings to return from 21st June.
While restrictions are minimal once inside, the events feature a core safeguarding measure for those with a ticket. Everyone on the inside of the festival perimeter walls has had to provide proof of a negative lateral flow test in the last 72 hours. Before arriving, they have been asked to take a PCR test at home, with a second five days after the event. The process doesn’t appear too taxing given the reactions of those in attendance. Making it through the gate, taking off masks and no longer having to adhere to social distancing brings out arguably some of the biggest cheers of the day. The big top tent stands as currently the most liberated bubble in the UK. Many can’t quite believe their luck.
(Zuzu. Photo: John Johnson)
The 4,000 descending on Sefton Park aren’t the first crowd of its kind congregating in Liverpool over the weekend. Two days earlier, local promoters and record label Circus are the first to stage a non-socially distanced music event in the UK since the pandemic took hold.
Inside the former warehouse at Bramley-Moore Dock, the 3,000-strong crowd are the most exciting import the structure has seen in recent memory. Throughout the afternoon, they’ll be guided by the selections of Liverpool’s own LAUREN LO SUNG and YOUSEF, with international heavyweights JAYDA G, THE BLESSED MADONNA and SVEN VÄTH taking to the decks through the afternoon and evening event.
Being back in a large events space made for close contact brings with it a palpable euphoria. Many in attendance take a moment to themselves to stop and look on at a throbbing mass of people dancing towards the front of the crash barrier. The tangible image of people legally together incites the same level of internal ecstasy as when Jayda G hammers out Floorplan’s Never Grow Old. Groups of friends come together and pose to have their photo taken with the backdrop of the crowd akin to a trophy presentation. It’s a fitting reaction here on Merseyside, with the 15-month wait feeling more like the 30-year slog of Liverpool FC in attempting to be back in one’s rightful place – front and centre in the heart of the dance.
“I’d convinced myself I would be as careful as possible and still try to social distance, but the lure of socialising won in the end,” says Ollie Adebsi who attended the Friday event. “People were smiling and talking about how lucky we all were to experience this. It seemed like the drinks, the DJs, the venue, the confetti were beautiful, but it all was unequivocal to the feeling of all 3,000 of us being together without pandemic rules for a few hours.”
(Yousef. Photo: Jody Hartley)
The Circus event is a landmark moment for those behind the decks as well as those partying on the other side. Videos of an emotional Lauren Lo Sung as she played the first record of the afternoon show just how much music and its shared experience means. The hole it’s left in people’s lives. It’s this feeling that perforates so much of this evening’s somewhat surreal unification of body, music and collective thought in a year where so much has felt splintered and distant.
“From the moment I started to when I finished, I wanted it to be emotionally charged. I wanted it to be a release for me as well as the crowd,” says DJ and Circus co-founder Yousef speaking the week after the back-to-back events at Bramley-Moore. “To be able to reconnect with strangers and be in the company of others without having to be told off – it was magical.”
Both the Bramley-Moore events and that at Sefton Park share many similarities in their sense of making up for lost time. People arrive early and stay late. Perhaps to soak it all in. Maybe to hold on to a world of fewer restrictions for as long as possible. But there’s a clear desire for people to find themselves as a unified voice once again. Not beholden to rules of six or police aggression when taking necessary social action during lockdown.
“I’m excited to see Blossoms later, to be back at a gig and screaming my heart out to some of my favourite songs,” says Zuzu. “[Some of the younger people in the crowd] have never had a chance to do this before. I think it means a hell of a lot to a lot of people.”
(Lauren Lo Sung. Photo: Jody Hartley)
This feeling courses through the expectant crowd of the big top between sets. Even the guitar tech receives a roaring ovation as they come out to tune up ahead of the bands. For those behind the scenes in the music industry, the past 14 months will have been some of the hardest they’ve faced in their professional careers. One gig doesn’t make up for the damage industry workers have endured, but perhaps the crowd’s excitable reaction shows a new-found respect and value for those stood to the side of the stage and working across the festival site. It’s one that’ll need to continue as gigs come back into full swing.
“The gig was everything I dreamed it could be. A celebration of music, community and all that we’ve been missing,” commented Bido Lito! photographer Gary Lambert in the days after the event. “Nobody was pretending that the last year hadn’t happened. Instead it was a party for that moment.”
“I’d say this is the most important show I’ve ever played,” says Zuzu, still coming down from the rush of the set. It’s a feeling that’s reflected by Yousef. “My last gig was to 25,000 people in Mexico City, which was the best gig I’d done in my life. So, I was happy to have a few months off – not knowing it was going to be 14. But this has eclipsed it,” he says. “Not just that it was an amazing gig, but the difficulty of getting to that moment, putting that idea to the council, working so hard to make it happen. It wasn’t just a gig, it was an accumulation of effort.”
The journey to the two test events in Liverpool couldn’t have formed a starker contrast to their eventual happening. Just five months prior the city was battling its third wave of Covid-19. Caseloads across the city region pushed above 1,000 per 100,000 and once again a lockdown was introduced. It was a difficult final chapter of a 2020 that was just starting to offer glimpses of optimism.
“In December there was a sense of achievement as Liverpool emerged in Tier 2 after being the pilot city for community testing,” says Mathew Flynn, lecturer in music industry at the University Of Liverpool and member of Liverpool City Region Music Board. “There seemed to be a proactivity, but that was sort of ignorant of the resurgence of the virus.”
Flynn outlines that, even with vaccine rollout clicking into gear in January, there was a looming skepticism that test events wouldn’t be able to take place until late summer or even early autumn. “The pace of the programme has been astounding,” he adds.
The turnaround in fortunes reignited optimism for a summer schedule of live music and events – adding a heightened importance to the two test events in Liverpool. “From the view of Festival Republic [Sunday event promoters], they want to be able to demonstrate that they can run a Covid-secure event on mass scale with the amount of festivals they’ve sold tickets for,” says Flynn. “It’s similar with the promoters of dance events. It shows that private companies can be given the responsibilities to do those things and do them effectively and well.”
This decentralised control in the time of a global pandemic does however add some greater levels of risk for those planning large-scale events. “There’s a reputational element to all of this if there is a resurgence of the virus over the summer. There’s an awful lot of risk, not just economically in hoping the government will underwrite the insurance,” explains Flynn. “Where will the responsibility lie? How much is on the venues to manage risk and maintain reputation and how much of this will be government mandated?”
(Sefton Park crowd. Photo: John Johnson)
While the test events could take place in highly controlled environments that could ensure safety, it remains to be seen what restrictions and rules will remain in place for events taking place after 21st June. Though there is much optimism surrounding the city’s recent test events – of which Liverpool’s Public Health boss Matt Ashton noted he was confident they would not lead to significant rises in cases – the full findings are yet to be published. That being said, however, recently The Times reported early indications suggest gigs and shows are no more dangerous than eating our or shopping. [Ed: full findings now show that the events had “no impact” on virus spread]. Even for large-scale promoters such as Circus, providing their own testing and data operation would come with large financial pressure. “It will be difficult for small venues and also our venues,” says Yousef. “If we have to charge our customers for the tests on top of the ticket then it’s not going to be viable. Unless the government are going to underwrite the tests, I can’t see [testing continuing]. I can’t see how it will economically stack up. And logistically, too.”
Mathew Flynn echoes a similar tone in looking towards the landscape for events post 21st June and whether a situation with no distancing or testing can be a reality. “The margins at venue level are slim. But most promoters will make their money through festivals. Venues can be more progressive and test things out. For festivals, one weekend it’s all or nothing. It’s a huge undertaking. Unless you have resources to ride that out, then it’s a huge risk,” says Flynn regarding the possibility of any further cancellations due to local or national restrictions returning.
“I don’t think what the live sector is asking of government, to underwrite the events, is unreasonable,” he continues. “It’s only a cost should they have to step in. The insurance premiums are going to be higher. If the government are so keen for people to reconnect and gain that trust in the events sector again, it seems like a small commitment of funds to give promoters the confidence to put on mass events.”
(Yousef. Photo: Jody Hartley)
The current landscape seems less zero-sum between economic reopening and lockdown. The signals from the test events show a pathway to safely return to mass events. It is the economic reality of providing this safety and confidence that will either be ignored or placed onto the responsibility of promoters by the government in the proposed further relaxing of restrictions. It is here where the crux of the issue will lie for small venue owners who will be taking on a greater reputational or financial risk depending on which direction the government turn. “It’s so important to those smaller venues. I want to be in those venues as much as I want to be here playing to a field of people,” says Zuzu. “The crowds of 4,000 are as important as the crowds of 40.”
Whatever the outcome in the weeks leading to June 21st, the events at Bramley-Moore and Sefton Park won’t be any less significant or an anomaly in the roadmap. “It felt like we did something that was significant for the city,” says Yousef. “I’m a proud Scouser and always have been, so being able to contribute in some small way and to get the whole world watching what we’re capable of as a city, that felt really special.” Sometimes just one night can sometimes make a world’s difference. “It was pure – and filled me with hope as to how quickly everybody got back into the mood,” concluded Lambert. “The future doesn’t feel so bleak anymore.”
Additional reporting: Ollie Adebsi & Gary Lambert
Circus returns with Sasha on 25th June at Invisible Wind Factory.
(The First Dance. Photo: Jody Hartley)