Sam Fender

“Live gigs in the new normal”

The Virgin Money Unity Arena, the UK’s first socially distanced venue, has officially kicked off. If you’re wondering how that could possibly work, we’ve got you covered. Rachel Sullivan, who heads up Virgin Money’s content and social media team, travelled up to the Toon for opening night and shares her unforgettable experience here…

This gig had been a long time coming. When Sam Fender strode out onto the stage into the hazy August Newcastle sunset at the Virgin Money Unity Arena for the UK’s first socially distanced outdoor show since coronavirus restrictions started in March, he was taking mankind’s first great step into a new world of live music, changed beyond all recognition by the effects of the pandemic.

Sam Fender performing

When lockdown happened, live music stopped overnight. Venues shut their doors, roadies put down their tools, festival organisers put their fields out to pasture and artists who’d had a whole summer of events lined up had to sit, frustrated, at home. But then along came Steve Davis, head honcho at SSD, long-established concert promoters in the North East. Steve came up with an ingenious concept of hosting the UK’s first socially distanced gigs in his home town of Newcastle and through his large network of contacts in the local area made this happen with an extraordinarily fast turnaround – just four months from idea to reality.

And so, it was that in mid-August, with a heatwave blowing hot winds and blazing sunshine across the UK from the Sahara, 2,500 people – including myself – turned up to this speedily created venue in the grounds of Newcastle Racecourse, anticipation levels turned up to eleven. What was the experience of watching live music in this strange new era going to feel like? Would the magic disappear along with the mosh pit? Would it feel safe?

The first thing to notice – beyond the absolutely enormous stage, which is higher than Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage – was the 500 metal platforms, marked out with crash barriers at perfect two-metre gaps across the field. This was where we would watch the gig, in safe groups of no more than five per pen, with the platforms rising in height as you reached the back.

Crowd on platforms at the Virgin Money Unity Arena

Once our cars were parked in a neighbouring field and we got inside, it all felt very ‘new normal’: queues for the bag check divided into two-metre-wide streams by crash barriers, with paint marks made on the grass to keep people the right distance apart. Masked girls carried pitchers of cocktails back to their pens as they walked around the field (though note, it’s not necessary to wear a mask when within your platform). And the toilets – most people’s festival bête noire – are almost a pleasure to use, with way more Portaloos than you’d usually see, rigorously cleaned throughout the evening. Big screens around the stage rotated crowd selfies and artist imagery with safety messages – ‘Please don’t swap platforms’, ‘Please regularly use hand sanitiser’, ‘Please stay in your viewing area’.

What immediately struck me was how very civilised it all is, especially for those who aren’t keen on a packed crowd or a sweaty armpit in the face. And, also, how simple and safe. Would I take my two quite small children to the front of a packed crowd? Definitely not. Would I take them to their own safely enclosed area to have their first taste of live music? Yes, I absolutely would. There was a particular type of diversity in the crowd you don’t often see at an event like this: multiple generations of families, safely cocooned in their own little live music bubble, singing along to every song, word-perfect.

And as to the main event, there was certainly no lack of atmosphere. There was never going to be. Sam Fender has a particular place in the hearts of people from this corner of the North East – touted locally as Newcastle’s answer to Bruce Springsteen, he’s a local boy done good with a plethora of dangerously catchy, politically aware songs and the cheekbones of a supermodel. This gig had sold out within minutes of going on sale, and the crowd absolutely erupted when Sam’s brass band took to the stage wearing the striped black-and-white shirts of the football team he has supported since he was a boy growing up in North Shields.

Things kicked off with a rendition of Local Hero, the Newcastle United anthem that was incredibly appropriate for this particular night and felt even more apt with Newcastle legend Alan Shearer looking on in the crowd. Accompanied by a flashy pyro show and clouds of dry ice, over the next hour and a half Sam took us on a tour of rousing versions of crowd favourites from Play God to Dead Boys. Until he said, with classic Geordie wit: “Now’s the bit where I pretend I’m leaving the stage and you pretend you think I might not come back. You up for that?”

Sam Fender performing

It ended – as it was always going to – with a soul-stirring rendition of Hypersonic Missiles, and a light show that illuminated most of the residential streets around Gosforth, where people sat in their front gardens watching the sky and listening to that distinctive sonic boom of live music for the first time in months.

Back at the venue, the music stopped and we all filed out, again carefully distanced but with a definite glow that hadn’t been there before. Safe in our platforms, we hadn’t thought about anything but the euphoria of watching a truly great live performance for a good couple of hours, and in the strange, upside down world of 2020, that felt truly memorable.

Has the experience of watching live music changed? Absolutely yes. Is the atmosphere as intense, edgy, anything-could-happen-ish? Definitely no. It’s a trade-off, and for me the experience feels better in a number of ways: less intimidating, less sweaty, safer; no one’s pushing past you, blocking your view or spilling your drink. It’s like a VIP experience that everybody gets to enjoy. And the million-dollar question: Would I go again? Definitely, absolutely, yes. And from the rapt looks on their faces and the volume of their singing, it felt like most of the other people who shared in that balmy August night would agree.

Rachel Sullivan

So, what are you waiting for? Book your tickets here and experience this incredible venue for yourself.

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