Necessity is the mother of invention, so the saying goes and I’m not talking about Frank Zappa’s band. A return to ‘business as usual’ for gigs is still some way off, but can live music still go ahead in some shape or form in the meantime? A cluster of attempts to answer this may indeed give us a glimmer of hope (and, in some cases, amusement) in the pandemic darkness.
Back in the early days of the pandemic, there was a smattering of socially distanced (sometimes masked, sometimes not) indoor gigs. The first one I heard about was Frank Turner at the Clapham Grand in London, in July 2020, as part of a UK government initiative to trial shows in half empty venues with complex drink-ordering and toilet-dashing systems in place. The venue manager was quoted, at the time, as saying it wasn’t a success financially and the far-apart seating arrangements might not have rivalled Turner’s normally fairly raucous show atmosphere. However, it was a brave step in testing the water, even if the water turned out to be a bit nippy and too shallow to swim in.
Fast forward six months and some interesting progress has been made. Primavera Sound held a trial festival with no physical distancing in December, in Barcelona. They allowed a reduced sized audience (two-thirds the venue’s capacity) and required attendees to take a rapid results Covid test just before entering (results within 15 minutes). Luxembourg is due to run five small gigs this very week and the Netherlands has plans afoot for both indoor and outdoor trial concerts in the coming months. Going down the ventilation route, the 100 Club in London (a basement venue) plans to trial a Pathogen Reduction System early this year that would apparently eliminate 99.99% of airborne pathogens.
The prize for most elaborate and quirky trial, so far, must surely go to an experiment in Oklahoma. US rockers The Flaming Lips put on a show last month with the whole audience in actual bubbles. Not the kind of abstract social bubble authorities talk about when they mean ‘only mix with one or two people’, but a big plastic sphere with you in the middle. Top points for really trying to make it safe, although when I saw the pictures I couldn’t help thinking of the apocalyptic Kate Bush video for Breathing (from 1980), in which she stares out in a startled manner from a similar plastic bubble, illustrating the song narrative of being born on a planet hit by a nuclear catastrophe. I’m sure not everyone had quite such a terrifying dystopian flashback on reading about the trial concert.
Whilst claustrophobics and weaker-bladdered concert attendees might think twice about snapping up tickets for any future bubble shows, others may be ready to seal themselves in for an unusual musical experience. Band members had previously dabbled with the idea for parts of their gigs in pre-pandemic days. Singer Wayne Coyne had sometimes separated himself in a plastic bubble to roll across the audience. (I think he might need to be directed to a previous article on here Hard Promises for correct crowd-surfing technique, but we’ll pass over this for now).
Going to see an experimental show may no longer mean attending an avant garde jam in a cheese shop, but rather, taking part in the drive to get bands and audience back in the same room or field. May the inventors succeed – until we can all, quite literally, breathe (without masks) again.
Photo: Frank Turner, one of the front-runners in testing out physically distanced gigs. Shown here at London’s O2 Arena, in 2014, in a stance of clairvoyant joy for the lack of social distancing, perhaps? © Imelda Michalczyk