BIG Gigs are back, well sorta. Since bands have returned to live action, I’ve eagerly snaffled tickets with the gusto of a 14-year old, dry mouthed, anticipating a first gig, anxious at not really knowing what to expect, what the crowd would be like, how loud would it be, would I stand out, was I dressed right, could I find my ticket, wait… - - Where the fuck did I leave my ticket? Questions, questions, questions.
I’d had other gigs arranged at Toonside venues, but my own positive COVID test, illness and subsequent convalescence kept me from one big venue gig. Before that, positive tests for the band, and before that, how to put it, just after lockdown, masks on or off, inside or out, COVID passport or not, what’s the phrase, fear, apprehension, uncertainty, all of them, probably, contributed to keeping me home..
This was Thursday night, I'd been out to pubs, to the cinema, but not big live events. With the Toon taken over, and match tickets now as rare as hen’s teeth, it was a live gig or nothing to join a crowd.
I'd bombed out of a gig before, and the cinema as well, a little more appreciative of my mortality. Suppose it had to come, I am older and recognising it, overhearing “Couple of decades to bloody late mate”, perhaps, no matter, can you stop me?
What the hell, this was the one, this one that was going to be different, the “back to life, back to reality“ gig. Seen them at The Sage long before COVID. But this was different, and yet the same. The same routine, ticket - check, mobile - check, wallet - check, metro times – check, all systems go... Well not quite the same, last time I got to the Key- check, and it was mission abort, mission abort, mission abort. Confidence failed me.
This time, this night, tonight there were to be no excuses, wimpy or otherwise. It was dry, not too cold, it was at the Sage, seated, COVID guidelines checked, ‘masks advised’, no health passport, ticket-money-keys, yeup all good, good to go. Door shut, locked, keys pocketed, metro strides, “5 mins til your first train”, anticipation, yes, expectation, yes, hesitation, yes that was there, “should I go, or should I stay”, “doors opening” two steps, stage two committed. Familiarity insidously permeates, same stops, “doors opening”, feet’s shuffle, laughter rings, “stand clear of the doors please”, “ . . Change here for mainline trains.”
Look around for anyone code dressed. Hard to say, autumn’s winds made coats a must, heads capped and hatted, hands gloved, throats scarfed and wrapped, no signs here, that’s for sure.
“The next station is Gateshead”
Compressed hiss, doors rattle, face outside look in.
Steps, platform, escalator, lights, laughter and yells,
Young and old, party girls and homeward boys.
Street lights dimmed, rubber on tarmac, no steps along mine - used to that,
Buses, taxi’s, cars, giggers use them all,
Nerves, not yet, a familiar walk, yes,
Subway – open, Iceland – closing up, barbers - lights out,
Toon’s lights - sequins on black sparkle, a comfort call.
Tesco passed, Town Hall passed, all so familiar, the Old Court,
and then what, no one else in my footsteps, walked on.
Car park. Train Bridge. Still not a soul, perplexed yes, panic no,
Strides and the silver roofed Sage, still not a soul...
Then a few cars, a bus, and then a poster in sight,
Entrance and the foyer, bars, coffee, “T” shirts, CDs,
all the fashion paraphernalia, once extras, now essentials for a band on tour,
More a survival pack than a nice little earner.
Ways of Seeing things, differently.
Faces still masked behind the bar, most bare faced for drinks, familiarity, security, comfort of the same old, same old, same old, by now much of it. A muscle memory. Hushed chatter, some anxious looks, hesitant words. “there’s more here than I thought”, “how do you feel” snippits overheard, over the shoulder, half heard, half in, half out of earshot. Worries pervade.
But for me, a sense of ‘you’ve come this far, too late to quit now…”
Sip it up, sup it up, get it done, you’ll love it if you stick it out.
Not quite the first date, more like a second job interview.
Pre-gig beer sipped, faces seen, smiles and delights, no hugs or air kisses, just fist touches, and words.
Last call and
“dear me I thought there was social distancing”
from a row in front.
Lights dimmed, hushed voices, last minute arrivals, squeezing past,
that NEVER changes,
House lights down, stage lights up, anticipation, expectation,
none of that changed.
An unlit person crosses the stage to applause, and a second, two, and crescendo and it’s, it’s, it’s all so familiar, so comforting, so, so, strange that I was apprehensive.
But then first notes and the COVID scene becomes... Clearer,
Empty seats, pairs random, and groups of four,
Perhaps COVID conflicted warriors like me?
Expect so, understand them?
Of course, it coulda been me, one more empty seat, one more COVID defeat.
My first BIG post COVID gig, so too for the band, first night, first post covid show, new album, new songs night, first night nerves, yeah he had ‘em, I had them, sure others in the hall did. The singer caught the zeitgeist for me, fear and joy, exhilaration, exuberation, yeah all there. So little had changed, so much familiar, and yet the changes, real and imagined were there, active, live, and present. Not so much banter with strangers in the next seat, social isolation learnt and practiced. Polite applause, a hesitant response, no sing-along to the hits, abandoned seats, part empty auditorium. Yeah sorta expected, but still felt like a half hour lager taste of what once was, a tantalising tast of what is lost and what is to come, but delightful rewards for the first new, old, live gig.
On stage, 1st night tour nerves, wrong guitar tunings, two different running orders in their heads and fingers, it is all new to all of us. On-stage, and in-house, still like me working it out, rules and respect in an ACTIVE COVID world, and uncertain, pensive, laughs and jokes helped some, helped me to relax into a familiar night.
For me, Billy Bragg was the perfect first big gig back, he appeared to have the right mixture of fear, anxiety, and confidence matching my own. Those shared COVID experiences, the frustrations, and lessons echoed that of the audience, we are all in it together.
It was great to attend a ‘new, old, first gig’ with someone experiencing similar emotions. A gig that I needed to reassure me, comfort me, and remind me of what gigs are and will become. An exculpatory insight into the changes we’ve all undergone and maybe not noticed. The things we need to hold precious, thoughts, feelings, outside music, that keep the faith in our’s and other’s souls. Not sympathy, more empathy, in the world we now must face with more personal, considerate respect.
Homeward bound, metro sitting, passengers changing, reflecting, journey grateful.
Billy’s monologues, and underlying COVID messages,
Yeah glad I overcame fear and apprehension,
and heard the Bard of Barking, for one night, perform the Sage at Gateshead.
A sadness tinged realisation, for that more empathetic, kinder world Billy and me, want…”We’re still waiting for the great leap forward.”