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A year without gigs: why we vow never to take live music for granted again

A shot of a busy crowd at a gig
(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

March 13 2021 marked the first anniversary of my last gig. 

It was a chilly Friday night and Turnstile were playing London’s ULU. There was a buzz in the air – but not because it was the hardcore five-piece’s biggest UK headline show so far.

Pre-gig pub chat was peppered with mentions of ‘lockdown’ and ‘herd immunity’, which under normal circumstances might just have been support bands we’d probably miss in favour of another round. But as the number of reported Covid cases started to overwhelm the contact tracers, local elections were postponed, and the Premier League was suspended, it was starting to feel like we were on the verge of something major. I got home at about 1am and barely left the house again for nearly four months.      

If I’d known at the time that it was going to be my last gig for over a year I’d have been fairly happy with my choice. While the ULU loos saw some unusually diligent hand-washing, social-distancing measures hadn’t yet made it to the mosh pit – and with about 90% of the crowd being under 20 and bursting with irrepressible enthusiasm, I was closer to the action than I’d been for some time.

Having a whole year to think about that final pre-lockdown gig and the total abandon with which the crowd threw themselves into it has made me realise just how much I had been taking live music for granted. At 36 years old I’ve become accustomed to taking up a spot towards the back, beer in hand, where the risk of having it spilled on my shoes is lower. And I know I'm not alone – once, back in the heady pre-pando days of October 2019, I went to the Roundhouse to have my internal organs gently bludgeoned by Sunn O))) and the bloke standing next to me actually took the opportunity to spring-clean the apps on his phone.   

But watching Turnstile that night, my fellow pint-nursers and I were very much in the minority, squeezed into a small gap around the mixing desk at the very back of the room. Hardcore bands have always had a pretty porous relationship with their audience, but there was something about this show that made the connection feel all-consuming. It was almost impossible not to occasionally get dragged into the human murmuration that was absolutely losing it in front of us. 

Rather than making me feel old and out of place, watching all those kids go crazy at such close proximity reminded what it was like to be almost totally consumed by a band you love, something that just doesn’t seem to happen in the same way when you get older; when we’re all too busy worrying about mortgages, pensions and whether we should be turning our mattresses over more often (you’re supposed to do it once a month, apparently). 

The atmosphere at the Turnstile gig took me back to the last time I felt like part of something like this: at an Odd Future gig in 2013. There was a similar, less pandemic-y buzz in the air that night too, with the ramshackle hip-hop collective playing a rare UK show for 2300 equally raucous teenagers at the Forum in Kentish Town. Before Tyler, The Creator and co had even emerged, the kids downstairs passed the time by teaming up to taunt those in the balcony who hadn’t been quick enough to bag standing tickets. It felt a bit like a school assembly that the adults had lost control of. There was a real frisson in the air that was contagious – you couldn't help but feel a part of it, even from a safe spot in the balcony with all the other “upstairs wankers”.

A year on from that final pre-lockdown gig I found myself at home on the sofa for the 52nd weekend in a row. As I disappeared down a rabbit hole of clips from Fugazi live shows on YouTube, I found myself longing to feel the swell of an expectant crowd again, to have somebody’s sweaty hand reach out and grasp my shoulder for balance, and even occasionally be doused with mystery airborne liquid. After two decades of seasoned gig-going, a whole year off has made me consider turning my enjoyment of shows like Turnstile’s into something a bit less vicarious. While I’m not sure you’ll suddenly find me down the front with my shirt off – I am still 36 after all – I’ll certainly never take live music for granted ever again.

Our enforced abstinence isn’t over yet, but the end is in sight. I have a ticket to see Mogwai in July, which will certainly be more Sunn O))) than Turnstile or Odd Future, but the infectious energy of those kids discovering their favourite bands might just make me a more active participant rather than a passive observer in the future. Even if it does mean spilling some of my drink.