AKA – Live music returns, how was it for you? So it came to pass that on a chilly late Sunday afternoon, we tentatively headed for Saltaire with a sense of expectation not felt for some time but also lugging a whole array of new Covid, social-distancing, face mask related baggage along for the ride. Surreptitiously and with surprisingly little fuss live music was about to return to our leisure portfolio, something that only a week ago would have seemed like a fantasy.
With 40 odd other lucky/privileged/unabashed/foolhardy/naïve souls (delete as fits your current position) we’d come to sit at remotely spaced Formica-topped tables in what seemed like the newly refurbished concert room of the Caroline St Social Club. We were there to witness three blokes from 100s of miles away play an hour and quarter of songs on acoustic guitar, electric guitar and bull fiddle. Whilst it seemed that we in the audience had travelled from across Yorkshire, the three blokes in question – Peter Bruntnell, Dave Little and Danny Williams, had made the journey from Devon, for a one-night-stand ‘n’ all. A journey which, given the circumstances, displayed a devotion to the cause above and beyond what might be reasonably expected; fair play to them for that.
That we were able to come together and have a communal live music experience was entirely down to the venue and the promoters, as well as Peter and his band. Their joint determination to deliver an experience that we could all enjoy and feel secure in was exemplary. We have heard plenty about the travails of live music in recent weeks, with its outlook described as “perilous and precarious” or “in serious danger” that it is even more vital now than ever we continue to recognise and celebrate the contribution made by all the participants to these events. Especially operating in circumstances where income, let alone profit, is even harder to come by than normal and the hassles and risks of gigging being much greater. It was clear to all of us in the audience that without the venues like the Caroline St Social Club’s willingness to operate in these more difficult circumstances we may all be returned to silence sooner rather than later and the contribution that live music makes to community and neighbourhood may be lost for good.
Even when venues such as Caroline St Social Club have limited immediate connection to the performance their ongoing commitment to the cause is vital to the survival of live music culture. The relationship between venue and promoters/artists has always needed careful nurturing and clearly not all venues exist with the sole purpose of providing a space for live music. For some venues, gigs are a peripheral activity; in ‘niche’ genres like Americana in particular and the burdens on these venues’ continued engagement with music are great. In this context, it is heart-warming and engenders optimism for the future to see the continued engagement of the Caroline St Social Club with the live Americana and folk music experience.
Given that, it was surprising and a little disappointing that the first gig for 6 months, with AUK favourite and “One of England’s best kept musical secrets” (Rolling Stone) Bruntnell, was only slightly more than half full. A room that was made Covid-compliant with a reduced capacity of 60 should surely have been a sell-out. It seems that the only stakeholders in this whole process not pulling their weight were us punters. It’s not clear what this says about our ‘unquenchable’ thirst for live music but if we don’t go then we should not be surprised when some apparatchik of Oliver Dowden’s asks the question why bother supporting it, if no one will care if it disappears? For certain, nobody can now argue there is currently ‘too much music’ as has been suggested previously. So we, the listeners and watchers, need to step up if we want music to be there when we can all come out of hibernation. Not wanting to be there right now is understandable but if we don’t support live music, it won’t be there either. (Editor’s note: the early show was live-streamed to a paying online audience).
Whilst we are on the topic of the ‘crowd’, we did observe before leaving to get to the gig that the likely demographic for a folk/country/Americana gig at the Live Room would make it highly improbable that we would witness any flagrant flouting of the guidance such as moshing energetically up against total strangers, singing along at the top of your voice and spraying the room with droplets or even going for a pee in the wrong direction. And so it proved, perfect decorum was exhibited by all and the experience felt as safeguarded as could have been hoped. So much so that it may have been just a little sterile – in a way not to be found in a plastic bottle at the door.
We seemed unsure quite how to react, we were perhaps even more reserved and reticent than previously. With polite applause and little else between songs, virtually no response to anything said on stage, not even any humming along and definitely no cheering, whistling or stomping of feet. Perhaps we were not entirely sure of the new rules and wanted to be absolutely certain we didn’t transgress or perhaps we’d forgotten how to behave at a ‘gig’, even a seated one with a drummer-less band.
It was difficult at times not to think ‘bloody hell these blokes have come all the way from Devon to do this, we could at least acknowledge their presence’. Bruntnell and his band played beautifully as usual. If perhaps a little more wistfully than normal. We were treated to a range of the more contemplative material from his career and there were certainly no Neil Young or Eddie and the Hot Rods covers tonight.
That the impact of the event may have been a little less than the sum of its parts was more to do with the circumstance surrounding it than any shortcomings of those delivering it. Ron and Hilary continue to do a seriously good job creating the kind of events we are delighted to attend and the venue staff struck just the right tone for the circumstances. This was comically illustrated by an exchange that was one of the highlights of the night. In a moment of between song quietude (there were many such) Bruntnell, from the stage, ordered three beers for the band. The show now paused whilst he was given a full list of the available cask beers, together with a description of their colour and ABV by the genuinely helpful wait staff (he chose three pints of Bingley Petham Cross Pale for any CAMRA members out there).
The event may have been a touch tentative and subdued all round but this is hardly surprising in the context, for all that though we, the audience, need to do better, we need to play our part in the process by turning up and taking part.
THIS IS A PERSONAL REFLECTION ON THE EVENTS OF Sunday 27th September 2020. It is an opinion piece, a considered, reasoned opinion hopefully but an opinion none-the-less. With that in mind it would be fascinating to hear what other, alternative, conflicting or perhaps even supportive opinions there are out there. So get busy with the comments you lot and let us know how you are feeling about the return of live music.
Pictures courtesy of Phil Rogerson , audience pic by author.