“It’s historic, deeply emotional and I hope something that will say we can do it a lot more this year.” The gates have just opened at Sefton Park’s sold-out pilot event (5000 punters in a space that would typically hold 7,500) and Festival Republic boss Melvin Benn is in great spirits. “I spend the whole of my life creating events where fans are eagerly getting through the gates to come and watch bands they’re obsessed with, so it’s a joy.”
Tonight’s (May 2nd) official pilot event, headlined with NME faves Blossoms and with support from fellow indie-poppers Zuzu and the Lathums, is among the very first of its kind in the northern hemisphere. It’s a key part of the Government’s Events Research Programme, and attendees from the city of Liverpool were informed they will play a vital role in this science-led research, which will provide key data to support the reopening of live events and venues by way of mass testing.
The event has been organised by the Reading & Leeds Festival boss, and in the run-up to the event he proudly told NME that “fans will be able to behave as if the pandemic never happened”. This is because all ticket holders had to return a negative lateral flow test at a designated centre the day before the show and complete a questionnaire before purchasing tickets addressing any concerns.
As crowds filtered into Liverpool’s beloved Victorian park towards the black and yellow big top tent, people are giddy with excitement. “It feels crazy”, says one lucky ticket holder studying in the city. “It feels very safe and secure. It was dead straight forward getting in, mask is off, happy days, hopefully it’s just the start and it’s the light at the end of the tunnel now.”
Once we’re inside, no social distancing measures are required and no masks have to be worn. One or two people keep their masks on and there is signage in-place encouraging respectful behaviour, but mostly there’s a sense of liberation among those here, with tears of joy and screams of raw release. Concerns for the pandemic feel cast aside as another fan says: “I’m vaccinated, and I’ve returned a negative test like everyone else here. It was a very straight forward process – we had to do a questionnaire before getting a ticket as well so I’m comfortable with it all.”
Even the smallest festival rituals feel comfortingly familiar yet surreal, from the wristband being tightened and clipped through to the flat lagers in paper cups. Catching up with NME before the show, Blossoms frontman Tom Ogden shares such sentiments: “Just to pull in and hear the bass drum being sound-checked and all the usual little things you’d have at a festival, even just turning around the corner and seeing the tent… It’s going to be very surreal seeing the fans because we’ve not had it for so long now and there is no other feeling that compares to that.”
Liverpudlian Zuzu faces the big duty of opening tonight’s show. With crowd applause deafening after a DJ set of indie bangers, she chooses the first words heard on a stage of this kind in over a year carefully: “One small step for Scousers…” the cape-wearing artist jokes, acknowledging the fact that her city has been chosen to pilot these events. Liverpool is at the forefront of this first step, and with national news cameras rolling, pints are hurled and her punchy indie anthems land in bruising and electric fashion.
The Lathums also seize their moment on this historic day for music. The Wigan band open with ‘Villainous Victorian’ which comes as a swaggering indie anthem of tomorrow. There’s no signs of rust either despite being the first show back. ‘The Great Escape’ comes as a soaring track emotionally ripe for the occasion.
After a year of waiting, it’s understandable that Blossoms also cut the small talk and get straight into doing what they do best with summer bop ‘Your Girlfriend’. Stockport’s finest are literally picking up where they left from the campaign of Number One album ‘Foolish Loving Spaces’. The band were just mid-way through the tour when the pandemic hit last March, forcing them to cancel all their plans including a gigantic headline on home turf at Manchester Arena.
Is tonight about making up for lost time, then? “It is a little bit because we were dead proud of that album and we felt like we’d stepped it up live,” Ogden tells NME. “We had extra percussion players onstage and we’d really thought about the set in that aspect. It was really fun.” Because they’d only played 10 shows before everything ground to a halt, he says it “was easy to pick the setlist” for this belated continuation of the tour.
Blossoms are now three festival-ready records into their career, and tear through an hour-and-a-half of pure fan favourites. There’s a sense of unity and messy unrestricted joy as we hear the likes of ‘There’s A Reason Why’ and ‘I Can’t Stand It’. The promise of punters being able to act like the pandemic never happened is clearly being fulfilled: mates are on shoulders, people bursting through the crowd towards the front. It really is business as usual.
When the band do stop to take note, it’s clear nothing has been scripted. “Good evening, you beautiful people!” Ogden calls out. “We are Blossoms from Stockport. These things are supposed to be spontaneous – you do your thing, we’ll do our thing… But what I will say is we’re gonna have the best night we’ve had for a very, very long time.”
“Who cut their hair at home on their own this year then?” Tom asks, with his own radiant locks flowing longer than ever. He then singles out one particularly dodgy trim: “I can fucking tell you have.” The brooding ‘Getaway’ is an especially impacting highlight tonight. Ogden sings, “I’m over you / Get under me,” before leaning towards the crowd with the microphone, who roar back the poignant lyrics: “This is the last time / don’t say it’s the last time / Call me up / You’ve got me choking up / If we’re in love / Tonight we can getaway.”
Despite live music being off the cards for the last year, the band were productive in putting together their ‘Isolation Covers’ album – and given they’re performing in the park where John Lennon’s parents met, not far from Penny Lane, their take on The Beatles hit ‘Paperback Writer’ was always going to light up the already proud army of scousers and city-dwelling students. They also deliver their tried and tested medley of Babybird’s ‘You’re Gorgeous’ into Oasis’ ‘Half The World Away’ along with a little of New Order‘s thumping ‘Blue Monday’ for good measure.
“There is no other feeling that compares to seeing the fans” – Blossoms’ Tom Ogden
Blossoms are the perfect bunch to shoulder such a huge occasion with the world watching. “This last year’s been devastating for the music industry but this event has been a colossal ray of sunshine,” Ogden says towards the end of the gig. “Most pressingly, though,” he asks, “do you have time for two more?” They close with ‘At Most A Kiss’ rolling into ‘Charlemagne’. Flares are lit, the glimmering synth-pop anthem the perfect end for a night where we’ve seen music as we know it return.
It feels like a triumphant turning point, but can we take this as a step towards a safe return of large scale crowds for good? The job isn’t quite done yet, despite this being a huge step in the right direction. Festival goers who attended the pilot now have to complete a second test a week after the event. This will measure any spread of the virus and play a role in helping get events and venues back open this summer.
Speaking to the NME, Founder and CEO of the Music Venue Trust, Mark Davyd stresses that seeing musicians back in front of audiences is the main thing, but expresses concerns. “There are some questions about how replicable something like that is – that’s the slight nervousness. It might teach us some things about rapid testing and how crowds respond and behave… I think getting this first show is going to be a big lift and I hope it’s very quickly followed afterwards. We’ve got a huge number of venues raring to go, quite frankly.”
After seeing the pilot in action, organiser Melvin Benn takes great hope: “It feels like we can be back to normal. If we adequately test people before they come into a gig, there’s no reason why the gig can’t happen. That’s what this event is about: effectively demonstrating that people can be responsible, they’ve had the test, came to the gig [and will] have a test afterward. And I think it means the festival season can happen.” We’ll raise a glass to that.