Newcastle’s arena shows are a success, but can they really help festival season 2021?

Although the socially distanced gigs have lifted the gloom, it seems sadly unlikely they'll provide a way for you to get mashed all next summer

They may whimper. They may drone. They may go onstage and attack sheets of corrugated iron with a sheep. But deep inside, every single musician secretly wants to be Queen at Live Aid. The roar of adulation like a planet cracking. The desperate crush to try to breathe in your merest carbon dioxide emission. The buzz and clamour of the demented horde, in hysterical raptures simply at being within your Olympian presence.

No-one, on the other hand, got into rock’n’roll to play the Romney Marsh sheep trials. Which is pretty much what the most successful attempt yet at pandemic gigging, the socially distanced gig series opened spectacularly by Sam Fender last week, is offering them. Looking out from the stage at the Virgin Money United Arena, the average Freddie wannabe is faced with hundreds upon hundreds of individual numbered pens containing tagged and restrained punters being shorn of all remaining disposable income. It’s enough to make you want to lead a crowd in a call-and-response of “come-bye-eee-oo!”

For all its restrictions, however, such isolation-booth gigging is a blessed relief for the rock-starved claustrophobic. I’ve written before about how it’s the perfect gig set-up for me, with my pathetic bar-barging elbows, my distaste for the natural odours of humanity and my heartfelt desire for everyone within twenty feet of me to SHUT THE FUCK UP. I’d give the idea an A-star although, since it’s in Newcastle, Gavin Williamson would downgrade it to a D.


But as the format begins to be proposed as a way to hold full-on festivals in 2021 – assuming we’re not all wafting around off our tits on top-grade Peruvian vaccine by then – it starts to look a touch, well, unbearable.

There are festivals this set-up would work famously at. Take an arty, family-friendly boutique event like Latitude. Place each family unit in an individual, cordoned-off patch where they can sit all weekend drinking Pimms and eating hummus-y carrot batons, surround them with four stages hosting Mumford & Sons, Sarah Pascoe and Shit-faced Shakespeare and you’ve pretty much recreated the whole thing in miniature. You could even get John Niven and Caitlin Moran to take the drinks orders and Ed Sheeran to pop up for an acoustic set on a secret podium slap bang in the middle and – like Bournemouth beach with £10 off a bin-full of chips – you’d barely know there was a pandemic on at all.

It might even work at Reading & Leeds too. If you can cram eight or nine GCSE students into one pen and provide them with a selection of bottles to piss in and the necessary equipment to build a five-story human pyramid so they can all get a good view of Lewis Capaldi, you could just about get away with it. But the big test would be Glastonbury, and I suspect the Pyramid Stage would physically reject thousands of polite podiums like the body of whoever got Oliver Reed’s liver.

For a start, it would mean that everyone’s flags were evenly-spaced, giving the whole place the atmosphere of a military crusade against The Waterboys. The nearest booze delivery emporium is the psychedelic cider bus, which would quickly send everyone into psychiatric meltdown with a mass hallucination that they were trapped in the world’s biggest ever Tetris game over screen.

And who wants to stay stationary at Glastonbury? How are you supposed to lose your friends, make random new ones called Angelraven, accidentally marry a papier-mâché Jarvis Cocker and spend all the next day regaling your mates with the adventures you had climbing up the legs of a gigantic fire-spider if you’re stuck in a glorified, never-moving lager queue all weekend?

At the very least, Glastonbury would have to provide isolation units you could drive around the site – kind of like Popemobiles, and equally adept at keeping nefarious activity contained inside. But then what would happen on the muddy years? It’d be a mud-churning pile-up from Raving Balrog’s End to the sodden John Peel Plains. So to make it work they’d actually need hover-Popemobiles, about 100,000 of them or so.


And as much as I’m prepared to believe that Bill Gates has invented a nanochip capable of being injected into my body in a fake vaccine and making my neck explode if I try to make out I’m still eligible for the student Microsoft Office package 25 years running, I suspect a festival that still expects me to shit in a hole in the ground might be some way off that sort of technological quantum leap.

So, basically, don’t expect the podium gig concept to translate wholesale to a successful weekender. The whole idea of a festival is one of unrestrained abandon; this is more stadium scale jazz club. At things stand, our best hope of a Glastonbury ’21 worthy of Worthy Farm remains scientists discovering that Covid is totally eradicated by a diet of llama rectum fajitas washed down with a foaming pint of nitrous oxide.