Why I’m staying socially distanced from gigs – for now

Live music is making a tentative return, with Fat White Family leading the charge, but one seasoned hack would be glad to wait it out for the real thing

Halfway between a lottery win and a draft for National Service, the long-awaited call finally came in. Would I review Fat White Family at the Lexington, one of the first seated, socially distanced gigs returning to the UK on May 17?

I pictured being met at the door by a topless, sweating maître d’ with three teeth, pulling his hands briefly from his underpants to tick me off a list and show me to a candlelit table, where I’d peruse a pre-show menu of table service offals and amphetamines, washed down with mushroom tincture-infused cocktails called things like Jagerbomb Disneyland, Cream Liqueur Of The Young and Tastes Good With The Moet. Then the band would emerge in crotchless dinner suits for a set of foot-tapping slasher jazz played on double basses made from boar carcasses and we’d be swept away on a magical night that no-one present would ever remember.

The gig – arranged for the band to play new tracks from their new film Moonbathing In February – is one of 2,534 socially distanced shows on sale between May 17 and June 21, when old-school, full-capacity, elbow-in-eye-socket, idiots-barging-straight-through-your-lager-because-they’re-playing-‘Little Lion Man’ gigs are scheduled to return, Boris’s incompetence permitting. I’ve written before about how preferable these luxuriant, socially distanced arrangements are for gig-hardened souls such as myself, who are more interested in hearing -play ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ than your mate dissecting that day’s questionable VAR decisions. So I jumped at the chance to throw myself ‘Feet’ first into what should henceforth be called ‘jaded, spoilt hack season’.

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As the big day approached, however, the realities of the situation began to sink in. Contrary to widespread Twitter opinion, I’m not yet old enough to be fully vaccinated, so a night watching Fat White Family in the car boot-like confines of the Lexington must surely put me at risk of a particularly hardy and gruesome Peckham variant. Worse still, if I’m tabled within a ‘bubble’ of fellow music journalists, I might not catch COVID but I’d be almost guaranteed to pick up some rare and virulent form of scabies-linked halitosis.

Then you start to wonder who socially distanced gigs really benefit. Most venues are set to operate them at a loss, so I’d spend the night feeling like a drain on their valuable resources. I might even try to mitigate my guilt by drinking four or five times my bodyweight in Rioja, undoing 14 months of solid liver regeneration and making me feel as low and wretched as Gwyneth Paltrow on her third slice of bread.

And the bands? Socially distanced shows might scratch a performance itch that’s been driving them crazy the whole pandemic, but the initial rush will surely be followed swiftly by flashbacks to the hundreds of half-empty provincial pub gigs they played while starting out. Even if everyone is actually looking in their direction and the sound of 12 Quizteam Aguileras being asked Bono’s real name isn’t seeping through from a back bar.

The most appreciative audience will have gaping holes in it that the singer can’t even fill by jumping offstage and starting their own individual moshpit. Making a fraction of their pre-pandemic sales, the whole experience might only serve to make musicians’ worst fears of a dissipated fanbase seem only too real, making them feel as though they’ve come full0circle to obscurity having achieved nothing for their millions of Spotify streams besides that one night of flagrant extravagance when they spunked all their royalties up the wall by changing the oil in the van. Faced with dozens of masked observers, it might even trigger onstage meltdowns due to buried memories of their most regrettable stomach-pumping incidents.

Ultimately, these gigs are for the fans, rewarding the most dedicated with their first burst of in-person entertainment in over a year. But if the audience is the charity, it’s natural in these selfless times to wonder if there are people more desperate for and deserving of live music than yourself. Frontline NHS workers. The thousands of crew members excluded from support and left to fend for themselves. Steve Lamacq.

I realise lot of this is driven by my intense lockdown institutionalisation and pandemic paranoia – you’re reading a man who hasn’t had this much hair since his Mega City Four period – but when the call came back that Fat White Family, very reasonably, would prefer to reserve their extremely limited ticket allocation for fans rather than blag artistes wrestling with their ‘notes’ app’s autocorrect function the whole gig, it was something of a relief.

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Perhaps, deep inside, there’s something fundamentally reassuring about having wine tipped down my shirt while craning to see a sliver of St. Vincent, but I’ll be remaining socially distanced from live music for a few weeks yet.

– Check back on Tuesday (May 18) for NME’s photo report of Fat White Family’s socially distanced gig at the Lexington

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