It’s bittersweet that the Manchester Arena is marking its 25th birthday in a week when the city lost two of its most beloved and distinctive grassroots venues – The Deaf Institute and Gorilla (although both Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham and its Night Time Economy Adviser Sacha Lord have pledged to save them). As those small teeth-cutting venues across the county face a critical juncture, it brings home the question: without them, where will those next arena-filling acts come from?
Plans for the quarter-century celebrations of “Manchester’s big front room” (as Inspiral Carpet Clint Boon describes it) were obviously derailed by Covid-19, so this charity event – laudably raising money for local organisations including homeless shelter the Booth Centre and cancer treatment specialist the Christie, among others – mixes pre-recorded home lockdown sessions, archive footage of legacy artists’ past performances at the arena and musicians eerily playing in the empty, cavernous 21,000-capacity space.
First up on the eclectic, grab-bag line-up are hometown heroes Everything Everything, with bassist Jeremy Pritchard praising the Arena: “Although there’s kind of a sort of a stigma attached in my community to playing arenas sometimes – people think there’s a loss of intimacy – I really don’t think you get that in there here. And if you get 21,000 Mancunians in one room, you’re always going to have a good time.” The band perform two tracks: fizzing indie art-pop banger ‘Kemosabe’ and fan favourite ‘Spring/Sun/Winter/Dread’ (perhaps deliberately they eschew their more apocalyptic songs).
After that punchy opening, local band Slow Readers Club also act as flag-bearers for the city, with acoustic renditions of three songs – ‘All The Idols’, ‘On The TV’ and ‘Lunatic’ –performed in the middle of the desolate arena, winningly stripping back their Depeche Mode-inspired soaring pop-noir for haunting Fleet Foxes-style harmonies. Switching gears, Pixie Lott sings ‘Cry Me Out’ and the EDM of ‘All About Tonight’ in front of her laptop at home, while pop-soulster James Morrison deploys the kind of earnest ballads (‘Better Man’, ‘If You Don’t Wanna Lose Me’, ‘Too Late For Lullabies’) that were practically designed for the sepia filter he’s laid over his bedroom-recorded video.
“The arena wants some indie anthems,” says Radio 1 presenter and the night’s compere Abbie McCarthy. “And it’s going to get them. It’s… The Hoosiers!” It’s like being promised an iPad and instead receiving an Etch-a-Sketch – and might make any Arctic Monkeys hardliner fans’ eyes spin faster than the tumbleweed rolling into an empty arena. Nevertheless, here’s singer Irwin Sparkes with home acoustic versions of their ’00s ELO-indebted chirpers ‘Goodbye Mr A’ and ‘Worried About Ray’. His falsettos could charitably be described as ‘divisive’, in the sense that you either applaud it or think it sounds like a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre starring cats and is as welcome as Jess Glynne in a fish restaurant.
He’s followed by Irish stadium-uplift-peddlers Kodaline, then Kelli-Leigh, the vocalist behind James Hype’s 2017 gym-pop hit ‘More Than Friends’. For those playing the lockdown gig drinking game at home, she sings her lung-busting vocals in front of a wall of Gold and Silver discs strategically placed at eye-level. SHOT!
Bondafide indie icon Tim Burgess brings us back to 2020, with a trio of tracks from his fantastic, big-hearted latest album ‘I Love The New Sky’: ‘Laurie’, ‘Sweetheart Mercury’ and ‘Empathy For The Devil’. Even when stripped back to just an acoustic guitar, the songs boast uniformly lovely melodies and choruses that grip like flypaper. Looking enviably youthful – as if he’s blackmailing Father Time with compromising photos – he adds a human element to a medium that often lacks a sense of drama or spontaneity by noting his mistakes: “Whoops! The end was a bit wrong!” and “I’ve forgot how it goes!” Meanwhile, Badly Drawn Boy‘s sensitive and perfectly-crafted-songs – including his breakthrough ‘Once Around The Block’ – prove a beautiful balm.
After he sings in an arena emptier than Boris Johnson’s promises, the closing archive footage of Alice Cooper and Lionel Richie underscores two strengths of an arena: big-scale spectacle and communal catharsis. Cooper provides the former, as he roams around the stage in a top hat looking like a more evil Willy Wonka or less nefarious Jacob Rees-Mogg during ‘School’s Out’ as he bursts balloons with a dagger and pyrotechnics cascade behind him. Effuse pop showman Richie closes proceedings with a joyous mass singalong of ‘Easy’.
It’s moments like this that define an arena. And, as it ends, you miss the camaraderie of thousands of strangers, the crackle of broken plastic cups under your feet as you leave, the night alive with possibilities.