Block By Blockwest review: the closest we’ve yet come to an authentic online festival experience

Mashing the space bar to mosh to IDLES? No, it's not as good as the real thing, but this Minecraft-hosted virtual party almost scratches an itch

The world is still trying to figure out how to do socially distanced live music. There have been drive-in shows and strictly socially distance gigs and performers have taken to YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and the good old telly to try and recreate the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. And this weekend Block By Blockwest saw the likes of political art-rockers Pussy Riot, fun-punks IDLES and indie scamps Sports Team take to the video game platform Minecraft – no, really – to explore the next potential step forward.

The relationship between live music and gaming is nothing new. In 2009 Lily Allen turned down “hundreds of thousands of bitcoin” to appear in immersive online word Second Life and just the other week Travis Scott performed on survival game Fortnite to celebrate the release of ‘The Scotts’, his new song with Kid Cudi.

In this version of Minecraft, the game that invites players to create their own world from – you guessed it – blocks, there are three stages of ‘live’ music (though in reality the artists involved provided sets recorded for the occasion). There are even merch stands for you (or rather your avatar) to peruse. In one online area, you can get excited with fellow fans, find out what time Pussy Riot are playing in Germany or meet the likes of IDLES after their set (you ask questions in a dedicated text channel; they answer via voice chat) to talk about influence, lockdown and falling over onstage.

Advertisement

A donation to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Covid Relief Fund will get you access to VIP areas, a special in-game tag and the feeling that you’re doing something useful while drinking in front of your computer. And if you’re not a Minecrafter, fear not. You can watch the whole event via YouTube, switching stages with the click of a button.

As with a ‘real’ festival, there’s an element of chaos to Block By Blockwest. The event was meant to happen two weeks ago but an opening set from Massive Attack crashed the server as so many people tried to get involved. There’s a wobble this weekend as well, with the audio not working for the first few minutes of Cannibal Kids’ set, though this is fixed quickly (in-game roadies dash about the stage for that authentic festival experience). In the end, the band’s set of surf-pop bangers get things going a treat.

Pussy Rio
Pussy Riot

IDLES share a slightly remixed version of their ‘Live At The Bataclan’ album, leaving in more of the audience interaction, and the crowd quickly learns how to mosh in Minecraft (mashing the space bar seems to do the trick).

The blistering ‘Danny Nedelko’ continues to shapeshift: the pro-immigrant, anti-prejudice anthem once fought against Brexit and now, frontman Joe Talbot explains, celebrates “how privileged we are in Britain to have people move there to make it a better place”. With a little block version of guitarist Mark Bowen dashing about the virtual stage in nothing but a pair of pants, it’s almost as good as being at a proper festival.

Five-minute changeovers capture the urgency of going to the bar before the next act starts as you dash from screen to fridge. And then Cali rockers Hunny amp up the more raucous elements of their jangly indie-pop and Nasty Cherry play the part of hyper-active DJs, airing tracks from Garbage and their own back catalogue as well as unveiling – for the first time – brand new song ‘I Am The King’, a glitching punk anthem produced by Dylan Brady of experimental American duo 100 Gecs.

Advertisement

Pussy Riot take a similar approach, playing studio-recorded songs in full. Luckily their music has always captured a raw, lightening bolt of energy. And tonight, surrounded by Lego-style bodies, it trembles with an aggressive, fire-starting flair as they showcase the likes of ‘Black Snow’, ‘Nuclear Winter’ and ‘Track About A Good Cop’.

The real masterclasses, though, come from alt-pop heroes Against The Current and furious Californian rockers Fever 333. Both bands splice pre-existing live audio with specially recorded stage chat; it’s the closest anyone has come to capturing the magic of live shows.

Nasty Cherry

“If you haven’t been dancing in your bedroom already, let’s do it,” ATC’s Chrissy Costanza commands during the shimmering pop-punk breakdown of ‘Gravity’. Fever 333’s Jason Aalon Butler similarly introduces the carnage of their set with the message: “Lets try today, within a safe space, to have some fucking fun. Let’s remind ourselves what it was like before we had to do this in a digital space.”

Times like these can feel like the end of things but, thanks to Block By Blockwest, it can also feel like the start. Sure, it’s nothing like the same as a real-life festival, but with proper crowd participation and a way to interact in real-time, this does feel like a genuine event.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement