The Virgin Money Unity Arena in Newcastle, England, which bills itself as the world’s first socially distanced concert venue, on Tuesday kicked off the first of several concerts with a show by English indie-rock act Sam Fender, who played a set for a couple thousand fans spread out across the horse-track-turned-arena venue in their own socially distanced pods.
Regional promoter SSD Concerts had begun planning for these socially distanced shows in April and finally announced the concept in July, when it became clear the promoter could pull off the event. It’s one of several experiments the live-music industry has attempted to bring back live shows as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has brought the entire industry to a standstill. The concert series will feature a slate of well-known U.K. performers, including Van Morrison, the Libertines, and Two Door Cinema Club.
Fender, the first run at the experimental concept, jokingly described his view of the crowd from the stage as “looking like the biggest human cattle market on planet earth,” with the couple thousand fans in attendance all separated in their pen-like platform enclosures, but he got used to it quickly and said the show quickly felt closer to a more conventional concert.
“There were 2,500 people, they were engaged and singing back at me, there was plenty of alcohol flowing, this was a gig,” he tells Rolling Stone. “The fans were loud, I’m buzzing about it. The show seemed to run smoothly, and it seemed to be safe as far as Covid is concerned. I hope these can start happening all over the globe. I’d do a fucking residency at it if I could.”
The show isn’t a total replacement for the live experience. As Fender says, he misses the mosh pits and hearing about his overzealous fans getting bloody noses. And from a financial perspective, with only 2,500 fans at a giant venue, he says it’s difficult to imagine this becoming a financially viable option unless prices become exorbitantly high for fans. But as live shows have been otherwise off the table, this is a start. “Everyone needed that sonic communal experience, we’re all going crazy without it,” Fender says. “This was still a concert. I’d rather do that than nothing.”
— Andrew Watson (@AndyWatson148) August 12, 2020
Photos and footage from concert attendees shows an organized effort on SSD’s part (albeit a bit less of a raucous show than one may expect at a rock concert), as fans remained sequestered from one another outside of their individual groups.
Fantastic night! Sam Fender was class! Can all concerts be like this?! Brilliantly organised! Thank you! pic.twitter.com/faWOYBJ9IU
— Tracy Guthrie (@tracylguthrie) August 11, 2020
These shows aren’t dissimilar from the drive-in shows that have been increasingly common this summer, but instead of making dedicated spaces for cars, SSD had fans attend in their own spaces after entering in socially distanced queues. Compared with the disastrous Hamptons concert from the Chainsmokers or this weekend’s South Dakota show from Smash Mouth — where organizers and attendees eschewed caution for packed, mask-free shows that ignored an ongoing deadly pandemic — SSD’s event seemed to take far more precautions.
Attendees looked relatively confined to their individual raised platforms, which were separated far enough apart to keep with social distancing. A venue of the Unity Arena’s size could potentially hold 20,000 people, organizers previously told Rolling Stone, but shows will be capped at 2,500. To avoid lines, fans preordered food and drinks they received as they entered the venue.
The UK’s first socially distanced gig is happening now in Newcastle with @samfendermusic headlining, and where attendees have their own private viewing area with 2m of space between them. Here’s what it looks like #samfender #unityarena pic.twitter.com/YBdxpAjYyi
— Kieron Donoghue (@kierondonoghue) August 11, 2020
“The lack of human connection has been hard, and we wanted to be at the forefront of finding ways to safely go around to let people do what they love,” Libertines co-frontman Carl Barât told Rolling Stone of the band’s upcoming show at the arena. “But the method of it is fucking bizarre, man; it’s telling of the way things are right now. The fact that we’re at a place where people have to sit in their own bubbles to go to shows is mental. Like everybody, we didn’t really understand how it could work at first, but if this is the first thing we can legally do, then, yeah, sign us up.”