The first “near-normal” concert since Covid began is taking place in Liverpool on Sunday, with 5,000 giddy music lovers crowding into a festival tent with no masks and no social distancing.
All had agreed to act as guinea pigs for scientists studying the safety of mass events as part of the government’s Event Research Programme. A negative Covid test was a condition of entry, with concertgoers asked to take a further PCR test on Friday “so that festivals can go ahead this summer”.
Stockport guitar band Blossoms were headlining the show at Sefton Park, which felt like a euphoric mini-festival. There were bars selling overpriced pints of Strongbow in paper cups, lines of progressively grubby Portaloos and extremely excited young people scarcely able to believe their luck at being out of the house in big groups without being told off by the “rule of six” police.
“We are ecstatic!” said Tom Plummer, 19, a chemistry student who was wearing matching Hawaiian shirts with his housemates. “I will happily be a test subject for Boris [Johnson] any day.”
Inside the tent, which would be filled to two-thirds capacity if everyone turned up, messages flashed up on screens ordering revellers to “BE KIND: if someone wants a bit of space, give them room.” Another said: “It’s fine to wear a face mask in the big top if you want to.”
Pretty much nobody did. They were too busy enjoying the novelty of having their chin – or lipstick – on display in a crowd for the first time in what has felt like an age. There was a lot of hugging, much shrieking and selfie-taking to document this evening of – dare we say it? – post-pandemic history.
Many concertgoers were first-year students at Liverpool’s universities, most of whom had caught Covid in freshers’ week and felt cheated out of university life.
“I’ve still never been to a club, ever,” said Jade Webber, 19, studying physiotherapy. She was extremely excited to be at the gig and had spent the previous fortnight learning all the lyrics of all three bands on the bill, to get the most out of the experience. The other acts are Wigan four-piece the Lathums and local singer-songwriter Zuzu.
Tim West, 19, studying veterinary science, said lockdown had been tough on young people, who are least at risk of getting seriously ill and at the back of the vaccine queue. “Is lockdown worth killing everybody’s enjoyment?” he asked.
It was Blossoms’ first gig since 15 March 2020, eight days before Boris Johnson put the UK into a then unprecedented lockdown.
The five-piece thought they might be out of action a few months. Their accountant worked out they could spend 18 months off the road before they would have to get other jobs, but they quietly hoped to at least be able to hit the festival circuit to tour their number one album, Foolish Loving Spaces.
In the end it was over a year since they took to the stage again for what the band described as “a massive honour”.
Ticket holders had to be over 18 and registered with a GP in the Liverpool city region to attend. Contractors from outside the area, including journalists, had to take live Covid tests on Zoom on Saturday in order to gain accreditation.
The concert was the biggest seen in the UK since Covid hit last March, though there were smaller experiments last summer, including a pop-up venue in Newcastle called the Virgin Money Unity Arena, which saw 2,500 people sitting in their household bubbles in 550 viewing spaces.
Andrew Lloyd Webber also organised a series of indoor concerts for socially distanced audiences at his Palladium venue in London, which had been fitted with door handles that use silver ions said to kill 99.9% of bacteria and viruses.
Beforehand, Blossoms were thrilled to have been asked to play the pilot, with frontman Tom Ogden reasoning that they received the invitation because “we’re big enough to get a crowd in but not big enough to say no.”
They have all missed playing live. “We made our name touring being a prolific live band, so it’s where we belong,” said Ogden. “It’s a real honour,” said Charlie Salt, the bassist. “If we end up being the catalyst for live music to come back again, it’s great.”