of long gone nights
Tom Wheeler on his peripatetic 2 years and counting relationship with live and streaming gigs
March 2020. I’m in the Usher Hall watching what will turn out to be my last gig for quite some time. In tru th, I already know it will be; we’re in that eerie phase when everyone realises that lockdown is an inevitability, but in the meantime we all go about our business largely as before, except slightly more awkwardly.
The venue is full, but I manage to stay clear of the invisible, ubiquitous threat for now. Had I been sitting a couple of rows further forward, or gone to the bar thirty seconds earlier and queued next to someone else, then who knows? Such thoughts will recur almost every time I’m in company for a long while yet.
A few days later, by which time we’re only allowed to leave the house for applause, daily exercise and the panic buying of toilet rolls, the emails begin to roll in. Gigs booked long ago are pushed back by anything from a few weeks to a few months. One gig scheduled for April is postponed by a full year, which seems pessimistic even to me. In the event, the rescheduled date can’t happen either. Still, fingers crossed for April 2022.
Various other things begin to move at remarkable speed. Against a backdrop of empty streets, to a soundtrack of fake crowd noise, all of a sudden a digital equivalent exists for any number of things we’ve always done in person. The effectiveness of these substitutions is a matter of personal taste; the Zoom call, for instance, feels a more than worthy replacement for the two hour meeting with featureless people in a featureless room, with its sensory overload of strip lights, ageing cheese sandwiches and Ken from HR.
But when it comes to the experiences you’d actually want to replicate; the alternative doesn’t always sit quite so well. There’s nothing like a streamed acoustic gig from an echoey bedroom to make you appreciate the qualities of a capable sound engineer and a well stocked bar. That’s not for a moment to decry the performers, who have had their livelihood whipped away from them overnight and are making the best of a dismal situation, nor the many fans who seem able to enjoy these events so much more than I can. Still, I’m struggling with it.
The problem isn’t that a streamed gig is inherently bad; it’s that the real thing is so bloody good. Sharing an intimate, characterful space with like-minded people, all captivated by the same thing at the same time: it’s hardly surprising nobody’s quite managed to replicate that with an iPhone in a tenement room.
These are the gigs at which I’ve become a fan for life, made friends for life and even found a partner for life (just the once, in that last case). Tiny details of these long-gone nights remain vivid in my memory, even when other memories from the same era have merged into one another. I couldn’t tell you about much else that happened in 2010, but I could effortlessly describe the bands I saw at that joyous festival on Eigg, the people I met, the nonsense I talked, the bodies of water I fell into.
August 2021. I’m in a socially distanced seat in a vast, chilly marquee in Edinburgh Park. A lot has gone on since that last gig at the Usher Hall, very little of it ideal. The setting could hardly be more different either, yet the feeling is similar: deeply held gratitude that we’re able to do this at all, tempered by a sense of unease that not all is quite as it ought to be.
That sense only begins to dissipate at a festival a few weeks later, in a glorious setting under almost implausibly sunny skies, when a good friend I haven’t seen throughout the pandemic rushes up to me, visibly emotional, and says, “Tom! Help! I’ve spilt daiquiri on ma tit!” before collapsing with laughter. (I am, I should say, quite unable to help. But this is very much my idea of getting back to normal.)
December 2021. I’ve finally made it, admittedly with a degree of trepidation, to indoor gigs. The few differences from what went before, from contact tracing to masking, don’t seem to matter so much when the music starts. But as was the case nearly two years ago, something is looming. Omicron, it seems, is on its way, and once again the gig I’m about to go to feels like a last hurrah, at least for now. Determined to make the best of it, I enjoy the company, at what feels a safe distance, of several good friends in a none-too-busy room. Almost all of us get COVID.
But I’ll be back. One day, when proximity and fear are no longer so profoundly interlinked, we’ll all be back, each in our own time. And if you weren’t a gig-goer before the pandemic, do give it a go, because it’s frequently such a magical thing. I would say I’ll see you down the front, but realistically I probably won’t. So I’ll see you in the margins instead. ■
Memories of the way we were