Live music is back. Sort of. After four months of making do with pop stars streaming half-hearted semi-acoustic sets from their living rooms via Zoom, two and half thousand Geordie revellers assembled in an open space at Gosforth Park to watch local hero Sam Fender thrash an electric guitar, roar his lungs out, and deliver a loud, passionate performance of unreconstructed full-blooded heart-on-sleeve rock and roll.
“Newcastle, we’re making history tonight!” yelled Fender, and it was hard to blame him for being so excited, even if he was performing to a crowd all separated into small groups by crash barriers and policed by masked stewards in case they got too carried away and strayed out of their demarcated space. Welcome to socially distanced pandemic entertainment.
The ambitiously named Virgin Money Unity Arena is a pop-up venue created at Newcastle Racecourse by local promoters SSD. Virgin Money are the sponsors; unity is the aim. But calling it an arena is a bit of a stretch. It’s a field with a big stage at one end. The area is vast, 45,000 square metres, the equivalent of over six football pitches. In normal circumstances, it could host 40,000 people but capacity has been reduced to just 2,500 by small square platforms enclosed in railings, each spaced two metres apart and accommodating up to five people. Effectively, there are 500 social bubbles.
In a strange way, the set-up reminded me of the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason, on which hundreds of hospital beds were arranged on a beach in a monument to uniform sterility. Fans had to wear masks if they left their personal spots to form orderly one-way queues for alcohol and food, or visit designated Portaloos where brave hygiene teams were on hand to wipe down.
For a hardened gig goer, the sight was like something out of dystopian science fiction. As Mr Spock might have put it: “It’s live, Jim, but not as we know it.” But spirits in the crowd were high, attendees giddy with excitement at simply being allowed out of the house to gather en masse.
Sam Fender had the honour of inaugurating the arena. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter was born and raised in North Shields, eight miles from the venue. His debut album of passionate, anthemic, Springsteen-style rock, Hypersonic Missiles, went to number one in 2019. It is packed with sharply observed songs about growing up on the rough end of Northern life, and the mainly young crowd greeted each heartfelt number with delight.