‘A summer of love!’ Musicians on the awesome, tearful return of gigs

There were those few weeks of strange, haunted gigs in autumn 2020, but for most people live music disappeared at the start of March last year and didn’t return until this summer. It was a peculiar enough experience being in the crowds, but what was it like for the artists walking on stage after 18 months without the hum of amps, the dimming of house lights and the roar of an audience? From festival headline sets to low-key club shows, this is how the return to playing live felt for the musicians who came back.

I got there the day before, just to experience it, and you could sense how important this was. There was definitely an energy, because when people have been cooped up and unable to express themselves, they’re going to go off that much more when they can. The whole site was buzzing: people wanted to dance and let go. So when we played, it was one of the most emotional shows we’ve ever done.

We were putting out songs during lockdown, not seeing a reaction other than the stats on the streams. So when we were there I was saying: “Why are we playing new songs? No one will give a shit.” But the fans were singing back every single word and that blew my mind. The energy was unbelievable: having a sea of people throwing that energy at you is super inspiring. When me and Piers [Aggett] came off we were bawling our eyes out because it was so intense. It feels like some sort of summer of love has started – people want it.

When we got together for the rehearsal, initially there was just this weird feeling. I realised it was sadness: we hadn’t played as a band all that time. Before the show, I was going through all my clothes – they were super-hip three years ago, and now they all seemed really gaudy. I just need the cords and T-shirt I’ve been living in. But once I was out there I was absolutely fine. It felt really familiar, and loving. At one point someone started a chant of “I love you” and I was reduced to tears at the feeling that what we do is valuable.

We had played at Latitude a couple of days before, but this was our first headline show for two and a half years. I usually get stage fright, but I feel as if I’ve been in mourning for performance, so I had more excitement than anxiety. The buildup and the wind-down were so heightened. It reminded me of being in a band at school and playing an isolated show that you build up to for three months. We went up to the bar after the show, to see friends and family, and there was a lot of close contact, which has been such an alien concept and that made me feel a bit anxious.

My really big thing with having no gigs was that you have no markers of your popularity. You can see something is still getting streamed, but that’s not the same – 18 months is a long time in music, even without a pandemic, and I’ve been tossing and turning wondering if anyone would give a fuck when they were allowed to come back and see us. So to walk into a sold-out venue and for it to be fervent was pretty emotional. I honestly felt on cloud nine.

We’d done a few shows, so I was in the swing, but not in the way that could prepare me for Reading, it being so massive and such a unique crowd. I found it hard to enjoy in the moment. It’s not that I was nervous – more that there was a whole lot going on and you are wondering: “Is this the best gig we’ve ever played?” The stage is huge – we had a massive backdrop and it only took up a third of the stage. The stage at Latitude felt pretty big, but Reading was like a football pitch.

To go from hardly seeing anyone to playing to 75,000 people felt alien. But spending time in that environment is liberating – seeing people back together and unified in front of one focus. It feels at festivals like we’ve landed on another planet, because it’s still another world outside. We are taking a hell of a lot of precautions. We don’t have people backstage, no one on the bus, we are not going out, so it’s a different experience. For now it feels that is the future.

This was the much-delayed album release show. I’d done one show on my own in France in September 2020, but this was with the band, and it felt quite daunting for this to be our first. All of a sudden I noticed the effect doing gigs has on me: I don’t know if my touring muscles had withered or whether it was always this exhausting. Everyone is experiencing this new social layer, of making sure you are clear about other people and their boundaries, and knowing your boundaries and what makes you safe. Are you touching elbows, doing a fist-bump, wearing a mask? That’s a lot to deal with psychologically and doing gigs is already quite draining.

I was obsessed about whether the public would care when we came back – though I obsess about that, pandemic or not. Are we still a viable thing, or are we flogging a dead horse? But it was good. I’d rehearsed obsessively so the words just fell out of my mouth. I was a bit stiff physically, but the stage performance grows and transforms with each tour: you get new moves, new perspectives, new energy. Then we did South Facing festival in London a few days later, as headliners, which was nerve-racking and exciting. That’s what you work for. I mean, I love the DIY years, the spit-and-sawdust years, the tension and the anger and the frustration. But then that edge goes and what have you got? You either implode or get bigger.

It was the Proms, and it was so different: an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime thing. My band and I know each other so well, and you don’t forget how to connect with other musicians. That’s the basis of what we do: we’re having a conversation with each other and you don’t forget how to talk to someone, it’s just a case of tuning back in. Walking out reminded me of how we used to be very accustomed to that noise of a crowd, and how it hadn’t been like that for so long. At the end of the gig, when everyone was clapping and cheering, it was special, overwhelming. It made me realise how important it is to be with each other in space.

I’d done a couple of smaller gigs, but this was the first big rave: something like 12,500 crammed in, and the sense of its enormity was even bigger, because we’ve just had two years of DJing at home on streams. I was following the Blessed Madonna, and she’s one of the greatest, so I worried it was going to be one of those anxiety dream moments when you’re naked in front of 12,500 people and nothing works, but once I got on stage it was fine.

My first record was a Human League dub version. I’d been agonising over my set – I never practise a set in perfect order, but I ended up starting completely differently to how I thought it would, and then to see people dancing was amazing: there’s been fear, and you can feel the release. Without sounding too trite, returning to music has made things feel as if they mean something.

I was properly nervous. I don’t usually plan my sets, but I was definitely practising beforehand and spending way too much time overthinking the set: my first record was Do the Bus Stop by Fatback, the Joey Negro edit. Crowds now are really engaged. It’s not like they’re there just because it’s something to do – they’ve been planning for this. The energy that is surging through everyone is so intense – such an adrenaline rush, a wild ride. I’m feeling it from everyone: not just the crowds, but the DJs as well. Everyone is: “Whoa! We’re here!”

Our first gigs back were in France, so we had the double complication of Covid and all the Brexit paperwork – we had to get every piece of equipment numbered. The first gig was in the south of France at a festival, but the second was in an amphitheatre in Lyon and that had real gig intensity. The roar when we walked out was very emotional: the only thing I can compare it to is getting the vaccine, which I had found really emotional as the first step towards the end of a traumatic worldwide event.

I didn’t think I was the kind of artist who needed that affirmation from an audience, but not being able to play really did affect me and it made me feel quite low at times over the last year and half. There have been a lot of things I have realised are important to me; a lot of people have reappraised their lives, and I have realised that playing live is more than a job, it’s something I really, really value.

I got pinged after this show, so I had to self-isolate and I had to cancel a gig because of it. But it was worth it to do those shows – I love it, it’s my job and it’s my income, and I understand the risks. My very first show back was in Sheffield on 3 June, and I was over the moon to finally get to play my album live in front of an audience. We were in proper lockdown when it came out and I didn’t feel as connected to its release as I would have liked. But now I can’t imagine it coming out at any other time. It came out at the right time; it was the right music for people then.

At those socially distanced shows, you could see the whites of people’s eyes, so even though it was really nice to be in front of people, it was nerve-racking and I was white as a sheet. Over the time when there were no gigs, we’d written lots of new music and thought it would be nice to play the stuff we’d been working on to intimate crowds in places that don’t usually get gigs. The shows were seated and I found that quite hard. People were getting told off for standing up, so it was a mixed bag of chin-stroking and above-the-waist zumba-ish dancing. I worried myself into a spiral of wondering if we were any good because people weren’t dancing, but then we got to do a couple of festivals and that was a relief: having a two-way interaction with the audience, and they’re having a good time.

I felt a little bit of pressure: “This is our first show in a while, I hope we’re not too rusty.” But I think actually the audiences were equally rusty: everyone was coming into it with a kind of fascination and curiosity and openness that really lent itself well to the evening. It would be unnatural to not recognise this was a weird situation: we are all trying to get to how things were without really acknowledging the last year and a half having happened, and that is not the way forward. I think the way forward has to be with a certain amount of sympathy and kindness for people who might be feeling uncomfortable. When we were on stage we were well aware of the fact it was not a normal show. I don’t think that’s a negative – we were doing something that was going to feel different and that was OK.

The vinyl reissue of Corinne Bailey Rae’s debut album is out now on UMC/Virgin. Back in Love City by the Vaccines is released on 10 September on Super Easy Records.




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