The first official socially distanced venue to open in the U.K. since the pandemic began held its first concert Tuesday night, with 2,500 fans gathering on 500 separate elevated platforms placed on a racing track field.
Sam Fender headlined the first of two sold-out shows at what has been dubbed the Virgin Money Unity Arena, a pop-up amphitheater on the grounds of Gosforth Park in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Each of the pens, spaced two meters apart, held a maximum of five people each.
Patrons were asked to wear masks and not intermingle between sections, with a high compliance rate seen in photos that showed wide open spaces between the individual areas.
“I will miss the mosh pits,” Fender said in an interview with the BBC before the show, “but they will come. They’ll eventually come back when we’re allowed to do it again. … I think it’s fantastic that our region is going to lead the way on this, and we’ll be the trailblazers for something that will hopefully continue on through the rest of the pandemic. … It’s not going to be the same as a gig you would normally have, but we’ve got to do what we can do.”
Fender topped the U.K. charts with his debut album in 2018 and the Brits Critics’ Choice award.
Other gigs at the makeshift venue have been lined up with Van Morrison, Maximo Park and comedians Jimmy Carr and Bill Bailey.
The shows were hosted by SSD Concerts, whose Steve Davis said the platforms all offered “a great view of the stage.” Walking traffic to and from the loos was marked as one-way to avoid congestion or paths crossing, and food and beverages were ordered remotely and delivered to the platforms.
Jealousy from American music fans actually helped the Hollywood Bowl to trend in the wake of news about the U.K. show, as some compared the platforms set up in Newcastle to the boxed seats at the Bowl. In practicality, though, selling only every-other-box at the Bowl, to maintain social distancing, and then leaving the bench seats fallow would probably not allow for cost-effective productions, even if Los Angeles were to allow it.
So everyone gets a Hollywood Bowl type section. I’m all the way with it https://t.co/BIlGykHwjy
— DJ R-Tistic (@DJRTistic) August 12, 2020
The U.K. gig was similar to what has been going down in America at select drive-in concerts… but without the cars. Ironically, the biggest example yet anywhere in the world of an all-pedestrians concert happening with social distancing guidelines enforced went down in a country that had previously put the kabosh on U.S.-style drive-in concerts because of health concerns.
In mid-July, the U.K. gave the go-ahead for outdoor concerts following strict guidelines, only to have Live Nation soon thereafter cancel a series of drive-in shows that were scheduled for July through September featuring artists like Kaiser Chiefs, Gary Numan, Dizzie Rascal and the LaFontaines. The promoter cited “localized lockdowns” as a reason for calling off the Live at the Drive-In series at the time.
In the U.S., drive-in shows have been limited but largely successful on their own terms — although a benefit show by the Chainsmokers in the Hamptons, where fans were also supposed to stay in marked areas around their cars, drew negative attention when photos and video were published of fans dancing near the front of the stage. Other shows, including a series of drive-in gigs by Brad Paisley, Jon Pardi and Nelly in the parking lots of Live Nation-owned stadiums, have gone off seemingly without a hitch. Several country and Christian acts have done mini-tours at actual drive-in theaters in the Midwest and South.
General admission SRO shows have been a source of considerable controversy in the U.S., including a nightly series of concerts being held this week at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota that made no pretense of enforcing any kind of distancing or masking guidelines. The band Smash Mouth took a great deal of heat for playing one such Sturgis show this weekend.