Access All Areas visited the Virgin Money Unity Arena on Thursday 3 September, to watch Van Morrison play one of the very few live gigs to have taken place in the UK since March.
The socially distanced live venue has been created by SSD Concerts, organisers of Newcastle’s This Is Tomorrow festival, and creative agency Engine No 4, which was also behind Manchester’s recently launched Escape to Freight Island. It is hosting music, comedy and more until 19 September.
The venue is situated on the grounds of Newcastle’s Gosforth Racecourse, next to the Grand Hotel Gosforth Park. Both are a ten-minute drive from the city centre, with the venue walkable from the hotel, where many gig attendees were staying.
Upon arrival, guests were escorted to their viewing platforms, which were made to accommodate up to six people – the maximum for a social distancing bubble. They were asked not to stand in the aisles between platforms at any time, and to wear masks whenever they left their platform to use the bathroom or buy food/drinks.
Venue security, provided by Showsec, deterred a few enterprising (and slightly inebriated) souls who made their way to the front of the stage, or tried to sit in between the front platforms. All precautions possible were taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and ensure everyone had a safe viewing experience.
The atmosphere during Van Morrison’s performance was perhaps not quite as electric as it would have been in a non-distanced crowd, but there was still a lively buzz around the arena. Families and friends were dancing in their platforms, and the format had the added benefit of being very accessible for elderly or disabled gig-goers who might normally be put off by large crowds.
‘Brown-Eyed Girl’, saved to the very end, got everyone off their feet and chanting along – providing a bittersweet reminder of the communal power of live music and the many cancelled gigs in 2020.
The Virgin Money Unity Arena is an example of the creativity and enterprising spirit of the UK’s live industry, which has proposed a number of solutions to the restrictions brought on by Covid-19. While not all outdoor event organisers or venues will be able to replicate the format, the Virgin Money Unity Arena is proof that there is still a strong appetite for live music and events – and that the UK will be raring to go once they can return.