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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C
pilot event

'A symbolic moment for the Irish music industry' as James Vincent McMorrow plays pilot live gig

The special guest was Sorcha Richardson. Here’s our report from the Iveagh Gardens.

LAST UPDATE | Jun 10th 2021, 11:30 PM

National Concert Hall / YouTube

“I DIDN’T REALISE how much I needed this until it gets taken away…”

James Vincent McMorrow could have been speaking for the whole country tonight during his headline set at the much-anticipated pilot live music event.

McMorrow’s first time back on stage since 2020 (ahead of the release of his new album Grapefruit Season) was the most unusual gig the country has seen: a pilot gig for just 500 people, held outdoors in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens, under strict controls. But not so strict that it didn’t feel like, well, fun.

When his band got stuck into his set opener, Me and My Friends – horn section and all – it felt like any normal gig… only you weren’t close to the armpit of a stranger. Perhaps social distancing does have its benefits sometimes.

Although the atmosphere was free of the ebullience you might get at an ‘ordinary’ gig (remember them?) tonight’s event was a bit of craic – at last – in the June heat. It felt like an exhale after over a year of holding our breath, no pun intended. But it felt, too, like just a taster of what is possible in the future.

Gig opener Sorcha Richardson picked up on the ‘fingers crossed’ vibe during her set, saying: “This is like a sign of hope that we’re getting there.” As the evening sun slowly dipped down over Dublin city, soundtracked to the music of Richardson and McMorrow, the leafy Iveagh Gardens felt like a hopeful place indeed. 

Pods and one-way systems

Image from iOS (13) Aoife Barry The entrance to the event Aoife Barry

The gig was the first of a number of pilot gigs announced by Arts Minister Catherine Martin to help usher back in live performances in Ireland. There’s a lot riding on how tonight went, and whether the hosts, the National Concert Hall, and Martin’s department are happy with how things went.

On the evidence of what The Journal saw, the event went extremely smoothly. It wasn’t a return to the gigs of old, but it was a first stepping stone on the way back to normality.

The first sign, though, that this gig was not a normal one was the mention of staggered entry times. Each of the 500 ticket holders was part of a ‘pod’ (you could buy up to four tickets at the same time). Each pod was then given a specific time to turn up. The entrance to the venue was at Clonmel St, and in the evening heat it was a calm place to be – none of the heavy streams of people snaking into the Iveagh Gardens that we usually see at events.

The site had prominent signs explaining the rules. No alcohol was allowed (there also wasn’t a bar, though there was a crepe van and an ice cream van), people weren’t allowed to bring furniture (ie camping chairs or the like), and people were asked to obey social distancing and sanitise their hands. Masks were to be worn at all times, until you were safely ensconced in your pod.

A one-way system was in place throughout. That meant that although when you entered the Gardens the food area was a hop, skip and jump away to the right, you needed to walk around the entire site to get to it.

With no alcohol in the picture, it won’t surprise readers to hear that people obeyed the rules. Yes there were some who ignored the one-way system, but that wasn’t hugely problematic. The toilets were staffed by about 4-5 people who cleaned each one after they were visited. There were cleaning staff ensuring any rubbish that wasn’t put in the bins was collected.

The event was a masterclass in organisation, and the smaller audience, pod organisation and dry event ensured that things could go as smoothly as possible. But this was also dependent on the willingness of the audience to enter into the spirit of things.

Image from iOS (15) Aoife Barry Aoife Barry

The fact that this was people’s first ‘real’ gig in over a year meant that spirits were high, but there was still a sense of calm from the very beginning of the night. While it had its moments of celebration, there was a quiet sense of excitement that built up as the evening went on.

The audience members The Journal spoke to felt the importance of the event. One, Josh, said it felt like “ there was no light at the end of the tunnel” during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think the last few weeks with the weather and things were reopening, there’s been a lot more positivity. It’s a nice first step back to normality,” he said.

In relation to the staggered access time, another gig-goer Hannah said it’s a “good idea”, adding that she “just walked through” and there were no queues. 

“We’ve felt safe up until this point so hopefully it will all be good for the rest of the evening,” she said. 

 Amy was there with her boyfriend Barry, a musician who hasn’t been able to gig for a year. The pair played James Vincent McMorrow songs at their wedding and have seen him six times. “I walked down the aisle to James Vincent McMorrow,” she said. She was one of the very lucky 500 who got tickets – they sold out in 30 minutes.

“I just refreshed [the website] at the right time I think. I absolutely couldn’t believe it, I was thrilled,” she said. The demand for tickets was so high that Richardson congratulated the audience on “winning the Hunger Games ticket”.

The demand spoke to people’s desire for something, anything, positive to happen after a year that has taken its toll on the country. Throughout the pandemic, live music has been one of the industries most affected, due to the risk of the spread of the virus in enclosed spaces. Overnight, people were without jobs, with no sign of knowing when live gigs would return. 

Live events are a place of emotion and catharsis for audiences. They’re where people let go, where they connect, where they can blow off a bit of steam. Music has an ability to reach inside us and pull out the true emotions that we’re feeling, and so a live gig is like no other experience. It’s intense, but it’s ephemeral too – even if you capture a gig on film, you’ll never truly get to re-experience what it was like to be in the crowd or on the stage. You either experience it, or you don’t. 

A year without gigs has felt very strange for those of us who are used to having them in our lives – not to mention the musicians who’ve had to go without an essential part of themselves for so long. That aspect of things being new was reflected in a few moments on stage, like Sorcha Richardson joking about forgetting what she was doing, and McMorrow saying he’s “never been so nervous in my entire life”.

Both of them could surely feel the pressure of such a big event, but overall it was clear they wanted to please the audience. It must have felt like a homecoming of sorts for them, a moment to breathe. The audience was there to feed that energy back to them.

Tony Kinlan Tony Kinlan

Live gigs in the future

Was this pilot gig an indication of how live music will be in the months to come? It’s hard to say. For starters, the lack of alcohol meant for a relaxed atmosphere, but it’s hard to imagine that all gigs for a period of time will be alcohol free. Still, once alcohol is introduced it can be harder to get people to maintain social distancing or stick to guidelines.

Tonight’s gig didn’t involve any Covid testing – there were no PCR or antigen tests needed, though the media who attended did have to fill out a form which asked them about their Covid risk (such as if they had been abroad or around someone who had tested positive). Ticket holders also had to abide by the guidelines outlined here, such as having the HSE COVID app installed on their phone, and the phone switched on.

Now that a gig has successfully taken place in Ireland in 2021, it could be possible to introduce testing before and after a future gig, as we’ve seen in other countries. But the scale of organisation that this would require might not make it an attractive prospect, particularly if all of the social distancing measures are in place at the event. 

We might, however, see such testing take place should the country move to non-socially-distanced events, when the risk of Covid-19 spreading is much higher. 

The pod system used tonight is clever and easy to abide by. But social distancing does cut hugely down on the potential audience numbers, meaning that the return on events might be too small for some promoters. There needs to be some clever solutions here – for example, Martin’s department could offer financial support to those putting on gigs with reduced numbers, to help balance out any potential losses and ensure promoters and musicians are not at risk.

Gigs could take place in alternative venues, where the smaller audience number only adds to the feeling of the event being special. While things are a little strange, the industry could capitalise on that sense of strangeness, and give audiences (no matter how small) a unique and unrepeatable experience. 

The fact that tonight’s concert was presented by the National Concert Hall with the support of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, the OPW, and Dublin City Council, shows that organisations need to pull together like this to make events happen. If we want more live gigs in our country, we need a show of teamwork like we saw tonight.

With vaccination numbers increasing by the day, the hope is of course that audience numbers can increase in the not too distant future, but for now people might need to get used to smaller numbers.

Logistically, an event like tonight’s takes a lot of planning. Promoters and venue owners – and the musicians themselves – are facing into a time where putting on a gig becomes a more intense prospect than in times past. But as the demand for this gig showed, people want and need live music events.

Speaking to The Journal just before Sorcha Richardson started her set, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin said it was “emotional coming in, scanning the ticket”.

“Most of all I feel for the performers, for the backstage crew, for the event organisers and well done to the National Concert Hall,” she said.

“This is a really significant, symbolic moment for the music industry and I’m determined to get them back up and running.” 

Image from iOS (1) Aoife Barry / The Journal The entrance to the Iveagh Gardens this evening Aoife Barry / The Journal / The Journal

Pilot gigs

Tonight’s gig was one of a series announced by the Government that will take place in June and July, including indoor performances and a nightclub event.

The events include an opera performance in the University of Limerick on 23 June, an outdoor music festival in the Phoenix Park on 26 June and a comedy gig in Vicar Street on 3 July.

Christy Moore is set to play at one of the first indoor gigs in Ireland this year at a pilot event at the Gleneagle INEC on 26 June. Tickets sold out for the gig in just four minutes today. 

- With reporting by Hayley Halpin

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