00:01 — The Return of Live Music
Egyptian Elbows | Oval Space, London
Photos: Brennan Bucannan
Monday 19th July: 00:01 — Flamingods, Grove, Crows, Opus Kink & Duress
“Is everyone happy to be here?” howls out James Cox, frontman of London punks Crows.
He curls a microphone in his fist and leans out across a room of heaving bodies, the sweat beading from his brow illuminated by flickering stage lights. I lift my own can in the air to join the sea of cheering and wrench my foot from the floor where tacky dried beer clings to the soles. It’s a baptism.
It’s 11:55pm and nervous anticipation hangs in the air. As queues form outside East London’s arts and events venue Oval Space, it is fast approaching midnight and the so-called ‘Freedom Day’, where the UK emerges from lockdown restrictions with a somewhat feverish enthusiasm. After 1 year, 4 months and a handful of days, live music in it’s sweat-dripping, full-volume, max-capacity form, is making its long-awaited return and the atmosphere feels like a hum of electric excitement.
‘Do you want to be interviewed for TV?’ a man in a shirt asks the couple standing behind me. He’s got a mic tucked under his arm and a tattered notebook in hand as he casually reels off the basic questions: ‘What are you most excited about tonight?’, ‘have you missed live shows?’, before changing gear: ‘do you feel safe attending large crowd events?’, ‘what about the spike in COVID cases?’
I can see the headlines already, “Local Indie Boy Single-Handedly Reignites Global Pandemic’. Or maybe I’m just cynical.
I file down the queue and check with the girls behind me if they’ve heard anything about set times. No, but they’ve overheard that tonight will be a one stage show only, instead of the two venue festival initially promised. It’s one of many late changes to the night, with drop outs from Fake Turins, a Lynks DJ set and Talk Show, but replacements Opus Kink seem to have quelled any hint of disappointment.
I head through the gates for the most thorough stop and search of my life. I tap my shoes against the pavement, eager to get inside as the bouncer performs an autopsy. She unfurls every old receipt, checking between each card in my purse, laying out on the table the free condoms I was handed at last week’s Independent Label Market cringe and patting down the caffeine chewing gum pills that are to be my fuel for the night.
After a final, thorough inspection of my socks, I ascend the stairs and enter a room of dazzling light beams, with DJ Peggy & Ed The Dog, both in boilersuits, dancing over the decks. Lining up at the bar, I try to recall the knack of getting served. It’s busy, and bartenders rush back and forth while I make awkward eye contact and swish my card along the bartop.
With two cans of Red Bull now in hand, I check the time. It’s 00:30am and the first band of the night, Duress, are making their way on to the stage. Eyeing the space properly for the first time, I dart down towards the front where the crowd hovers timidly near the barrier. There’s a tense edge… no compulsory seating in sight. How close should we really stand? Eyes glancing for permission that yes, it really is ok to dance. Then the first song kicks in. There’s a tumultuous cheer, and the photographers in the pit spin to capture the audience’s reaction: glowing faces, ear splitting grins, and drinks rising up into the air. There’s more attention shown to the crowd than the band, but the frontman isn’t phased. He pulls the mic from its stand, head nodding frantically in time, and takes to the performance with a confident exhilaration. It’s a light show of pink and green beams, thrusting body parts and teethy smiles all round from the group, who admit to this being their first live show. Not a bad start for a band formed in the lockdowns, this is exactly what they’ve been waiting for.
As their set finishes, I head out the back for some fresh air. The summer heatwave is relentless and coupled with the packed-in bodies, I regret bringing a jacket. A man nearby is taking photos, ‘can you put the cigarette in your mouth?’ he asks. It’s that TV-posed rock and roll, long mullets, shaved heads, the smoke poised between their lips thing, I assume. A guy asks me for a lighter. Another for a filter. I hold up my vape.
As the sound of a kick drum back inside interrupts, I snake past an obstacle course of lit ember ends to see the night’s second act, Opus Kink, taking to the stage. The crowd behind me pushes through the smoking area doorway, and I spot the frontman of Duress hovering above the keys. Tiring night for him. By the time their first track, a funky, bass-driven number with a carnival-esque appeal is fully underway, it seems like the earlier hesitation from the crowd is entirely forgotten. There’s a thriving clash of cheers resounding, arms raised clapping, and loud cries as the saxophone and trumpet duo’s enthusiasm spills over. I take a gum. “What the fuck is going on in this room?” the frontman asks the eager crowd, and strangely, it’s fitting. What the fuck is going on?! It’s live music back in action, heat and sweat radiating into the fog above the crowds’ heads.
Fast-forward, James Cox of Crows is asking "is everyone happy to be here?" and it makes complete sense the answer is yes. For the third band of the early hours, the quartet’s set is the most lively and energetic of the night. As he moves across the stage, wielding the mic stand as a lance and pounding his chest, it’s a visceral performance to sink your teeth into. Pulling my foot from the alcohol-trodden floor and wondering if you can chuck shoes in a washing machine (you can, I checked), I glanced back at the bar through a sea of heads filling half the room. Maybe I was underdressed. For the first night of ‘freedom’, the collective crowd has seemingly made quite the effort, with floor length dresses to suit attire and the elegant dishevel of the indie boy scene surrounding me on all sides. In search of my next caffeine-fix, I duck under a raised arm but am met by a flurry of jostling bodies, flying in all directions. The intensity of the night’s first proper mosh pit sends drinks spiralling aside, an intensity that’s long been missed. The mood is electric and the bass reverberates into the floor as I dash back out of the crowd. Social distancing feels a thing of the past, and the final half of their set is spent in a triumphant crash of sweat - watched from the sidelines to avoid breaking a limb.
By the time I’ve acquired another Red Bull and chewed through half the packet of this caffeine gum, the next act is in full swing. With Groves set cut down to a DJ performance, I was anticipating a lull in the night’s mood, especially as the time rapidly approaches 3am. Yet, all the heaving pent up energy and final freedom to dance proves otherwise, as they launch into crowd favourite 'Fuck Ur Landlord' in a vibrantly colourful show. A group behind me cry the lyrics back, word perfect, and I realise it’s a sight I’ve not seen in a very long time. Receiving the night’s first demand for an encore, (from a DJ set!), Groves performance is a shining highlight and welcome break from the brash nature of the previous band. Combining vocal loops with an enigmatic persona, they grin and happily oblige.
I check the clock, it’s 3:24am, and despite the numerous energy drinks and caffeine gum, my body is finally starting to flag. I head back out to an overcrowded smoking area, and stare at the police lights in the distance. Maybe Boris is having his second U-turn of the day? Lockdown rules are back in place and we’re all just about to be arrested? Probably not, but my tired brain is sceptical. The air’s finally starting to cool and I pull my jacket back on. Not such a bad idea now, was it, and head back inside for the final act of the night.
In a haze of orange with the sunglasses to match, headliners Flamingods dazzle in a stream of spinning blue and green beaming lights. Their psychedelic rock sound is a captivating show, and a group of girls to my left, with arms outstretched to the ceiling, are twirling in circles. There’s a cinematic edge to their performance, experimental and outlandish. I spot the bassist in a kilt and cowboy hat across the wave of heads from the back of the room. As the song speeds up, the dancing fully kicks in, and I slide back into the crowd to join them. With everyone gathered round the stage, the thriving atmosphere feels busy, and yet tonight wasn’t close to a sell-out. It’s likely to take many more months for all the regular gig-goers of the pre-COVID times to feel comfortable again coming out to maskless, close contact live shows, and that’s perfectly fine. Live music is rushing back to life, a little too quickly for many, but it was never going to be an easy journey. As my feet feel heavier, and my watch reads 4am, I realise it’s probably time to call a taxi. That, or order a shot.
I call the cab.
You can follow 00:01’s promoters Egyptian Elbows for more London shows here.