Recently there’s been green shoots of recovery in the barren landscape of 2020 for musicians and dancers. Following months in which artists and audiences could not come together and dance safely, the world is slowly adapting to a degree of normality. Nature is healing, and North East England’s tech-house fans are released into Gosforth race course.
On Friday, Patrick Topping was supported by Jaguar and Sally C for the UK's first arena-sized socially distanced dance event on Newcastle's outer reaches. While across Europe, illegal and legal parties, including tonight's headliner playing in Italy last month, have sparked criticism about unsafe conditions (Topping's team says they “are only doing legal shows that are in line with any local restrictions and regulations”), Newcastle has found itself as a somewhat unlikely pioneer of gigging and clubbing in the COVID age with the launch of the 2,500-capacity Virgin Money Unity Arena.
Sam Fender's debut shows at the venue through the week had been deemed a success, but his brand of anthemic indie would be expected to be better suited to the conventional festival main stage and open-air surroundings, so I was interested to see how electronic music fared in comparison. House and techno have always typically thrived in the shadows, with the atmosphere and intimacy of a club being complemented by the intensity of a soundsystem and strobe lighting. This would undoubtedly be different, but I was confident there would be enough pros to outweigh any cons.
Given the circumstances, the organisers played this close to perfection. Entry queues were non-existent, the pens used for crowd segregation were clearly marked and spacious, and drinks were delivered to your booth to prevent crowding at the bar. At £22.50 a ticket, it was priced similarly to normal large-scale clubbing events, albeit with a less bulging line-up, which some will see as a postive. Many of the anxieties I'd typically have before a night of clubbing were alleviated. Staggered entry times meant that losing your group was near impossible, and the social distancing eliminated any chance of being too hot or feeling claustrophobic, with the focus being entirely on your mates and the music.
Jaguar, who opened the night on stage then joined the crowd, agrees: “I was in my area with some friends, and it felt like we were at a proper festival! Hearing loud music in a field with a drink in hand felt fantastic,” she said. “It was also nice to have your own space with just people you know around you. It’s definitely a positive if you’re not into big crowds, and generally feels safer, less claustrophobic and is way easier to get around.” There were still opportunities to mingle with your fellow ravers as you moved across the site, but the night's priorities were certainly in the right place.
It’s also worth noting that some of my female friends in attendance were especially pleased with how much more relaxed their evening was than normal clubbing experiences. The problems with people being harassed and groped in nightclubs are unfortunately well documented, and being so spaced out meant there was far less chance of suffering unwanted attention. It's a shame that these problems still exist in the nightlife industry and it's taken a global pandemic for inadvertent action preventing sexual harassment, but it's a silver lining to a large cloud.
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Away from the dancefloor itself, not a great deal had changed. The production, lights and sound were all as impressive as you'd expect for an event of its scale. “It felt amazing to be back on a stage playing music through a big soundsystem. Despite everyone being scattered in the designated areas, I was still able to connect with people who were vibing to the music,” said Jaguar. “It’s a different experience to playing to people massed together, but it gave me that buzz that I’ve missed over the past six months and feels like this could be the future of how we do live music events.”
“Saying that,” she added, “I do miss the energy big crowds give off when you’re DJing out. I miss bodies moving and cheers roaring in unison. I also miss that excitement and curiosity of being free to roam around and chat to new people and make new friends. I can’t wait until the day we get back to that, but this is the best we can do for now.”
One thing Patrick Topping's Trick imprint has managed to do particularly well is nail down an aesthetic for stage design and videography. The visuals behind the DJ booth were spectacular, and fit Patrick's own brand of sizzling tech-house perfectly. Patrick didn't delve too far into his own back catalogue, reaching for more recent tracks such as ‘Be Sharp, Say Nowt’ and ‘Turbo Time’, but the set had a nice flow and kept the dancefloor moving. There was a nod to the previous night's performances, as he dropped his own remix of Sam Fender's ‘Hypersonic Missiles’, which received a raucous reaction. It marked a change of pace from the more distorted and surreal vocals which accompany many of his selections, such as the pitched-up vocals of Elliot Adamson's ‘Electric Acid Tator Tots’.
There was also plenty of presumably unreleased bangers, which even the Identification of Music Group has so far failed to put a name to. Although the electronic music industry is beginning to stir back into life, some things may take a little bit more time than others.
“It was so good! I’m buzzing off it! It wasn’t even that much different for me, as the crowd were so up for it. The 2,500 who were there were so happy to finally be at an event that they really went for it and made it a class vibe,” said Patrick Topping after his set. “The security and promoters said it went really well from a safety point of view too, so I couldn’t ask for more than that.”
Patrick's set was slick, the mixing was dextrous and the track selection on point. But the undoubted highlight of the night was the surprise special guest. With 30 minutes or so remaining, Patrick took to the mic to welcome another North East icon. MC Stompin's name lit up across the LED screens and a field in Newcastle collectively lost its mind.
It was a bold move, but not entirely unexpected. Patrick's long since championed the music of his youth, and consistently provided a platform for one genre that the North East can undoubtedly call its own: makina. The hardcore techno-trance hybrid, also known as “new monkey”, definitely isn't for everyone. In terms of flow and lyrical composition it’s different from anything you'd find south of Durham, but it’s a large part of the region's musical heritage.
“I’ve been into makina and its associated MCs like Stompin since I was about 11,” said Patrick. “MC Stompin is maybe the most legendary MC in the North East and so many people had been asking to play some makina this time. I thought because of COVID, I wanted to do something unexpected which resonated with the region, so I kept it a secret, then brought him out for 20 minutes and the place went mad!”. The energy throughout MC Stompin's appearance was incredible, and it was a memorable way to end a culturally significant evening.
Newcastle has led the way with the new normal of large-scale 'clubbing', and Patrick's own ingenuity with his own performance, production and special guest elevated the night to something special. “I do miss being in clubs,” admits Patrick, “but Friday was such an amazing alternative under the existing conditions and until things can go back to how they were pre-COVID. I’m really hoping to do more events like this.” Questions will remain about the long term viability of these sort of events, particularly as the winter nights draw in, but this was an excellent way to start.
Jonathan Coll is a freelance music writer, follow him on Twitter
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