Liverpool feels like the centre of the universe for ravers today. More than a year since a club night last took place in the UK - legally, at least - a gigantic warehouse on the banks of the River Mersey is ground zero for reopening the night-time events industry. Bramley-Moore Dock has been semi-derelict for years, albeit with major development plans on the horizon, but this weekend it’s coming back to life in the most vivid terms possible. On both Friday and Saturday, 3,000 people will be allowed inside the venue to dance to some of the best DJs in the game — and there’s no social distancing or mask-wearing required.
Names on the bill include Sven Väth, Jayda G, Fatboy Slim, The Blessed Madonna, Hot Since 82, Jaguar, Heidi and Yousef, who’s helped to mastermind the events at the helm of his stalwart Circus party, that has been showcasing house and techno heavyweights in the city for close to two decades.
The local DJ, label owner and promoter can’t contain his excitement when we talk the day before the opening event: “This is a moment where every record that I play, it’s gotta be emotionally charged or high energy, and it’s going to make people feel amazing,” he says. “I just want people to kind of feel connected to one another this weekend and have that kind of original rave ethos where it’s inclusive.”
The parties are being thrown in cooperation with the UK government’s Events Research Programme (ERP), a series of pilot test events analysing the health and safety of easing lockdown restrictions and reopening large-scale cultural events. A mixture of indoor and outdoor events are taking place, with different variables being put to test and the risk of COVID transmission studied by scientists afterwards. The findings will inform whether any lockdown restrictions remain in place come the hallowed date of June 21, or whether rightful safety concerns will arise from the research, and the pandemic will maintain its stranglehold on the events industry.
One thing that’s certain from the atmosphere in the queues amassing outside the venue upon our arrival on Friday afternoon, is that being a guinea pig has never felt so exciting. And on arrival - the thud, the thud! Walking towards the venue - you feel the dancefloor long before you arrive onto it, throbbing throughout your body. It’s a sensory memory that’s been nearly forgotten but so quickly remembered.
Inside, Jayda G is working the mixer and playing ecstatic house. It should be mindblowing how quickly you acclimatise to an experience that’s not existed for 14 months, except, the normality is comforting not shocking. It’s a reminder that being shut away in isolation isn’t our - or my, at least - natural state. Some anxiety is expected and a given, but from our discussions with punters outside, the bulk of people are feeling more overcome by how exciting the socialising is than the latent fear of pandemic times. “I feel exceptionally weird, but exceptionally free,” says one person, another notes: “In a sense it feels weird, but it also feels not weird”. Honestly, that makes sense. People are definitely adjusting, gradually, but you sense the feeling that’s winning out is the positivity of socialising, the hype, the excitement. Very quickly, the forced isolation of lockdown is being processed, and the excitement of freedom is being embraced.
It even feels weird to describe these actions, like it should be justified - this is legal! That’s the point; the government sanctioned this, for the common good. And gradually, it’s remarkable how quickly people get over the stumbling concerns of, should we keep our distance? Should we just elbow tap? And just embrace being in a massive warehouse with a huge soundsystem playing big tunes.
The Blessed Madonna takes over and shows that, even though she’s from the US, she’s embracing her new home of the UK with some rudeboy breaks bangers, before an emotional handover to Yousef, who’s clearly been planning this moment for weeks. The jangly guitar of Ultra Naté cuts through the air, unmistakably, and then the lyrics ring out with relevant poignancy: “You’re free, to do what you want to do”. Then the pyrotechnics and confetti cannons explode. It’s a moment. A beautiful reminder of how a banging rave feels - how a single selection in the presence of 3,000 engaged dancers can elevate a song to something more. This all sounds overly sentimental, but having mainly listened to music solo in headphones for about a year, the feelings are undeniable.
Still, few people are kidding themselves that this is the end now: people discuss their privilege to be out, their hope that the results of this experiment are positive, with an acceptance that bad results may have bad consequences.
“I’m emotionally drained but very proud of myself,” says Yousef when we catch him post-set. He’s slightly overwhelmed but also beaming, which mirrors the mood of near enough everyone present tonight. It’s the first night back, the sense of normality is creeping forward with a degree of uncertainty, but the thrill of clubbing has rushed in like a freight train. It’s a small sample size, of people willing to party in a pandemic: but still, the quick erosion of anxiety into excitement has been noticeable. This pandemic has been brutal, and there’s no escaping that there will be tough after affects to contend with. But tonight has felt like hope, that the joy of life can be reclaimed, and all it might take is a thudding kick drum among friends.
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Editor, follow him on Twitter