Freedom Day, nightclubs reopen

A while ago, a friend said to me: “I think when I finally find myself on a dancefloor again, in front of a big speaker stack, I’ll probably cry.”

I wondered then and many times afterwards if I would too. Maybe not actually burst into tears, but at least feel incredibly overwhelmed. I mean, music has been my life. For my entire adult life and a fair portion of time before, most weekends I’ve been out somewhere dancing or playing music. And then the lockdown – the thing that nobody could have imagined – happened. I wasn’t against it, I understand why it needed to happen, but I hated it. The first one was novel, and I had some good times, the winter was harsh, and for the whole sixteen months, like most of us, I just wanted the old normal back.

When I was asked to play in The Loft at Mint Warehouse for the Grand Reopening on ‘Freedom Day’ I was buzzing. What better way to spend the first hours of the ending of restrictions? I had planned to go anyway, as soon as I saw they were planning a night for 00:01 on the Monday. I wanted to be in a club for that.

The weirdest thing was, when it happened, it didn’t feel weird at all. It was awesome, I was on top of the world, but I kept having to remind myself that it was almost a year and a half since I’d last done this. The music was on point and I was having the best time dancing, but it was only now and then I’d be like ‘Shit – this is not a usual thing!’ When I was outside smoking, I kept having flashbacks to the last time I’d been there, and it seemed like two minutes ago instead of a really long time ago.

So I didn’t feel overwhelmed, I certainly didn’t cry – I just had the best time ever and it all seemed perfectly normal. I’d thought about it a lot in the time in-between, but very little when it actually happened. One thing I do remember observing was how long it had been since I’d heard tunes through a big system, and how good it was to do so again.

A few months ago, I was walking up Kirkstall Lane, on my way to Sainsbury’s in Headingley. At that point, there weren’t many other places to go. Anyway, as I was approaching the pedestrian crossing, I caught a whiff of this guy’s aftershave and it triggered a strong memory of being out. I had a flashback to being on a dancefloor, and then I remembered waiting in a crowd at the bar in a club, and then – and I thought about this for ages – I remembered being in club toilets. That very specific muffled sound of the music that you get when you’re in a toilet cubicle in a club. I thought about how long it had been since I’d heard music sound like that and I felt a strong pang of nostalgia followed by an urge to laugh out loud, because of all the things to miss, that was quite a ridiculous one. As the night approached I thought of that again, but, as it turned out, I didn’t once find myself in a toilet cubicle at Mint Warehouse, just on the dance floor, and for an hour and a half, behind the decks.

Playing in a club again was a great, if not initially nerve-wracking experience. Playing in your room, or on a small system, is just not the same at all – as anyone who has ever played out will know – and I will not lie, I was shitting myself. Just before my set – b2b with Rory Flynn – all the anticipation and buzz, and all my enjoyment of Reeshy and Ethan McNamara’s set (they were playing before us) turned into one thing – pure fear. Would I still be able to do it? What would the booth sound like? What if people didn’t look like they were having a good time? Within a couple of mixes, all that dissipated. I was having a fucking great time, and it looked like other people were, too. A group of my friends had just got there as well, which made it even better. I’d wondered where they were. But, of course, the queue. I’d forgotten all about queues.

Afterwards, my housemate said to me that he felt a not very pleasant nervous anticipation whilst waiting outside, and that as soon as he got into the club it disappeared, and he felt great.

Of course, it doesn’t feel entirely normal in my day to day life right now. Even as it all was happening, we were all wondering if it would last, or if we would end up back in lockdown like the Netherlands. It was being said by many, with some justification, that the government was being irresponsible. I wondered if, after all my annoyance at the anti-vaxxers and pandemic deniers, I too was taking an irresponsible stance by celebrating the end of all restrictions here in the UK. But also, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Afterwards, I felt good in a way that I haven’t for ages. I think I probably used to feel like that most of the time, and I didn’t even realise the feeling was missing. I know certainly that I felt terrible during the winter, and I gradually felt better as things started to open up. I’d missed the variety, the epic adventure of every weekend. And to gather with people and dance. Humans have done this all over the world for all of history. You have to think about peoples’ mental health. Another important consideration is the livelihood of businesses. But you do also have to think about the vulnerable and about hospitals being overwhelmed. It’s a tricky one.

I have a mate who has had to stay in for the whole time, and even has to now, because he has a respiratory problem and he also can’t get the vaccine. What happens for people in that situation?

Back home, back for the sesh, the news came through about the government proposing mandatory proof of two vaccines for entry to clubs from the end of September. My reaction to this was mixed. While I feel that getting both vaccines is the responsible thing to do, I also have a strong intrinsic dislike for anything that limits peoples’ freedom of choice, and so I can’t help but feel this is not right. But as well, I want the clubs to stay open, whatever it takes for this to happen. But then, will this make people stay away? Another blow to the industry would be too much. And what about other mass gatherings? Surely the Euros had a huge part to play in the current rise in cases? And aren’t most of these cases much milder than previously? So many questions.

I will say that I think that this probably won’t happen, and that on making the proposal, the government, I suspect, knew this. What it has done is provide the appearance of responsible action being taken. It serves as a response to all the criticisms of the end to restrictions. It also serves as a push to get young people to take up the second vaccine. We will see…

Beyond that wonderful first night of the nightclubs, things continue to not quite be there yet in other places. Most festivals are cancelled this year. Even Houghton, which was still looking to be going ahead, is not now. The first year that Houghton didn’t happen, we held our own ‘Noughton’ instead. A weekend of various misadventures, including setting up our bell tent in a friend’s back garden, and a party at Mint Warehouse organised for the disappointed would-be festival-goers. After the Covid year, I joked that Houghton was becoming a bit like the jam they were always to have tomorrow at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and on hearing news of the latest postponement, I sent a group message to the folks I would have been going with: “What are we doing for Noughton this year?” Jokes aside, it was the correct decision to make on the part of the organisers. Thinking long term is the only way. With the current ‘ping-demic’ situation, if the festival were to be cancelled at the last minute, it would most likely never take place again. And what a great loss to our music scene that would be.

So here we are. Definitely in a better strange time than the previous one, and a happy time for me, certainly. But not quite the end of it all. I hope that Covid deaths remain low, and I hope that everything stays open. That’s it. I would imagine that most people in our scene feel the same way. The novelty of what we all used to take for granted is an odd, good feeling. I realised, the weekend after Freedom Day, that I had friends playing all over Leeds – more places to go to than I would be able to make it to. It’s a wonderful problem to be faced with.

Words: Roya Brehl
The original photo which I edited was taken by my friend Emma Borley. I somehow have neglected to take any pics of dancefloors

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