Some 553 days since AO Arena’s last live music performance [James Arthur’s YOU Tour], Stockport’s favourite sons, Blossoms took to Manchester’s biggest stage on 18 September, for the band’s first headline arena show in front of 15,000 live music-deprived Mancunians, backed by their touring team, dubbed provincially as SK2 Crew.
Speaking after the trucks rolled back to their warehouses following a successful run of post-lockdown gigs, Tour Manager, Dan Woolfie reflected on the journey. “We were midway through our UK tour when the lockdown hit, so we had a lot of dates that needed to be rescheduled,” he began. “We have since made a couple of production changes, which have been down to practicality and availability of crew and technical suppliers.”
The supplier roster comprised Adlib for audio, Mike Weaver Communications, dbnAudile for lighting, and designers, Mangata Collective. Adlib’s video department supplied additional LED panels and infrastructure for IMAG screens at AO Arena, while STS supplied staging infrastructure. “They all have great gear and brilliant technicians who we’ve been lucky enough to have out on the road with us prior to the pandemic. Our team can always nip into their warehouses too, with them all being based in the north, so that’s a great help,” Woolfie said, praising the tour’s vendors.
“We’ve all had a tough time, so it was great to get back to it and offer some work to our trusted suppliers,” Woolfie commented. “It was a bit of a weird one when the tour screeched to a halt in 2020 and I sent out a ‘shall we just, erm… just hit pause on these hires and we’ll get round to doing these shows eventually?’ email to all our suppliers. We wanted to have everyone who started the tour with us, finish the tour with us,” he said.
As well as liaising with venue staff and promoters, SJM regarding COVID-19 regulations, the SK2 Crew ensured the health and safety of performing artists and the technical crew were, as ever, paramount.
“The main thing for us on the road was daily LFTs every morning before leaving the bunk; this gave us a head start in isolating any potential COVID-19 cases or a chance of transmission through the rest of the touring party,” Woolfie said, reporting the abundance of hand sanitiser, facemasks, antibacterial and disinfectant spray they were equipped with.
As part of ASM Global’s portfolio of venues, AO Arena has activated its VenueShield programme, which is a hygiene protocol in effect at more than 325 ASM Global facilities around the world. Through its partnership with Unilever brand, Lifebuoy, there are plenty of hand sanitiser dispensers around the venue to make it easy for everyone to sanitise their hands as they move around the arena, encouraging hand hygiene and inspiring confidence in the return to live events.
The band and crew were also split between separate buses, with support band dressing rooms situated away from the touring party. “Operating with a base level of common sense gives us the best chance of making it through the whole tour,” he remarked. The touring team also operated in bubbles, minimising exposure to those outside of the touring bubble.
“We were faced by over 200,000 people over the course of three weeks across venues and festival sites during this post-lockdown campaign, so we were sensible about exposure,” Woolfie said. “Everyone was aware that as little as one pint in a pub could potentially send the entire tour crashing off the road, so we stuck to the things and places we had absolute control of.”
Having started with five shows on the bounce – Leeds & Reading Festivals main stage, Victorious Festival main stage, Hull’s Bonus Arena, and Glasgow O2 Academy – Woolfie said the SK2 Crew joked about not being ‘match fit’, so halfway through the tour, they each purchased back massagers.
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A homecoming by name and nature, Blossoms’ AO Arena date was the band’s last show of their whirlwind post-lockdown tour. “This was like a constant carrot dangling in front of us over the three weeks leading up to it. Many tours around us were being pulled off the road due to one-or-more of their band or crew getting COVID-19, so to make it through to the show and get the buses parked up there felt like a feat on its own, before we’d even loaded in.”
Despite factoring in an added layer of precaution, the only delay the production faced during show days was a 15-to-20 minutes spent testing each morning. “It was initially a small inconvenience, which gradually became part of our routine,” Woolfie said, explaining that local crews were required to show a negative LFT test before entering the venue. Once in, antibacterial and disinfectant spray was deployed on flight cases and touch points with plenty of PPE on hand to be used when needed. “We had enough time to load in and out safely and staggered without all being on top of each other in the smaller venues,” he said.
Summing up his experience, Woolfie, still aghast with amazement, said: “This was our first arena headline, so there was a bit of pressure all round. I took a walk all the way up to row Z in the morning and sat for a few minutes to just take it in while the arena was empty. It was nice to be the first touring crew in the venue.
“Then for 15,000 Mancs to come in and absolutely ’ave it after 18 months at home – you can’t really beat that. The band and most of the crew are Stockport and Manchester born and bred, so it was a nice big box ticked for all of us,” he recalled with joy.
“It’s been a tough ride but we’re a resilient team. We’re thrilled to be finally back in show mode, and we’re looking forward to a stellar 2022,” AO Arena General Manager, James Allen said, joining the conversation fresh off the back of Giants Live World’s Strongest Man on 14 August, the venue’s first show with audiences in the room, and now the venue’s first gig back with local lads, Blossoms some 553 days later.
“It’s so good to see everyone again. Putting on shows is what we do best and after such a long period of inactivity, we were all excited to be finally back in action. The response has been overwhelmingly positive; it was a joyful celebration of live music with a home-grown band in Blossoms,” Allen stated.
For Woolfie, the band’s recent road excursions with Rick Astley, performing the songs of The Smiths, provided much-needed relief following a testing lockdown, perennial shuffling of dates and a whirlwind tour of music festivals and UK venues.
“It sounds great, and the band have really enjoyed dissecting and learning all the parts of The Smiths’ back catalogue. It put a lot of smiles on the faces of those who managed to grab a ticket,” he concluded. “It’s the kind of thing that in-person audiences needed after so many months locked indoors.”
This article originally appeared in issue #266 of TPi, which you can read here.