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  • Ursula Billington

Covid & Bristol's Music Scene

The Show Must Go On

Performers have been pushed to the brink this year, forced to sit back and take stock of a life abruptly devoid of audience and income, and sometimes identity, drive and inspiration.

Luckily, this is not something Bristolian musicians have been willing to take lying down.

Bristol is a city renowned for its expansive music scenes, home to a confounding array of talents, genres and perspectives.

The city’s venues represent this eclectic range but the most potent stirs in the belly of the underground: the emerging, ground-breaking and politically-charged, rooted in a history of art symbiotic with activism and music as peace-maker during times of social unrest.

Inclusive, collaborative and collectivist attitudes manifest in the many co-operative and community-owned venues championing sounds rooted in the innovation and emotional authenticity so loved by Bristolians: think Idles, Waldo’s Gift, Dizraeli and Murmuration Choir.

The city has a long, ever-evolving musical history; we’ve come some distance since the Bristol Sound days but the movement leaves a powerful legacy with musicians often tipping a passing nod to the trip-hop stylings of Tricky et al. D’n’B, too, holds a special place in Bristolian hearts.

Underground parties emerged in the ‘80s in response to a lack of hip hop venues, with sound systems borrowed from the established reggae faction. Now, DIY raves take place on the regular – most prominently in the counter-cultural Stokes Croft area. Music blares out of windows of first floor flats; MC’s freestyle and onlookers perch on rooftops, watching the mass of bodies living it up beneath.

It’s not just rave that’s found a home here for good. History repeats itself for every new generation with the indescribable vibrancy of St. Paul’s carnival, an annual explosion of Afro Caribbean culture and community since 1968; freshers and elders press themselves against monumental speaker stacks creating vibrating walls of bass at late night sound clashes. Progressive attitudes encourage creative improvisation, collaboration and fusion.

The burgeoning experimental ‘jazz-ish’ scene welcomes contributions from instrumentalists, rappers and poets, on both stage and street. Trad jazz troupe Henry’s Hot Six have played weekly at local scuzz-punk venue the Chelsea longer than anyone can remember. Beatboxers back up Balkan and swing. Double bass augments heavy psyche-rock.

It’s no wonder that the creative community was hit hard following the rapid onset of Covid-induced cancellations and closures when the first lockdown was announced back in March.

In an attempt to survive the unexpected silence, musicians across the country took to live-streaming gigs with PayPal ‘busking hats’ attached – a way to connect with scenes and audiences, with the odd pound earning artists a welcome bonus.

A new bond was formed when the few remaining Bristolian van dwellers, locked down together in the central YardArts space, were provoked, by circumstance, to form an impromptu performance troupe: their live cabaret featured hula, fire, clowning, and breakdance.

As it beamed directly into our homes, it gave us a taste of the summer we were missing. It felt like they were doing this for us; they knew we were out there. Afterwards, as the performers hugged and laughed together, we realised they were also doing it for themselves. The sense of community was palpable; it ebbed from the screen. People were living it and we would again too.

The empty streets saw their fair share of creative activity too. Circus folk brought a healthy dose of surrealism, heading out on stilts to take their permitted ‘daily exercise’, peering into windows to the surprise and hilarity of adults and children alike.

image desc: a slideshow showing three images of a person - Miss Tilly Twist - dressed in pink and white, on stilts. The first image shows a young child smiling through a house window. In the second, Miss Tilly Twist holds on to the upper branches of a cherry blossom and smiles at the camera. The third shows Miss Tilly Twist sitting on top of a park fence.

SUAT, on a mission to spread love and positivity via a spontaneous micro-rave, strapped a mobile DJ setup to his torso and took to the city centre streets. He was quickly joined by followers in horse and cow costumes, a speed painter, a street saxophonist and a guy twiddling knobs on a fake deck. Watching via screens, we cheered on this champion of the DIY, his energy, beats and relentless absurdity was infectious. Bringing the party back to the heart of our city in the face of adversity, was what we so badly needed.

Whilst most celebrated the relaxing of lockdown in the wake of the pandemic’s first wave, musicians rapidly got to work.

Bristol’s inherent grassroots ideology came into its own to bring live music back to the masses. With restrictions on outdoor gatherings easing significantly, musicians found new ways to connect with audiences.

Music sprang up in green spaces across the city; sunny spells brought bursts of al fresco rehearsals and full-blown amplified park gigs. Jazzers met weekly in St. Agnes. Funk bands performed impromptu in St. Werburghs. A samba ensemble beat St. George into submission, and buskers performed round an old dead tree to a healthy crowd in St. Andrews Park.

People were thirsty for entertainment. Those so suddenly starved of the soul-nourishing experience of live music eagerly lapped it up, wherever it was to be found.

From the necessity of finding a new way, true cultural democracy was born: music for all, for free. Accessible regardless of age, ability or income. All it took was to be in the right place at the right time.

Creative solutions to evolving challenges abounded across the city.

Contactless machines enabled virus-safe tip collection from crowds, who’d gathered to enjoy the novelty of live entertainment and the warm sense of being a collective part of something.

Inventive musician, Aniya Savage, conducted a live gig from a balcony across a river whilst the audience – including plenty of intrigued passers-by – gathered under trees on the opposite bank.

The crowd danced barefoot to music on the theme of breaking down invisible barriers; this exceptional, fauna-fringed gig experience likely wouldn’t have come to pass without the innovative thinking the pandemic has provoked.

image desc: Aniya Savage playing on a terrace above an audience. The audience sit cross legged on grass. photo cred: Ursula May

These solutions, though, were heavily weather-dependent, and as the summer faded, so too did the opportunity and appeal offered by the outdoors: the descent into colder, quieter months brought an extra chill to musicians witnessing their worlds shrink.

I believe that humans find it hard to conceive of extraordinary hardships and challenges ahead: hope and optimism generally prevail. For all the warning signs, we did not envision the stripping away of the live music industry to its bare bones: its decimation by the second Covid wave and the accumulated effects of two lockdowns.

Yet on we stride, constantly creating, finding new ways to keep the excitement alive.

For now, with time to play with and the energy to put it to good use, the creative populace is turning to community support.

Performers brave the cold to play in care home gardens – residents wrapped up against the elements or watching from windows.

Local venue, The Plough, quickly raised £10,000 from sympathetic locals following closure, launching a food box operation for the rising numbers of people in need.

Shambala, the Bristol-born festival that wears its progressive heart so loudly on its sparkling sleeve, is facilitating the delivery of 1 million meals to vulnerable Bristolians this winter.

Forging relationships, strengthening connections, bringing the music back when and where it’s needed most. There must be countless examples of this creative spirit in action across the UK, as people re-weave the invisible threads – using food, fun, distraction, companionship and purpose – of their communities.

Amongst all the unknowns and continuing confusion, what is certain is that Bristolians will keep on tackling challenges creatively.

We will continue to find ways to keep the streets and parks alive with song; we’ll keep the embers glowing through the cold months, ready to bring back the fiyah next year.

Watch out 2021: it’s set to be a loud one.


About the author: Ursula is a musician, environmentalist and writer based in Bristol. She has come to know the city as the sweet spot where diversity, creativity and nature converge.

Read more of her work on sustainable farming here and here. She is on IG here. Check out her band here.

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