John Bird: In the face of Covid, we just have to play on

Live music is a pick-me-up, a depression-booster at a time when some of us are struggling to keep our spirits up

What role do music and performance play in the present crisis of a broken economy, broken by Covid-19? Coming at a time when live venues for performers are shrinking, one can imagine that the crisis of Covid-19 is also a crisis of modern performance.

The damage done to our live performance outlets has been steady and painful. But suddenly, with the advent of the pandemic, it’s obvious it’s suddenly got a lot worse. Can we reverse the erosion of people standing up and playing for us? Away from the mechanical and digital?

Could we possibly come out of Covid-19 more fully aware of the role of music and performance in upping our wellbeing? All I know is that if anyone whips out a guitar or a penny whistle, or anything musical, the mood tends to change. We all come together. We stop talking and start moving and singing. We become completely different. We probably return to an earlier, less complicated emotional world than the world we now live in.

To lighten our load during lockdown I told you the story of my old mate Phil Ryan, who was the first person I asked to help me start The Big Issue. Phil ran a cable out of his third-floor North London flat into the front garden. And there for 10 weeks he played guitar and sang to the street. The street responded and hundreds turned up to be lifted and lightened, to be inspired, and to shake off the blues of lockdown.

Professional guitarist, singer and songwriter, performer internationally, he has nonetheless now thrown himself into the struggles of all musicians. Because of the shrivelling up of opportunities to perform, as Covid-19 has knocked the ballocks out of countless numbers of music venues, Phil is now working for their reinstatement. How? By playing and campaigning.

Live music faces an enormous crisis because of the disappearance of live music events, putting many performers and their careers under the hammer. So what can we do? We can join the campaign to keep live music venues open, or get the many closed reopened. We can see live music’s crisis as a part of the crisis that we are facing with our Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA). Where we are fighting to keep people out of homelessness. But we can also support the socially distanced music events, like the Chiswick Festival.

Live music is a pick-me-up. It’s a depression-buster

The redoubtable Ryan has now got involved in another attempt at opening up the live music world and not let it wilt on the vine. On Tuesday September 1 at 7pm Phil is performing at the Chiswick Festival at Chiswick House and Gardens in West London. A Palladian-style villa with capacious grounds, it is an actual dream of a place. I know it of old, having jogged round its grounds at first light when I was a printer nearby. And Phil’s performing will be a good omen hopefully for the revival of all venues for live music.

Live music is a pick-me-up. It’s a depression-buster. It’s a means to allow people to connect. It’s all the kind of thing you need to do when you want to be with others. Music unites and connects. Therefore I commend Phil Ryan’s attempt, in the grounds of Chiswick House, to offer us a chance to break free of our isolation. Chiswick House and Gardens is a splendid setting for a festival that fundraises to sustain the house and grounds in this difficult climate. Needless to say, all help is needed as splendid edifices like Chiswick needed money to survive.

Talking about isolation, this last weekend has seen the ending of the ban on evictions in England [although as we were going to press it seems there may be a last-minute U-turn]. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already announced extensions to the ban to next year; we need the same to happen in England. Isolation doesn’t come any worse than that faced by homeless people. I do hope that we can stop the spread of the virus into the very social structures of our lives. And the greatest way of spreading this virus is to allow the destruction of someone’s home. We have to avoid the erosion of people’s lives, passing from security into insecurity. We have to fight harder and longer to make sure no one slips into Covid-19-related homelessness.

The Chiswick Festival will run for three weeks. Jonathan Geitner, the founder of the festival is, like Phil, struggling to get live venues back on track. Combining music with comedy nights, exercise and stretch classes, it is an attempt at breaking free from the recent pandemic-imposed torpor.

But the festival needs help. And the best help you can give is to actually get involved by becoming a part of the audience.

I shall be there in my socially isolating circle on the grass, with my wife and children. Actually getting things moving again is the best thing you can do to head off the recession that we are all dreading landing on our doorstep. The next few months will be crucial. Let’s hope we build enough defences to stop the worst effects from happening.

But for September 1 Phil will be keeping the fires burning. His special guest at the show is Lucy Garrioch, who is a well-loved West End singer and actor.  Go to the website to view the festival programme.
If you want to see Phil and Lucy on September 1 visit here. Tickets are £25. Come and be socially isolated and inspired.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue