Five days after the Manchester attack, 50,000 people turned out for one of the city’s biggest concerts of the year. It was a chance for music fans to unite and remember the victims – but also to get lost in music for a while.
There were a few signs that The Courteeners’ show at Old Trafford cricket ground on Saturday was not an ordinary gig.
There were the armed police outside the ground, the flags at half mast over the pavilion, the regular proud chants of “Manchester, la la la” from the crowd, the smattering of “I heart MCR” T-shirts and #WeStandTogether stickers.
There were also the home-made signs, like the one held aloft by a girl teetering on the shoulders of a friend who was sitting on the shoulders of someone else. It read “Hate will not tear us apart” – a reference to the song Love Will Tear Us Apart by another Manchester band, Joy Division.
Music has always brought people together, especially in this city.
This gig was booked months ago. But since the bombing that killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert on Monday, and especially with such a big crowd and an all-Manchester line-up, it became about more than just having a good night – it became about unity, defiance and release.
It was the biggest gig of The Courteeners’ careers, but the indie band’s frontman Liam Fray told BBC News before the show it was “not about us any more”.
He said: “It’s about everybody else. It’s not just even about the fans that come into the gig, but the city as a whole.”
So before his band played a note, Fray appeared alone on stage to read a poem written by Ryan Williams in response to the attack, celebrating the “city of tracksuits and bibles and burkas”.
It ends with the lines:
So come at us again, and again if you must.
Time after time, we’ll rise from the dust.
And you’ll never prevail, not against us.
Because this is our Manchester, our Manchester, and the bees still buzz.
The roar that greeted that last line would surely have drowned out any cheer the ground has ever heard in response to any Ashes-winning wicket.
As the gig went on, Fray referred to the week’s events again. “Never stop doing what you enjoy,” he told the crowd between songs.
Later, he said to them: “I just want to say how incredibly proud I was to be Mancunian this week.
“Hearts were broken on Monday. And what I’ve seen of this city and you lot will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
He recalled a woman who sang Oasis’s Don’t Look Back In Anger after the one-minute’s silence in St Ann’s Square on Thursday, with the rest of those present gradually joining in.
Inspired by that woman, Fray played the song that has now become an anthem of the city’s resilience. Fifty-thousand voices joined him and echoed around the ground.
The Courteeners were supported by The Charlatans, Blossoms and Cabbage – all guitar bands. Their fans are a bit older than Ariana Grande’s, and have probably never willingly listened to one of the US pop diva’s songs in their lives.
But Saturday’s crowd had lots in common with those at Manchester Arena five days earlier. As well as mostly being from the same city, they know well the thrill of seeing their favourite act live, and the sense of belonging that comes from singing every word at the top of your voice with thousands of other like-minded souls.
And, like everyone in the city, they have felt the shock, pain and incomprehension that spread after Monday’s attack.
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“After what happened this week, the timing for a Manchester gig couldn’t be better really to pull the city together,” said one Courteeners fan, Matt O’Connor, 37, from Rossendale, Lancashire, before the show.
Seventeen-year-old Amber Clarke from Droylsden wore a top bearing the city’s bee emblem. She said: “I feel more proud, and I feel less scared actually. The city’s reaction to what happened has just given people so much courage and so much hope.”
Another fan in the queue, Cliff Challenger from Stalybridge, said: “There’s more defiance, more than anything – just to show that you can’t scare us off.
“Plus we’ve paid for the tickets,” he added with a laugh. “So you can’t not turn up, let’s be honest. That’s the proper northern spirit coming through.”
Not everyone took the decision over whether to go to the gig lightly.
Liam Wilks has seen every Courteeners gig in Manchester since 2011 – but sold his ticket for Saturday.
“I just know I wouldn’t enjoy it,” he said beforehand. “I wouldn’t be focusing on the music, I’d be focusing on if I saw anything suspicious or… I wouldn’t be listening to the music. I’d be watching everything else.”
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Others undoubtedly stayed away, but it was hard to tell how many.
There was a huge crowd, though, and those that did attend were determined to enjoy it and let off steam as well as showing solidarity and respect.
The best gigs are the ones where you lose yourself in the music and retreat from reality for a couple of hours. Despite the reminders of the recent events, this was no different.
So while the armed guards kept watch outside and the flags flew at half mast, fans inside sat on their friends’ shoulders, put their arms around their neighbours’ necks, drank lots, moshed, laughed, took off their T-shirts and whirled them above their heads, and sang at the tops of their voices.
Just like they always have done, and hopefully always will.
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