As I travelled to Manchester for what  social media had described as the best night of their lives, I was feeling a little apprehensive. This was my first ever arena show – and my sister’s first gig – I was concerned how the sound and the atmosphere I normally associate with intimate, sweaty and confined circumstances would translate in a bigger room.

These nerves didn’t abate upon arrival; it seemed like the bouncers hadn’t been told that the doors had been open for twenty minutes with little movement in the queue ahead of us. With opener, No Rome, not on until 7pm, there was plenty of time to peruse the merchandise, which wasn’t what I imagined it might have been.

Of course I bought my customary black band-tee, but the disparity between what is available online and what was on the stands disgruntled me. The posters to match the style of the album artwork of recent album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, never materialised. This is nit-picky, I’m aware, and doesn’t detract from the gig at all; but it does leave me with an empty space on my wall that I’m unaware how to fill.

It was only a short wait until Matty Healy’s newest protégé, No Rome, took to the stage with what was a brilliant performance, considering the early stage of his career. He bounded out to massive tracks ‘Do It Again’ and ‘Seventeen’ – the latter introduced by the witticism, “a song about being seventeen” – and really got the crowd’s attention.

The standing section was bopping along happily, and there seemed to be a sway to the seats further back as well, even though many at this point remained empty in an exercise of frustrating gig etiquette. That seems to be Rome’s M.O.; despite playing only a short set, which included a teaser of future release, ‘Pink’, he has an infectious stage presence and personality that when paired with the groovy beat in his tracks just makes you want to move. That this managed to come across despite having so little stage-space to work with shows the great promise which has him so hotly tipped by the industry.

Soon after the opener left the stage, Pale Waves entered the fray – along with swathes of more fans. For the first time on the night people began to leave their seats to dance – their performances of ‘The Tide’ and ‘Television Romance’ were particularly well received by the audience from the band’s native Manchester.

Photo by Niall Lea, via Pale Waves’ Twitter

The only criticism of their impeccable set it would be that it was too short; with No Rome it was understandable because of the much sparser back catalogue, but with Pale Waves coming off the back of their debut album and this their first experience of an arena tour – I was expecting more. This isn’t to say that they weren’t astounding – the difference between recordings and live performances with Pale Waves is next to nothing – but the set left me wanting more. At least The 1975 were up next to satiate me.

The shortness of the set was explained by the stage’s transformation: bright, white lights shone over the crowd to leave the stage itself in total darkness to build suspense. Annoyingly, this did mean another long period without action for the crowd, their highlight being Matty’s dad arriving in his seat. It was here that my sister made a fairly succinct observation: “There’s a lot of waiting at gigs isn’t there?”.

This was a forgivable evil because the staging for the show was immense, clearly having taken much thought and effort. Two large rectangles – the band’s icon – lit up either side of the stage, matching the bigger, central rectangle which dropped in and out between songs, interchanging with cubes suspended on wires. These displays played a central role in every track, making references to music videos (notably ‘Sincerity Is Scary’), displaying lyrics and just being generally cool.

The gig opened with a flurry of up-beat tracks and bright colours from The 1975’s second and third albums: ‘Give Yourself A Try’, ‘Too Time’, ‘She’s American’ and ‘Love Me’ all whipped the crowd into a frenzy of flailing dance-moves orchestrated by Matty, parading around the stage and skating across the travellator at the front of the stage. The applause and whoops of approval were deafening and got  more rapturous with every passing song.

Image by Markus Hillgärtner, via WikiMedia Commons

These albums seemed to be the focus of the gig, though the band made a point to thank the fans for their support after performing ‘How To Draw / Petrichor’ by following it up with fan-favourite, ‘Robbers’; “we wouldn’t be where we are now, able to perform these professional-sounding, high-production tracks if not for the reaction to songs like these”.
That The 1975 put fans first was again demonstrated by an audience vote, allowing the crowd to choose whether ‘UGH!’ or ‘Paris’ was performed, and although I wasn’t too happy with the result – ‘UGH!’ being a personal favourite of mine – this is such a simple but effective method of audience interaction to make them feel as if they’re part of the show. This was followed by ‘Medicine’, one for long-term fans – a single from 2014 that isn’t on any album or EP. The crowd loved that, it was the obligatory ‘torch-in-the-air’ moment for the gig.

The tear-jerker, however, was ‘I Always Want to Die… Sometimes’ – Matty beamed with pride as the sold-out crowd bellowed every word back to him, and it has been seen on other dates to visibly bring him to tears before the faux-close of the show.

Image by Elizabeth Tomkins

One of the major points of note in the set was ‘Loving Someone’: the screens beside the stage broadcast rainbows and bees in solidarity with the LGBT+ community and the victims of the 2017 Manchester Arena attack. The social awareness behind this song created one of many moments of poignancy within the gig, as the message permeated that love is all we really need in the world.

This continued through other songs, particularly those newer releases such as ‘I Like America & America Likes Me’, where The 1975 seemed impressed with themselves for pushing critical messages that could be relayed back to them on mass. Their music is an analytical, satirical commentary on life as individuals and as a society and even their own life in the public eye. Nowhere is this more evident than in ‘The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme’, which was cleverly weaved into the set by having it play as the filler music before they came on stage.

What makes The 1975 more interesting is their self-awareness: during ‘The Sound’, the screens behind the band showed criticisms that had been levelled at the band and their music in an act of blind defiance that they could fill an arena and get everyone – bar the dad sat next to me – on their feet and dancing to music that was so divisive.

My defining moment in the gig was definitely the performance of ‘Ballad Of Me and My Brain’, the screens all glitched and reacted texturally to Matty’s interaction with it. A cage of sorts was set within, a brilliant metaphor for such an introspective song about mental health.

This stage-within-a-stage was used throughout the gig after this dramatic first reveal, particularly excitingly for the dancers during ‘Narcissist’ – for which No Rome returned to the stage for a duet.

Image by Elizabeth Tomkins

Perhaps what this gig showed most evidently is that The 1975 are, as Matty said in the run-up to releasing the album, “the most exciting thing happening in music right now”. This is a band that came into the world playing driving guitars and head-banging to ‘Sex’ – the closing number – but is equally able to make electronic, production only tracks. If the message displayed at the gig’s end – “Rock & Roll is Dead” – is true, then The 1975 are are evolving to such an extent that they could carry on growing in this new market.
They are simply incredible to watch and to listen to, in so many ways: of course, the music is astounding but what sets The 1975 apart is how intelligently they are staged and presented. The staging was not just a coincidence to look pretty, but a meticulously planned piece of art.