Walking the streets of Manchester on Wednesday evening, it felt like any other visit to the city. With the exception of some TV cameras and a clear police presence, it seemed like business as usual for residents, commuters and tourists. Outside The Ritz, the popular music venue opposite Oxford Road station, heightened security meant that each individual was patted down on entrance. Inside though, it was standard procedure – find the bar, grab a drink, and wait for the music to begin.
There was plenty to be inspired by as a visitor to this city, coming less than 48 hours after a terror attack which left 22 dead and dozens injured at the MEN Arena. A spirit of defiance, to not let this savage brutality determine the way people go about their daily lives, was powerfully present, not just in the streets but inside The Ritz too. The decision of country duo Ward Thomas to go ahead with their planned gig here was met with widespread approval. They had postponed the Northampton leg of their Cartwheels tour 24 hours earlier, out of respect for those caught up in Monday’s bombing. Now, it was time to show solidarity with the people of Manchester, to stand together with them, and choose light over darkness and despair.
They opened with a song that, already powerful, took on a much deeper meaning in light of Monday’s event. Sung under ambient lighting, ‘Safe’ speaks of a place of rest, forgiveness and healing. It also features the incredibly moving statement, ‘You are not what happened to you’. It was the perfect song choice. It spoke right to the heart of this musical city. Here, on this night, were words of faith, hope, and love. Then, for a moment, this nightclub venue became a hallowed church: a minute’s silence to remember those who had lost their lives. Throughout the whole evening, as at this moment, the spirit of togetherness was extraordinary. The applause that rang out afterwards only echoed this further. It was all very moving.
After this emotional tribute, Catherine and Lizzy set about performing their planned set. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion of light and colour that hit the stage. In front of a black backdrop dotted with starry lights, the two sisters splashed great energy and enthusiasm over their country rock records. In contrast, their soulful ballads were marked with sweet harmonies and a simple spotlight. In both instances, the audience were full of applause after each song. It felt almost like a statement of intent. This was a celebration of this city’s musical identity. This is taking nothing away from Ward Thomas however. They deserve applause as artists in their own right. With ‘Cartwheels’, they have created a stunningly beautiful album. To become the first UK Country act to reach No.1 with their material is no fluke. These ladies really do deserve all the accolades that come their way. They write such powerful and emotional lyrics. They tell such great stories. There is a profound, and often universal, depth to their songwriting. And they can now add live performance to their ever-growing list of achievements. This concert, at least, was brilliant.
This concert was also inspiring. Ward Thomas played their part (as did Wildwood Kin, who were supporting them) but it was the audience who made this night special. Instead of staying away through fear, they turned up in their numbers. They responded in perhaps the best way one can to such a terrible, fear-inducing event. This simple choice of turning up, of coming together – this community spirit – sent a message. It was a message of hope, of solidarity, and a sign that love remains triumphant over hate. It was a real privilege and a great opportunity to be in the midst of such inspirational people. A moving and life-affirming night.