London’s O2 Arena: a grown-up music venue

Don’t get me started about arena gigs. I f**king hate ‘em.

Rubbish sound. Nasty buildings. Crap sightlines. Muck served as food and drink, poor access, overpriced parking… . They make me feel like a conforming ant, a ripped-off consumer who’s lost all self-respect, just by being there.

Arenas are appalling places: you couldn’t design a worse environment for enjoying music for grown-ups if you tried.

So, after being repeatedly alienated by the worst concert-going experiences on offer in England – Wembley Arena, Newcastle Arena, London Arena (now closed), NEC, Sheffield Hallam Arena et al – I decided some years ago that enough was enough, regardless of who was playing.

Even if it was the Second Coming, they’d have to manage without me.

Then Leonard Cohen announced his tour, but bizarrely decided to waste four nights in far-flung Manchester, limiting his performances in English England to the O2 Arena (aka the Millennium Dome/New Labour’s Folly).

Simple choice: keep avoiding arenas or get to see the great Leonard Cohen for the first, maybe the last, time.

So I booked the O2 – very reluctantly, baulking at the inflated ticket price. And I had very mixed feelings as the gig got nearer, even on the Tube approaching the venue.

My mood lightened immediately on alighting at North Greenwich station. Impressive, I conceded: looks great, works… . The mood was maintained on the short walk to the venue – a quality environment, vision, design, investment… .

And inside the O2 perimeter it was just as good – an exciting, well-specified building, housing a wide range of high quality food outlets, relaxed atmosphere, loads of helpful staff.

Agreeably surprised, but still harbouring doubts, I entered the arena and found my seat. Very, very high, but not vertigo-inducing, as I’d feared.

Hmmm! Amphitheatre beautifully designed: there were 20,000 people in, but in didn’t feel like it. Access clear and easy, seating comfortable, sight lines perfect, though the stage was miles away.

Then the acid test: the gig itself.

The show was outstanding – a great setlist and Cohen performance helped, but it was outstanding technically, too: crystal clear sound, probably the best I’ve heard outside a village hall; three enormous video screens, filled all night with broadcast-quality pictures; and beautiful lighting.

A mighty gig – in an arena: I was mightily surprised. The show was obviously a Leonard organisation production. But the point is – the O2 Arena accommodated it, comfortably.

London’s O2 is a wonderful grown-up music venue. If you ever see a bum gig there, blame the artist’s management, not the venue.

I’ll be going again.

Gerry Smith

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