On the scene: The Black Keys at Co-op Live

Images: Rob Ridley

Better late than never. That was the opinion of this seasoned gig-goer, and the feeling from his fellow music fans, as we filed out of Co-op Live following a barnstorming set from The Black Keys.

After Elbow’s gig became the first major event for the embattled Manchester venue on Tuesday, yesterday it was the turn of the American blues rockers in what was the first rescheduled show for Co-op Live.

The Black Keys were one of a raft of music acts affected by the issues that hit the delivery of the new jewel in Oak View Group’s crown, with their original April 27 date having been due to open their European tour.

In the end, it turned out to be the finale – and what a conclusion it was as the band from Akron, Ohio cranked out a crowd-pleasing set in front of an audience that was at a similar level to the circa 12,000 who attended Elbow’s gig.

But what of the fan experience itself? As a regular on the Manchester gig scene, and with many experiences both in the UK and across the world, I can confess to being slightly cynical over the hyperbolic claims for Co-op Live.

However, as an arena experience goes, I can say I’ve not had much better. Being Manchester-based, the tram was my route to the Etihad Campus, with this currently being free through a tie-in with Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM).

On arrival, I was also able to take in the progress being made on the Etihad Stadium expansion project being undertaken by Co-op Live partner City Football Group. As my ticket was for the Amp Club, one of six premium space concepts at the arena, I was able to take advantage of VIP entry where I was escorted to my final destination.

Amp Club membership provides pre and post-show access to the Atrium Club on Level 2, with exclusive drink and dining options. Members can arrive up to an hour before general admission through the private VIP entrance, upgrade to a premium dining experience and then take to their designated premium seat.

Along with two large bars, and expansive seating areas, two self-serve retail outlets are also in place offering drinks and snacks. On my visit, all ticket-holders were also given a drinks voucher as a means of compensation for the disruption in recent weeks.

There were also plentiful toilet options, meaning that gig goers shouldn’t miss too much of the action. Although this also provided some evidence of the refinements that will take place over the next six months, mentioned this week by OVG chairman and CEO, Tim Leiweke, with some work in terms of fixtures and fittings still perhaps not at the desired level.

I also took the opportunity to head outside of the club space and down to general admission on Level 0. This enabled me to check out The Street, dubbed the heartbeat of the venue. Boasting a 22-metre long bar and an array of food markets, this was a genuinely impressive space.

I also ventured out onto the arena floor, which is one of, if not the, biggest I’ve experienced at an arena, backing OVG’s claims for the largest floor space of any UK indoor venue. Also noticeable was the inclusion of two further bars, built into the back of the floor space.

As the UK’s only music-first arena, Co-op Live’s significantly lower ceiling, tiered seating that brings fans closer to the artist, and claims of cutting-edge visual technology, exceptional acoustics and innovative sound bowl design promised the best show possible whether standing or seated.

From my location at the back of the arena, facing the stage, I can certainly attest to the sound quality and impressive acoustics, with chest-rattling bass suiting The Black Keys experience.

At the end of the night, I also decided to try another novel element of the Co-op Live development – a dedicated walkway back to the city centre. The regenerated, step-free CityLink walking route through Manchester’s Ancoats, New Islington and Holt Town areas, featuring a variety of art and lighting installations, made the 30 minute or so walk an altogether more pleasant experience.

Co-op Live had been due to stage its first event in 2023, but last June the opening date was pushed back to April 2024. Now in operation, the early signs are it was worth the wait…