English post-punks IDLES overcome a steep learning curve during their first live stream gigs.
I must say this is the first punk gig I’ve attended while the sweet and seductive smell of blueberry breakfast muffins wafts in alluringly from the kitchen. Which is a bit weird. However, for a band whose symbiosis and synergy with their audience in a live setting is so crucial to their impact in that setting, IDLES‘ series of three gigs live-streamed from the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London must have been an infinitely weirder proposition for them.
Their nerves in this new and unknown setting are obvious from the outset of the first stream. IDLES’ frontman Joe Talbot is unusually quiet between the first few songs when usually he would be full of stories and chat and banter. Guitarist Mark Bowen, who is normally both flamboyant in dress and performance, is also unusually subdued and fully clothed. No American flag leggings for Bowen today. This discomfort and understandable apprehension at the unknown is manifest in uncharacteristic errors in two songs: ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ and new track ‘Killing Them With Kindness’. Both songs are restarted as a result. On top of this, the band’s ill advised and severely slowed version of the Ramones classic ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ further damages momentum with Talbot declaring, “We’re not doing that song again” and “I’m livid!”.
However, towards the end of this first set IDLES begin to come to terms with their new and alien environment. The turning point is the aptly titled recent single ‘Mr. Motivator’. Talbot repeats the refrains of “You can do it” and “You’re Joe Call-fucking-zaghe” with absolute vehemence and venom. This rallying cry seems to galvanise the band and they begin to pick up momentum as they storm through ‘1049 Gotho’ and ‘Television’ before their frustrations and anger finally erupt during set closer ‘Rottweiler’ culminating in Bowen furiously smashing his guitar.
For the second stream IDLES step up a gear but, as yet, don’t quite hit the stride that they are capable of at their very best. Beginning with the tense ‘Colossus’ before heading into stellar recent single ‘Grounds’ and Brutalism stand out ‘Mother’, the band seem more focused, more intense, and more on it frankly. Their increased comfort is clearly evident with Talbot taking a bit of a dig at music website The Quietus during ‘Grounds’, the band crowbarring bits of The Cranberries into ‘Love Song’, and Joe’s comment that ‘Model Village’ is a metaphor for Britain. ‘Queens’, from the 2015 META EP, is a banging stand out in its attack on social media as Talbot exclaims “Stop talking pictures of yourself” and “I don’t care about what you had for dinner”. Having said that, the entire set is not a complete success. Their cover of ‘Reptilia’ by the Strokes is admirably odd, in fact, it kind of sounds like Girl Band eating Julian Casablancas, but doesn’t quite seem to entirely work.
The final set on the Sunday morning is when it all comes together. Immediately launching into proceedings with the debut of ‘War’, the violent and vicious album opener from upcoming record Ultra Mono, it now seems IDLES have mastered their new world. The band remain aggressive but it is that joyous aggression that they normally exude in a live setting and not the frustrated aggression that they displayed in the previous sets. After the second song ‘I’m Scum’, Talbot exclaims “that’ll do” with a big smile as clearly the band are well aware that they haven’t been quite at their best to this point but are now back on it.
The entire set is more visceral, confident, vehement, fervid, zealous, energetic, and heated. Talbot is far more chatty, mentioning that ‘Faith in the City’ is about his uncle who passed away from cancer and that ‘Samaritans’ is IDLES’ drummer Jon Beavis’ favourite track by the band. He dedicates ‘Divide & Conquer’ to key workers and proclaims, “Down with the Tories!”, and even jokes that their version of Solomon Burke’s ‘Cry To Me’ is “not the only song by someone else we’re going to butcher”. The band’s swagger and playfulness are back.
It all culminates in the one-two punch of ‘Benzocaine’, from 2017’s Brutalism, and a cover of Beatles’ classic ‘Helter Skelter’. Displaying the kind of vulnerability that makes IDLES so appealing, Talbot dedicates ‘Benzocaine’ to IDLES guitarist Lee Kiernan who has helped Talbot with substance abuse. As the band plough through the track and extend sections into long jams there is a palpable sense of both victory and relief. Following this is an incendiary and gleeful cover of ‘Helter Skelter’ with a bit of ‘Pure Morning’ by Placebo thrown in for good measure. The return of the band’s confidence is exemplified by a mistake at the start of the song. During stream 1, this would have derailed the band but now instead of stopping Talbot exhorts his bandmates to “keep going” and so they do.
During the three streams, all the things that make IDLES beloved are on display. They are vulnerable, resilient, and ultimately inspiring. This is what is so endearing about the band. While they are musically aggressive and can seem confrontational, they also exude a vulnerability that cannot be faked. Ultimately, we learn one important thing about IDLES by the end of the final stream on Sunday. They can do it. Yes, they can.
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