As the tinny percussion and powerful riffs of IDLES’ “Colossus” thundered through The Anthem, a young man in the audience lightly bounced on his heels next to me and looked back and forth with nervous excitement. “We look out for each other, okay?” he asked of no one in particular. In the quiet before the chaotic breakdown of “Colossus,” lead singer Joe Talbot urged the crowd to treat each other with love and respect, even when throwing their bodies around in the most chaotic manner possible. As he parted the crowd like the Red Sea, he pointed out an audience member in a pink cowboy hat. Enamored by the savvy (yet slightly impractical) sartorial choice, Talbot remarked, “I love you all, but I love him the most.” Drummer Jon Beavis gave a quick one-two count, and the two sides of the crowd slammed into each other as Talbot snarled, “I’m like Stone Cold Steve Austin / I put homophobes in coffins.”
From their first album, 2017’s Brutalism, Bristol-based outfit IDLES established themselves as a punk band driven by one vital goal: cultivating joy and compassion in a painful and unjust world. In the process of creating Brutalism, Joe Talbot’s mother passed away after a prolonged struggle with alcoholism. Talbot lost his daughter shortly after; IDLES’ bracing, roaring music became a conduit for this grief. While the band has grown significantly since their debut, including periods of sobriety (Talbot and guitarist Lee Kiernan both struggle with alcohol addiction), that grief has never really disappeared. When introducing “The Wheel,” a track off the band’s latest album Crawler (2021), Talbot shared the story of his mother’s alcoholism and noted that the community that has grown around IDLES has saved him from sharing a similar fate.
Talbot would repeat this sentiment throughout the night—even in profound darkness, love (for his band, his community, his fellow man) could drag him back into the light. To the uninitiated, IDLES might seem simply angry, but they channel that anger into an exhilarating solidarity. On “Grounds,” Talbot repeats, “Do you hear that thunder? / That’s the sound of strength in numbers.” When the crowd joined in on the chorus, “I am I / Unify,” that strength was on dazzling display. The band’s message of unity went down to their outfits—drummer Jon Beavis wore a shirt proclaiming “No one is an island,” also worn by lead singer of Bristol band Heavy Lungs Danny Nedelko in the video for IDLES’ single “Danny Nedelko.” During their performance of that track, a fiercely pro-immigration anthem, Talbot hoisted that same cowboy hat clad fan on his shoulders as he shouted “He’s made of flesh, he’s made of love / He’s made of you, he’s made of me / Unity!”
In an even more literal display of unity, waves of crowd surfers (including an older gentleman in a crisp white button down, slacks, and spectacles, funnily enough) made their way towards the stage. IDLES themselves wanted in on the fun—stand-in bassist Christina Maynard and Jon Beavis walked out into the crowd, standing on audience members’ hands. Talbot commanded the crowd to put away their phones and get low, then throw Maynard as high in the air as possible.
While crowd-surfing is a staple of IDLES shows, Talbot emphasized that he wanted Maynard in particular to have an exciting show as a final farewell. Maynard, of fellow Bristol-based band Masca, was filling in for long-time bassist Mark Bowen, away on paternity leave. As the crowd shouted her name, Maynard took a hefty swig of champagne. Talbot also asked the crowd to pray for Tina—her wedding was only three days away, and her flight back to the U.K. had been canceled moments before the show. Despite (or because of) the anxiety this debacle induced, Maynard seemed eager to let loose, wading into the crowd without a moment’s hesitation.
In the tradition of punk bands before them, IDLES is passionate about promoting a progressive political agenda. In fact, while Crawler tended towards introspection, an apolitical IDLES song is hard to come by. At times, they are shockingly, refreshingly direct—on “Mother,” Talbot growls, “Sexual violence doesn’t start and end with rape / It starts in our books and behind our school gates / Men are scared women will laugh in their face / Whereas women are scared it’s their lives men will take.” While there’s no way of knowing if audience members that night would make an actual commitment to ending gender-based and sexual violence, it’s comforting and cathartic to hear an ugly truth screamed so loud it shakes the room.
“Reigns,” off 2020’s Ultra Mono, also made a sharp political statement, made even more searing by a certain someone’s death. Addressing the monarchy, Talbot asks, “How does it feel to have blue blood coursing through your veins?” Brimming with enmity, he accuses them of “hav[ing] shanked the working class to dust…[of] hav[ing] won the war no one wants.” In case the audience didn’t quite get the message, Talbot led a rousing chant of “fuck the king!” (At past shows on the tour, he chanted “fuck the queen”). When “Reigns” ended, Talbot clarified it wasn’t “fuck King Charles”—instead, it’s the institution of monarchy that he opposes. He also reiterated that he ultimately cursed the monarchy out of love and a desire for his country to do better.
As the show wound down, IDLES was issued a warning: they only had eight minutes left, and they needed to make them count. They finished out with the characteristically energetic, if underrated, “Rottweiler,” and the mosh pit gained a new wave of (safe) ferocity. When the house lights went up, revealing a sweaty mess of strangers-turned-friends-turned-strangers-again, the release was palpable. The energy of an IDLES show is intoxicating, and that’s a responsibility that the band doesn’t take lightly. By weaving messages of love and cooperation into a space that could easily spin hedonistic or hateful, IDLES crafts an impactful live show that enlivens their already powerful music. Maybe the next generation of peace, love, and understanding will have more hard rock than hippies after all.