Originally scheduled to be held at the O2 ABC, the IDLES concert last Saturday (20 October) was one of many to be moved to a different venue following the School of Art fire earlier this year. The Bristol punk band ended up playing at the significantly smaller Queen Margaret Union’s Qudos instead – a venue I’d previously associated only with drunken freshers belting out “Mr Brightside” and a particularly drowsy Cigarettes After Sex gig last year. Despite this, and however improbable it sounds, the venue managed to evoke the spirit of CBGB and the Roxy with the phenomenal IDLES on stage.
The significantly smaller capacity of the QMU surely helped with that, as it only took me until the middle of their opening song to be doused all over in sweat. That opener, “Colossus”, also started off the band’s latest album, Joy as an Act of Resistance, (released last month and bloody brilliant), and while that track sounds pretty great on record already, it’s on a wholly different level live. Drummer Jon Beavis and bassist Adam Devonshire were by themselves for the first minute or so, putting down a gloomy post-punk rhythm as frontman Joe Talbot and the two guitarists slowly enter the stage. The song steadily increases in intensity through its ominous “Goes and it goes and it goes” mantra, but it still doesn’t quite reach its climax. That comes after a few seconds of silence, which Talbot uses to greet the audience before all hell breaks loose. “I’m like Stone Cold Steve Austin / I put homophobes in coffins”, Talbot screams, but the time to appreciate his eloquently incendiary lyrics is at home by yourself; now is the time to howl like a lunatic, dance like you’re having a fit, and to let yourself be carried along by the riotous wave of the crowd. At the end of the song, I find myself displaced at least thirty feet from my starting point and regretting wearing a jumper instead of a t-shirt, but before I get much of a chance to contemplate my sartorial decisions, IDLES go right back in for the knock-out punch with “Never Fight a Man with a Perm”. I think I cringed the first time I heard Talbot referring to cocaine as “a bag of Charlie Sheen”, but the energy and conviction he and his bandmates bring to their live performances immediately dispel any such protestations.
Conviction is the key word when it comes to IDLES. They are such a passionately political band, (“Mother” is preceded by a chant of “I am a feminist”), that just hearing the brief SparkNotes summaries Talbot introduces his songs with – "this one’s about Brexit, this one goes out to the immigrants, now let’s take a few minutes to discuss the decline of the NHS in musical form" – might make you fear for heavy-handed lectures. However, IDLES avoid that kind of leftist idealism with panache by approaching these topics with a delicious sense of satire (“Islam didn’t eat your hamster”), but more importantly, by also being completely fucking earnest (Nirvana’s infamous "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die" is remodelled into “I love myself and I want to try” on “Samaritans”). “Danny Nedelko” is the rare song about immigration that is not a total cringefest by virtue of its positive but non-preachy attitude – what better way of signalling the virtues of immigration than by equating Freddie Mercury to a Nigerian mother of three? The subject of that song is present at the QMU as well by the way, as the frontman of fellow Bristol punks and opening act Heavy Lungs, although their main value lies perhaps rather in showcasing the various stages of cocaine intake than anything related to music.
IDLES run a slight risk of frontloading their surprisingly long 80-minute set by playing all of their most rousing songs (“Mother”, “Faith in the City”, “I’m Scum”) right at the start, but as you can tell from the constant average of 2.5 people per song being carried off for crowd-surfing, not the slightest slouch occurs. Late highlights include the liberating release that comes from shouting “I kissed a boy and I liked it" to “Samaritans”, bringing people on stage for the bar-fight chorus of “Exeter”, and an impromptu recital of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” led by guitarist Mark Bowen.
The concert ends the way it began – just like Joy as an Act of Resistance. And just like “Colossus”, “Rottweiler” (summary for this one: “Don’t read the fucking Sun, it’ll give you cancer”) sounds even better on stage than on record. In contrast to the opener’s slow build-up, IDLES leave everything on a note of raucous distortion with enough strobe lights to kill off any attendant epileptics, as Talbot leaves the stage, first to cede the spotlight to the savage cacophony his bandmates descend into. Also, no encores, “’cause we’re not dicks”.
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