Though IDLES may not identify as a punk band, punk’s spirit (music confronting the political, cultural, and social mainstream) runs through every note of their music and its present in every moment of their impactful live show. The history of punk bands is a history of progressive causes, targeting negative aspects of society and using their music as a platform to advocate change, be it gender equality, anti-war, anarchism, civil rights, veganism, etc.
At last week’s back to back sold out gigs at Rock and Roll Hotel, IDLES aimed their ideological guns at the growing threat of nationalism and anti-immigrant attitudes in their home country of Britain as well as the US. In addition to this hyper-relevant protest, they also confronted a more subtle and arguably more complex blight on society; masculinity.
Using these interconnected issues as their MO, the 5-piece thrashed through an explosive set that left an awe-struck impression on the crowd. Songs like “Danny Nedelko” and “Great” off their 2018 album, Joy Is an Act of Resistance are piercing anthems accosting white nationalism and racism towards immigrants, constantly reminding the listener that all people are flesh and blood. This idea transformed from an abstraction to a reality in the IDLES mosh pit. Frontman Joe Talbot addressed the audience with a gruff call for unity, love, inclusion, and a plea to treat one another as brothers in life and in the raucous mosh pit that would ensue seconds into the song.
And while the IDLES live show contained all the tenants of a chaotic, physical, and historically male-dominated punk show, the band’s strongest message of the night was a push against the toxic masculinity that permeates modern western culture. Amidst noisy solos in the pit, growling yells, crass jokes, a handlebar mustache wielding guitarist, and a fair amount of crowd surfing to the bar for tequila shots, IDLES spoke and sang about a desire to be vulnerable, their disgust towards homophobes, embracing self love, dancing like Fred Astaire, and the weight of the “mask of masculinity.” These situational contradictions only served to reinforce the message. Their performance of “Mother” (on May 12th, Mother’s Day), a song about watching their working class moms struggle against class oppression, was one of the show’s many peaks, in both energy and emotion.
Between crowd crushes, and crowd surfing, spitting, and stomping, Talbot stopped to acknowledge guitarist Lee Kiernan: “This is Lee. He’s been sober for 7 years and is an inspiration to me every day. I am not sober right now, but I am trying.” The confessional, regretful tone in his voice was met with a long, genuine embrace by Keirnan. IDLES isn’t your dad’s Fugazi-era straight-edge band. IDLES are something much more complex: a result of the confusing time they perform in; shaped by both progressive, and narrow-minded politics, filled with righteous anger and reflective self-analysis. IDLES respond by yelling playful expletives at each other one minute and discussing their feelings the next.
The cathartic, euphoric disorientation (and upper leg soreness) one feels after leaving an energetic gig took on a whole new meaning after seeing IDLES encourage and challenge our perceptions of what a rock show and an all-male rock band could be. And it felt shockingly appropriate.