If you head north up Western Ave from the 10 freeway, you go through a section of mid-city Los Angeles that you rarely see on movie screens or YouTube vlogs. The area is a mix of Latino communities and, the farther you move north from the freeway, Koreatown. Western Ave itself feels narrower than it should for such a major thoroughfare, and the claustrophobic mix of bus stops, strip malls, head-spinning neon and halogen lights, run-down buildings and cars make it seem like the corridor Ridley Scott had in mind when he dreamt up the Los Angeles of 2019 for Bladerunner.
Keep heading north, and you emerge from that wondrous cauldron to see high rise buildings and the glowing vertical sign of the Wiltern Theater. The Wiltern is on the corner of Wilshire Blvd and Western Ave. There is a metro station across the street, Liberty Park is around the corner, a swath of unrecognizable chain restaurants, all seeming to sell boba, down each street. $26 dollars to park at the Ralph’s down the block. A swarm of hotdog vendors on the surrounding sidewalks. There is a stark divide in all that led up to there, from the freeway to the streets to the sudden gloss of Wilshire Blvd.
That’s the mix, the juxtaposition, the strange modern limbo that IDLES exists in. The punk band from Bristol, UK is equal parts brutal, eclectic, tender, violent, despondent and triumphant. They are a shot in the arm of unfiltered joy and rage, the volatile up and down mix that mirrors the emotions and experiences that many people face in the modern world. The band has been touring strong since the release of their album Joy as an Act of Resistance.
The carpet inside the Wiltern is exceedingly soft. I wore running shoes with great heel support (because I am not a fucking rookie) and I could still feel the additional cushion of the carpet. It had beautiful yellow and maroon concentric circle patterns. The walls and ceilings are lavishly decorated in an art-deco style like it’s the ceiling of a grand mansion in an H.G. Wells novel. $18 for a beer. People there are just doing their jobs. I count 8 different bars including one “wine bar” that really is just a window-sized cut out with a wine-tender who looks like he is about to fall asleep.
The audience areas are separated into wide, deep steppes. Think of those pictures of rice patties in Vietnam or China and you’ll get the idea. The lowest steppe, closest to the stage, is reserved for first-come-first-serve fans. Latecomers looking to get as close as they could to the stage were categorically turned away. I had a photo pass (now that I am a privileged member of the media), but I felt a pang of guilt as I made my way into the lower section seeing the eyes of some of the eager fans lined up against the wall separating the first steppe from the second. It wouldn’t make a difference in the end, though.
Before the band takes the stage, the crowd is already operating at a fever pitch. The well designed, well-staffed Wiltern seems like it can barely handle the spillover. Ushers click their flashlights on and off repeatedly, telling people to clear the corridors, to stay inside the lines, no they can’t go down to the mosh area. They are doing their job, it’s all for safety reasons, but it’s like trying to tell the tide to stay where it is even as the moon is rising.
Mosh pits and crowd surfing broke out on the first two steppes during the opening act’s performance. Surfbort, the Brooklyn-based punk group, was the perfect opening band. In-your-face, tongue-in-cheek, rebellious punk. It was a short intermission between their performance and when IDLES took the stage.
Now I could tell you one by one the songs that IDLES played; I could tell you that as they launched into “Colossus,” the opening song for the night, the ground literally started shaking; I could tell you that when they started “Danny Nedelko,” their barn-burning ode to the beauty of immigration and immigrants, the LA crowd, a microcosm of the wave of change IDLES represents, hit an electric point that could be felt down to your very bones; I could tell you they had a Grease interlude in which one of the guitarists began singing “You’re the One That I Want” acapella; I could tell you that it was the bassist Adam Devonshire’s birthday and the crowd sung happy birthday to him as he blew out a candle lit cake on stage; I could tell you that I saw two grown men slapping each other, one after the other, during the final song, and then hug like brothers as the song finished; and I guess I just did tell you all of that, because it’s hilarious/relevant/important, but the specifics aren’t really the point in this case.
In a few words, the whole thing was fucking nuts. The crowd went fucking nuts. The band went fucking nuts, and all semblance of time went out the door. The room became a spinning point of density and gravity converging all on one point somewhere between the band and the crowd. A singularity. Their shows are singularities.
The first time I saw IDLES was at the Teragram Ballroom about a year before this show. Equally impressive of a show, the band seemed to be in awe of the impact they had on the crowd—of the fact that the crowd knew the songs at least as well as they did. There was a cute naivety to it all.
Well, a year on the road has done them good because this time—this time they commanded. A year’s worth of touring and acclaim had given them the confidence, the total fucking confidence to go out there and take the crowd wherever they wanted it to go. From the minute the audience walked into the Wiltern Theatre we were theirs. You could feel it. Like there was a lasso or a tether running through all of us. They held us in their palms, they struck their songs like flint and we were the tinder and the whole theater exploded into beautiful gorgeous joyous chaos. That’s what an IDLES show is like, utterly magnificent chaos.
An IDLES show is a very physical experience. You can feel the buzzsaw of the music. The pulsing rhythm and manic gyrations of the band members. The crowd is a ball of energy, a heated mix of sweat and beer. The singer spits out on stage. He runs around before the start of their songs like a manic energizer bunny, jogging in place, slamming his fist to his knee, taking jabs at his throat as if he is taunting some unknown enemy in the crowd. I went to the show thinking I’d just stand and observe, try to be objective about what I was seeing. Oh no. The gravity pulled me in, and before I knew it I was pushing my way to the center of the mass. Their shows are singularities. You have to give yourself up completely at an IDLES concert.
IDLES is also all about forging connections, about breaking down the barriers between audience and performer. The band members launch themselves into the crowd freely, handing over their guitars or microphones in the process. Unfortunately for IDLES, the second steppe of the audience area was cordoned off by security and a low wall. So what does IDLES do? Why, crowd surf over the first steppe into the higher second steppe, naturally! They disappeared into the crowd (more than once), voice and guitars still tearing into the cacophony, the bassist and drummer keeping the thunderous rhythm moving. Stage techs and audience alike did their best to keep the microphone and guitar cables afloat, preventing their tangling should cables fall to the floor.
IDLES creates a community at every show. Everyone who is there in the audience is welcome. There is no shame to be experienced. When IDLES brings an audience member on stage, the crowd roars. When the audience member thanks IDLES for writing the music they do—he being a Guatemalan immigrant in a country that barely recognizes his right to exist—the crowd roars even louder. There are no barriers at an IDLES concert. The fact that the crowd keeps the audience member who went on stage crowd surfing throughout the next manic 10-minute musical tirade, is something as close to Jesus or religion as I’ve ever been. It’s a hedonistic and purely democratic kind of thing, an IDLES show.
The band rips through their material. Their songs are tight, hard-hitting and oftentimes sardonic takes on modern life, with especially poignant political messages. “Mother,” off their debut album Brutalism, is a feminist song they proudly announced. “In fact, all our songs are feminist songs,” the singer proclaimed, to raucous approval. Lines from the song include “My mother worked 17 hours 7 days a week” and “The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich,” which the crowd sings with gleeful rage. Most poignant are the lyrics “Men are scared women will laugh in their face, while women are scared it’s their lives men will take.” It’s a surprising message at a concert that is probably 9 to 1, men to women, but the crowd sings it like an anthem anyways.
There was no encore. The final song IDLES played, “Rottweiler,” launched with the singer yelling “Don’t watch FOX news,” to, again, raucous approval. The whole song crescendo-ed to a magnificent end. There was simply nothing left to say after that. It was the first time I have been to a concert where an encore didn’t feel necessary. Beer cans littered the floor everywhere as people dispersed. One guy in fishnet stockings looked in vain for a missing shoe. He found it eventually, wedged in the gap between the security fence and the stage.
Coming back out from the Wiltern, concertgoers were greeted by a chorus of hotdog vendors. People congregated around, the crowd did not disperse quickly. People smoked, ate, talked, laughing, or just enjoyed the cool night air, the sounds of traffic zipping by, the din of the performance still swimming in their ears.
It felt good. It felt right. It felt like a release. It felt like all that music should be. Community, release, joy, movement, rapture. Back down Western Ave, onto the 10, and then the 110, and then the 405, and then down the street to my apartment, and I felt no more at home than I did at the center of that swarming singularity. I can say with confidence it was one of the best live performances I’ve ever been to. Do yourself a favor and go see IDLES.
I want to go back to the slapping men. They were not friends. They did not know each other before the show. After they hugged they went their separate ways. It was only under the unique circumstances produced by an IDLES show that such a thing could happen, that two men, as a manner of loving expression, would repeatedly slap each other, urging each other to go harder, before hugging like brothers-in-arms. In that weird, reality-is-stranger-than-fiction moment is the core of IDLES—joy, anger, violence, redemption, forgiveness, and triumph in one.
IDLES is a punk band originally from Bristol, UK. They are comprised of Joe Talbat (vocals), Adam Devonshire (bass), Mark Bowen (guitar), Lee Kiernan (guitar), and Jon Beavis (drums).