The most manic mosh pit I’ve ever ended up in was a Mac DeMarco show. This might seem like a misnomer, given DeMarco’s through-and-through spirit as a mellowed-out drifter. His 2017 Treefort performance, however, was an eye-opening moment of discovery, both of his latent lunacy onstage, and the absolutely terrifying energy of drunk white boys who were apparently ready to crush each other to the introspection of “This Old Dog.”
That isn’t to say I didn’t have the time of my life: I was dumbfounded and swept up in it as much as a third of the audience was. It was also a first for me. I hadn’t mustered the courage to step into a pit before DeMarco’s show, and doing so was equivalent to being taught how to swim by getting tossed into a surging whirlpool (with the additional risk of your very expensive camera getting smashed, if you were my friend Eli). Thankfully, the trauma paled to the thrill, and I discovered my love of getting trampled during a 15-minute gag performance of the chorus to Steely Dan’s “Reeling In The Years.” The punk forefathers would be… perplexed.
What I’m getting at is that the brutalism (HA!) of seeing Bristol post-punk darlings Idles in a live setting was premeditated. In place of the unexpected thrill of ending up crushed was the bristling hope that it would be the best yet. So-much-so, in fact, that I was willing to travel to San Francisco (a 10-hour drive) to get my fix.
Like any good fake fan, I was directed to Idles’s music via the recommendation of flat-wallet salesman Anthony Fantano, who gave their then-latest record Joy As An Act of Resistance a tantalizing 9/10 score. Given my alignment of his tastes when it came to records he enjoyed, I went in at least expecting something raucous, something fierce. I was churned back out of the record with a mixed sensation of adrenaline, the warmth of grimy peership, and the deep-set need to light something on fire, and present it as a gift to my closest friends.
See, if I had to describe my positive bias in my music listening, there is at least one surefire recipe for success. I adore music from the perspective of tender-hearted, cripplingly anxious people who bare their fears as brazenly anthemic mantras, as if the songs they’re writing are the only way they can survive their feelings. It’s hopeless corny, and yet, so am I. For me, it’s not so much the romanticization of nervousness that I gravitate to, but instead the catharsis of briefly escaping those feelings by brandishing them loudly. In crushing my fears with throaty growls & ferociously fuzzy guitars, I feel like the meekness I wish to treat the world with can stand a chance.
And this is where Idles succeeded with me. From the first pass of hearing vocalist Joe Talbot howl, “NEVER FIGHT A MAN WITH A PERM!” I knew I’d found a soul-mate. Granted, the musical weaponization of social-political discourse can very easily fail. It’s easy to make fun of the group’s sneering reclamation of right-wing mockery during “I’m Scum” (“This snowflake’s an avalanche”). Where Idles circumvents this is twofold: they often deliver their scorn with wit, & they radiate more than enough muscle to back up their fighting words.
Perusing their live shows online, the group clearly held their own on stages of all sizes. Their charisma and energy were enormous, and I knew that I needed to be in one of those crowds. At the very least, I knew that I’d at least get to howl every empowering, feral word that resonated with me, and know that I was listening to one of my favorite records in the throes of a mob of like-minded, roiling strangers. Just like the band intended.
What I was not prepared for, however, was how small the Great American Music Hall would be. My vision of the show was to at least be in the heart of the pit: to my delight, it turned out I would be within spitting distance of the stage (there was plenty of spit). During DeMarco’s show, I had feared the floor would cave in. This time, the crowd & I were betting we could take the ceiling down with us.
Fontaines D.C., the best band in the world (correctly purported by Joe Talbot himself), did an incredibly deft set as the openers. The signal from the crowd was clear: we were here for blood, and hoped the band would make the first cut. To my surprise, the group never even sniffed at the intent to compete with their boisterous tour mates. Instead, they gave a cool and wryly snide presentation of exactly who they were, strutting through their pissy, jangly, and measured punk takedowns without a hint of pressure. Their first few tracks were steady, lyrically focused groovers, but the 5-piece began to ratchet up the tension and speed with each track, and before anyone knew it, the crowd had been stirred into a mass of new fans. A special shoutout to the older woman on the second floor, who seriously mouthed every single word of the band’s Irish-soaked attitude.
I was curious as to whether Idles would open with Brutalism opener “Heel/Heal,” as they had brought it back for some of their touring sets in previous months. I had no complaints towards the group’s wicked choice to instead tease their fans with the hyper-slow chug of Joy’s “Colossus.” Watching their extra-plodding take on the track in previous live performances always seemed like a cheeky, extra dramatic joke between the band themselves, but this time, it was clear the joke was on the crowd, who was already frothing at the mouth for some madness. When the band finally brought the track up to speed, the chaos was immediate.
I could give a play-by-play of the set, and detail the exciting minute-to-minute interactions of the blissful experience I was tossed around in. The simpler and far more accurate portrayal would probably be to tell it as I experienced it: viscerally. The show was a blisteringly loud, thoroughly relentless wash of bodies, washed throughly with sweat. The most important detail I retained, however, was the sense of safety that overwhelmed far more than the stifling heat of the humans around me. I was delighted and deeply fueled by how the entire room understood what it meant to exude Joy As An Act of Resistance.
For every moment of folks crashing into each other, there was another of a team of concertgoers quickly parting the waters to obtain a pair of glasses that flew from another’s face. Men & women that fell beneath the tide were quickly pulled to their feet, and I have never seen strangers hug each other as often, & with as much animalistic excitement. I regularly tumbled into folks much bigger than me, who would then offer a bracing side hug as we bellowed directly into each other’s faces with the band about how much we “FUCKING LOVE IMMIGRANTS!”
Literally not a single song went by when someone wasn’t surfing the crowd. In one moment, Talbot pulled a gentleman named Ollie onto the stage (wearing an “Immigrants Welcome” tee), and instructed the crowd to keep him above their heads until the song was finished. The crowd gleefully obliged, and went the extra mile to cheer the man’s name of their own volition, and didn’t bat an eye when the band cheekily extended the song doubly past it’s 3-minutes-and-change runtime. The 13-year-old daughter of one of the band’s friends was invited to her first crowd surf (much to her surprise), because the band knew with absolute confidence that this crowd would keep her afloat.
Not that the band didn’t have their own fun offstage. A hundred thousand shoutouts to Ian(?), their dedicated tour manager and cord runner. The gentleman frequently rushed out to keep cables free as the band would toss their instruments to the mercy of the many hands that abused them. The musicians would just as frequently follow, standing on the hands of fans to shout the triumphant spelling-centric bridge of “Danny Nedelko”, and often abandoned their performing duties as they moshed with us. Talbot would often point his microphone directly into guitar cabinets with an impish grin, cranking the volume as the feedback surged across the hall.
And me? I blew my voice screaming by the second song. I wailed along with every bad pop-song vocal cover the band threw into their between-song-breaks, the pain in my throat notwithstanding. My best friend and I would get separated by the surging waves of gleeful listeners, and just as quickly get smashed back together. My toenails were crushed, by back battered. My hair was more than halfway fallen out of its bun by the middle of the show, and one co-mosher laughed with me, ran their hand across my head, and then pointed at their own scalp’s similar fate. The pit would open up to a huge circle during key buildups, and I offered myself as a tribute while doing my best impression of Talbot’s flailing, stomping, circular stage dance.
When the band finally left the stage, amps squealing, I was tempted to fall to my back and lay there for a while. Everyone around me was dripping with sweat. Several men tossed aside their shirts. My own new dog-emblazoned Idles tee was drenched. Glasses were fogged, and bodies were bruised. One thing was consistent, though: every single face in that room was grinning from ear-to-ear, eyes sparkling. We were at once completely drained, and totally refreshed.
We stumbled like mid-paralysis zombies onto the streets. My friend & I both leaned against a wall for a moment, absolutely silent. When we finally did begin walking home, most of the stroll was quiet. We would occasionally look at each other, smile, and just say, “Holy shit.”
Yeah. That’s probably how I could sum it all up. Holy shit.