Americans who lived through the rise and fall of grunge might smell something familiar in the media spat that’s gone on for the past few years between British alt-rock band IDLES and its detractors, who accuse frontman Joe Talbot of appropriating working-class ideals the way Kurt Cobain used to call out Pearl Jam for co-opting Seattle underground cred. This British notion of class solidarity, however, is beyond the scope of most Americans, whose politicians have chosen to divide them along different sociological lines. Nevertheless, Talbot has found himself in Eddie-Vedder-type shoes, forced to defend the legitimacy of his rhetoric to people who don’t even disagree.
Though not the colossal cultural movement that grunge was, IDLES’ abrasive style is very popular in the U.K., and it put the band’s 2018 breakthrough Joy As An Act Of Resistance on the shortlist for the Mercury Prize. The record sounds undeniably like post-punk, but as any budding icon would, Talbot has resisted all punk-adjacent labeling. IDLES’ Saturday night performance at Riverside Theater—the group’s Milwaukee debut—didn’t lack any of punk’s intensity or righteous fury, but it was still a total lovefest.
Right from the “Colossus” opener, the band wasn’t about to appear over-serious. Guitarist Lee Kiernan commenced jerking and leaping haphazardly around the stage almost immediately, which he’d do for the entirety of the show, and Talbot took full advantage of the song’s tense pause to bask in the crowd energy. Milwaukee, for its part, could not have disappointed the band. The room was captivated and effusive from the moment IDLES walked onstage, particularly one fan at the front of the pit. “Can I just say, this person here, has one of the most beautiful energies I’ve witnessed in a long time,” Talbot enthused after “Grounds” was played. “Never stop being you.”
The band is ostensibly touring to support its 2021 album Crawler, a collection of significantly less anthemic (and less political) songs than what fans had been used to. They worked five of these into the set almost as breathers, although “The Beachland Ballroom” hit much harder in the live setting than on, um, a streaming service. Harder still was the mid-set one-two punch of songs from IDLES’ 2017 debut, Brutalism; “Mother,” a caustic gob in the eye of toxic masculinity, and “Divide & Conquer,” the last minute of which especially was primal scream therapy of the highest order for those who chose to partake.
Guitarist/keyboardist Matt Bowen is currently on paternity leave from the band. His replacement for this tour is Tina Maynard (of former IDLES tourmates Soeur). She was no showboater, but the audience was more than happy to engage in chants in her honor, and she wasn’t shy about participating in some onstage mayhem. The breakdown section of “Never Fight A Man With A Perm” saw Kiernan kneeling and futzing noisily with his pedal board while Maynard moved to the drumkit to thrash a cymbal for a while, ultimately stealing one of Jon Beavis’ zillions of drumsticks and playing the climactic guitar solo with it.
IDLES have grabbed their share of spotlight via blunt, populist choruses. Crawler is a more pensive, minimalist record and “The Wheel” is by no means a party anthem, but Talbot’s delivery of it brought the pain and futility of addiction across without any need of hooks, and without becoming maudlin. The band has evidently backed off from writing anything resembling pop music, and although critical and commercial enthusiasm has fallen off a bit, IDLES seem to be banking on the potency of their performances to carry them for the time being. At least on this night, nothing was lacking.
Nobody in the band came off as striving for credibility. They looked like everyday office-chair activists, only they’re actually writing activist songs, so not quite as passive as most of us. Sure, Talbot has become a bona fide rock star. Nobody’s buying into “I’m Scum” any more, for instance, even though it was a pure delight live. He needs to work on his patronizing banter, though. As he struggled to come up with any beer-and-cheese jokes with two songs to go, the crowd gleefully drowned him out with another rousing “TI-NA” chant. It was all good fun, and it’s not like IDLES sacrificed their politics for goodwill. The show concluded with the raging pro-immigration anthem “Danny Nedelko” and the anti-fascist tirade “Rottweiler,” both from Joy, and the crowd was all in. Without more catchy, shout-along choruses like these, IDLES may never get to the next level, but it’s hard to imagine a world where their best songs don’t sound like indisputable classics years from now.