Review: IDLES and special guests on The Downs ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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By Mia Smith, Co-Deputy Music Editor

Idles rarely live up to their name. A few hours before stepping onto their back yard of The Downs they’d been in London, headlining Wide Awake Festival. The band are keen to make up for lost time ― between organising this festival, they’ve worked on Metallica’s new charity album, cycled from London to Bristol in aid of Empire Fighting Chance, and even released their own documentary.

As negative lateral flows and covid passports were shown, the initial air was one of courtesy and caution. There seemed to be a knee-jerk reaction to still socially distance ― people danced with themselves and small groups of friends formed their own moshpits. But as the day went on, there was a collective effort to abandon the new normal and return to how live music once was ― strangers shouted lyrics to each other and students moshed amongst middle-aged rockers. The title of IDLES’ 2018 album Joy as an Act of Resistance seemed more fitting than ever: joy prevailed as memories of repeated government let-downs and lockdowns were resisted.

The day quickly became a celebration, especially one of the NHS. The band offered 2000 free tickets to local NHS staff, writing on Instagram ‘We know it's not much, but it is a gesture of our thanks to you for your incredible work and selflessness over the last 18 months in treating and caring for people at the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic.’ Thanks were echoed throughout the band’s set, frontman Joe Talbot pausing between songs to emphasise their gratitude. The meaning of song ‘Reigns’ was repurposed to fit the occasion ― as Talbot screamed ‘how does it feel to have blue blood coursing through your veins?’, he wasn’t scolding the blue of the aristocracy, but championing the blue of the NHS.

The sun was out in full force for IDLES homecoming gig / Mia Smith

IDLES are known for being musical pioneers of social justice, their oeuvre fit to burst with anti-Brexit anthems and tracks that cover everything between toxic masculinity and the suffocating patriarchy. There was a clear endeavour to represent the underrepresented; the band’s curated line-up prioritised ethnic minority, female and non-binary talent. Openers Big Joanie, a black feminist punk band from London, addressed the importance of intersectionality and thanked IDLES for helping to carve a space in a scene usually reserved for sweaty, shirtless white boys. The band’s inclusive mission isn’t just a gimmick ― catching up with Grandmas House after their set, they recall bumping into IDLES on the street: ‘we thanked them for inviting us to play ― we asked if it was them or “the team” that chose us, and they said it was them’.

The ‘special guests’ enlisted by the band played across three stages already set for Love Saves the Day, and proved a successful warm-up. Crowd favourite Grove brought a refreshing blend of punk, dance and jungle to the centre stage, while riot grrrl newcomers Slagheap made uproar on the plug stage. The lyrics of Working Men’s Club’s John Cooper Clarke captured the day’s feeling: ‘we dance and we smile/we laugh and cry’. Set after set, bands gushed that this was the largest crowd they’d ever played to, touched by a sense of disbelief to be playing live once more.

Punk music is almost pointless without a live audience; the genre demands a reaction. There was an overwhelming shared catharsis between IDLES and the crowd as the day came to a head. The Downs were transformed into a 10,000-strong moshpit, but one that proved it’s always punk-rock to be kind. Everyone looked after one another: sorries were screamed after moshing too hard, fallen soldiers were picked back up as quickly as possible, and places were traded between the tall and the small for a clearer view. Some were even wearing masks in the depth of the pit. The band became one with the crowd, guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Keirnan lurching into epic stage dives. Old favourites and new debuts were met with equal and raucous applause ― only a short cover of ‘Wonderwall’ was met with boos, a crowd donned in generations of IDLES merch wanted no distractions from the band itself.

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As the crowd snaked away from The Downs, ears ringing and bruises forming, hope for the future of live music was tangible. IDLES on The Downs restored faith in so many, and the band have proved themselves worthy of any festival headline spot.

Featured image: Mia Smith


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