IDLES Brings the Love to Houston

IDLES Photo by Violeta Alvarez
White Oak Music Hall
May 22, 2024

The contemplative serenity of Houston’s Rothko Chapel might seem an unlikely subject to introduce to the frenzy of a mosh pit, but not at an IDLES concert. Lead singer and songwriter Joe Talbot tempered the furious, sweaty bang of the band’s fans’ bodies with a soliloquy which not only stopped them in their circle-pitting tracks but provided the theme of the night.

“I’d like to share something with you, if I may. So, today we went to the Rothko Chapel, which is next to the monument for the slain Martin Luther King. I went inside and it’s an octagonal building with massive, dark paintings on the wall. And I sat down on a pew and I looked at this huge, dark mass, and I stared at it for a while and it reminded me of death or the deep ocean or something as terrifying as that,” Talbot said just a few songs into the 25-plus song set last night at White Oak Music Hall.

“And then, as I watched and I reflected and meditated on the image, some light filtered in through the sunroof and showed me a form. And in the form, I saw what I could only describe as all the people I love. And it was a beautiful moment and it was an enlightening moment where I realized there are things in there - the light and the form in that darkness is what we’ve been working towards for so long.

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IDLES' Joe Talbot
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
“We make art and we make music as a way to reflect and to feel something much bigger than ourselves. And this is it. This communion that we’re in right now, the thing between us can only be described as love. You have brought the fucking light.”

The song that followed was “I’m Scum,” which might seem paradoxical to the IDLES uninitiated, but is a treasured anthem of sorts for the band’s devoted followers, so much so that the phrase was backpatched on at least one jacket we saw on the lawn. The line, “This snowflake’s an avalanche,” is a rallying cry to IDLES’ like-minded, anti-fascist, monarchy-disdaining, ceasefire-calling supporters. The band dubbed this the “LOVE IS THE FING” tour and then went out, from city to city, to spread the word of love for ourselves and others, song by raucous song.

The songs which accomplished that mission best were “Television,” which literally advises listeners to “Love yourself,” when “the bastards made you not want to look like you,” and “Mr. Motivator,” which features one of IDLES’ best lines of all, “Like Kathleen Hanna with bear claws grabbing Trump by the pussy.” The song was high in the set and its chorus “Let’s seize the day, all hold hands chase the pricks away,” was Tony Robbins gone mad and the ideal set up for a night of embracing our shared ideals.

Songs from TANGK, the band’s new album, were well-received, particularly “Gift Horse,” which had Houstonians crashing hard into each other during the repeated “Look at him go!” lines of the song. “Dancer” was also a highlight, with audience members mimicking Talbot’s gyrations and whatever funky moves guitarist Mark Bowen was doing behind him.

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Lee Kiernan on the White Oak lawn
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Another highlight and a pivotal moment of the show was “Danny Nedelko,” which saw Bowen in the audience for a fully-vertical crowd surf. Amazing. The song allowed the band to remind us all of the human costs of geopolitics. It’s a full-on expression of love for our fellow humans and the gifts we all can bring to each other if we’re only allowed.

“Now, this song is a celebration of the bravery and the hard work of the immigrants that built your country. In the face of all the fucking bullshit and the fascism, we come with love and empathy and celebrate the bravery and the hard work of the immigrants that built our country,” Talbot introduced. “It’s an honor to play in front of you. This is for you, this is for the people of Palestine and this is for Danny Ne-fucking-delko!”

The band had a little fun with the hard curfew imposed at White Oak, reminding us they had an hour and one second of music yet to play midway through the set, and later three songs and a second. Drummer Jon Beavis seemed to be literally pounding out every available second of the set during the closer, “Rottweiler,” a huge smile on his face as if trading an inside joke with Bowen. He and bassist Adam Devonshire and the whirling dervish guitarist Lee Kiernan were the engine that kept IDLES moving. Talbot spoke on their behalf at the show’s close.

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Mark Bowen
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
“We’ve been doing this for 15 years and this is one of the most beautiful fucking things anyone could give someone, is their energy and their love and their time. Thank you so much for coming here and making us feel at home so far from where we live,” he said to huge applause. “There has not been one single fucking day that I do not wake up and know exactly how fucking lucky I am and that’s because of you.”

The Openers: Chicago’s Ganser started the early show promptly at 6:30 p.m. The four-piece post-punk rockers got bodies stirring with co-vocalists Sophie Sputnik and Alicia Gaines alternating turns hyping the crowd for IDLES (“They’re like honestly one of the best bands I’ve ever seen live,” Sputnik said mid-set) while also turning us onto the cool slow burn of music that builds steam and gets the generator going.

Personal Bias: I opened my recent chat with IDLES guitarist/songwriter Mark Bowen with a story from pandemic lockdown. My own road warrior kids were set to tour Europe in May 2020 and since no one knew when it would be safe to hit the road and perform for the masses, they holed up at Sendehaus and hoped their plans wouldn’t be foiled by coronavirus (they were).

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Photo by Violeta Alvarez
As the uncertainty grew and the idle hours mounted, their stir craziness manifested in weird ways. One pursuit that lasted four or five days was learning and playing IDLES’ “Never Fight a Man With a Perm” in the house’s makeshift rehearsal room. Mornings would begin with the familiar bang of the song’s backbeat, a pummeling that mirrors the mayhem inherent in the song’s lyrics. “AND A BAG OF CHARLIE SHEEN!!! AND A BAG OF COCAINE!!!” were refrains that surely frightened the poor Instacart delivery drivers who’d come to leave groceries (which, we’d then wash thoroughly and sanitize) on the doorstep.

The last performance of the song was filmed and, as I told Bowen, it included broken drumsticks, some drunken belligerence and even a bloody face or two. I listened to a lot of music during those long, unsettled days, but none captured the pent-up rage, frustration, anxiety and, ultimately the union and love required to survive the moment like “Perm.” It’ll forever be my pandemic lockdown song. Getting to hear it out in the open air, with a lawn full of IDLES fans – and yeah, there was maybe some drunken belligerence and a bloody face or two by the time they reached it in the set – was a highlight concert moment this side of those lockdown days.

The Crowd: The crowd at an IDLES show is nearly as critical to the evening as the performers on stage. More critical, Talbot would likely say. The band feeds off the zeal of its acolytes and it did not go hungry last night. We were entrenched in the pit, determined to have the full IDLES experience, and we must say there’s no other way to take in this show. No offense to those who sat on the slope behind us but feeling the warmth of moving bodies, inhaling the salty aroma from their sweat-drenched t-shirts, joining their voices in exultation – it’s more than just watching a show. An IDLES show is life-affirming stuff and being welcomed to that just feet away from the band is one of the concert highlights of a lifetime of shows.

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Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Overheard in the Crowd: “Their energy – they’ve surpassed Rage Against the Machine.”

Random Notebook Dump: Houston music podcasts were in the house (or, you know, just outside of it on White Oak’s lawn) last night. In addition to Vinyl Voices, we spotted Masaya Tamegai and Thomas and Ashley Meeks, of the Long River Sessions podcast, which has recently resumed episodes. The show once hosted yours truly for an episode in which they shared the story of traveling to far-off cities to watch IDLES where Masaya fan-boyed (and lo-key stalked) Talbot at the venue’s bar. The granddaddy of Houston music pods, Dead Dialect, nabbed an exclusive interview with Talbot, which we are incredibly excited to see soon. Host Brandon Clements promised the episode will drop in the near future. Keep an eye out for it and all these local podcasts are doing to showcase music from Houston and beyond.

IDLES Set List:

Gift Horse
Mr. Motivator
Car Crash
I’m Scum
The Wheel
When the Lights Come On
Divide & Conquer
The Beachland Ballroom
Never Fight a Man With a Perm
Danny Nedelko
Kiss From a Rose
All I Want for Christmas is You
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.