I attend gigs for fourteen different reasons. Reason number eight is because everyone else is going. If the whole city – including friends and tastemakers you trust – is excited about a gig, just go. Even if you have no idea why those people care about a band, just go see what all the fuss is about. So at 7:30 I walked over to the gig just four blocks from my house. Early showtime (number 4) and close venue (number 3) really sealed the deal. Getting into The Truman was no problem. Getting around the packed venue was a series of “opes.” Just as I found solace in “the loft” – a VIP area nestled in the rafters with elevated (albeit obstructed) views of the stage, I heard busted beats coming from below. Time to go to work.
The large stage of The Truman is built for elaborate stage shows. For backdrops and brilliant lights and performers being lowered to the stage from hidden catwalks. Openers Injury Reserve had something else in mind – something more akin to DIY basement gigs that I usually haunt. Rapper Ritchie with a T (Nathaniel Ritchie) appeared on the dark stage first as a shadow obscured by dense fog. He paced back and forth anxiously. Behind him, producer Parker Corey stood at a laptop station pulling strings (presumably). Eventually, a single floor-level white light illuminated the fog and Ritchie began to take form. While this light would occasionally strobe, its action would be the extent of the stage show.
Ritchie didn’t usually face the crowd. He moved back and forth either spitting rhymes or merely burning excess energy while his microphone hung around his neck. Corey remained stationary and almost entirely hidden throughout the band’s 45-minute set. The band’s music was just as murky. Harsh scraping and whirring noises accompanied exaggerated rumbling beats. My musical expertise (if I have any at all) lies elsewhere, so it took me a while to decode the performance. The audience was similarly struck. For the first three songs they were largely motionless and only applauded politely between songs. We were all taking it in. After the third song Ritchie shouted a “Kansas City” and the audience erupted. Now the crowd had permission to dance, to pound their fists into the air.
The rest of Injury Reserve’s set was a mélange of songs that built and built but never dropped. Of rapped lyrics that called and got responses from pre-recorded backing vocals [these likely were originally performed by Stepa J. Groggs (Jordan Groggs) who passed unexpectedly in 2020]. Of autotuned vocals that matched the dystopian tracks created by Corey. Only the hooky “Top Picks for You” existed outside of the chaos. Ritchie chose not to work the crowd until the last fifteen minute of the set when he introduced “Wild Wild West.” During this sprint to the finale, the duo had the packed audience shouting back refrains and waving their “hip hop hands” to the beat as requested. The last song, “Bye Storm,” climbed and climbed, edging the crowd to an anticipatory frenzy with its epic production, skittering beats, synthesized washes, and bits of Brian Eno’s "Here Come the Warm Jets." Injury Reserve never gave the audience that euphoric eruption it wanted, but instead ended the song at its peak. Somehow this was similarly satisfying and certainly fitting for a group that is making its own rules.
Between acts I slipped back to the loft for space and relative quiet. The PA pounded an eclectic mix of tunes that, when touching post-punk, perked my ears. 1100 tickets were sold to reach the room capacity. Later I’d learn dozens of my friends were at the show, peppered throughout the throng that stretched back 200 years from the stage. A non-sloping floor meant sightlines were iffy at the back. I was glad for my spots in the photo pit and the loft.
At 9pm, Idles began. Another band cloaked in darkness, but this one silhouetted by red lights shining from the back of the stage. I quickly learned that frontman Joe Talbot was a pacer. Pacing in circles. Moving nervously. Intensely. As if he were planning a jailbreak. He was flanked by guitarist Lee Kiernan. Kiernan wore a white shirt, white pants, and black boots – only a bowler and a fake eyelash away from joining the Adicts. He was a whirlwind of action from the first song to the last. Thrashing about with his guitar as if it were riding a bronco. On the other side of Talbot was Tina Maynard. Maynard is filling in for guitarist Mark Bowen on this tour, putting her own band Sœur on pause. She was up for the moment. Her long hair flipped in all directions as she careened to and fro. When her face was visible, she was all smiles. Bassist Adam Devonshire and drummer Jon Beavis rounded out the five-piece. To my camera, those two were merely shadows at the back of the stage.
In truth, much of the band was hidden, so I pushed forward to capture Kiernan as he frenzied about the stage. But he caught me first. During the second song, he crossed the security pit to join the audience. During his scramble over the barricade, he landed on my head. I wasn’t the only one to get jostled about. Between the next songs, Talbot parted the audience down the center of the club, setting up the “wall of death” – a stunt that would ultimately send the now-rival factions smashing into each other at speed. Those who escaped that collision still had to be aware of the bevy of crowd surfers that passed overhead or be mindful lest they be sucked into the swirling mosh pit that developed later during “Never Fight a Man with a Perm.” Only those on the stage had to worry about Talbot’s near-constant expectorations or straying into the path of his twirling microphone. There were plenty of exciting dangers both on stage and off.
Musically the band was muscular – sometimes dumb and roguish rock, more often pointed post-punk, and occasionally a more textured and tempered alternative rock. One slow burner (“A Hymn”) even recalled mid-period U2. I’ll blame the profundity of pedals used by each guitarist and that enormous keyboard rig for that one. But that was the outlier. Most songs were driven by Beavis’ tight and militaristic drums, the interesting and winding guitar leads, Talbot’s gritty vocals, and the powerful screams delivered by Devonshire. This combination ensured nearly every song was an anthem, each with a big chorus made to be shouted by audiences. Kansas City was enthusiastic in its complicity. They were further spurred on by Talbot, who addressed them frequently, though often unintelligibly. This disconnect was less an issue of his Bristol accent, and more an issue with the sound in the club – or maybe just my position in the club. I did hear clearly as Talbot announced “Danny Nedelko” as “a celebration of open-mindedness and the immigrants that make our country a better place.” And Talbot made it clear that closer “Rottweiler” was an anti-fascist screed.
By the end of the band’s 90-minute set, Idles had played nineteen songs distributed across its four albums, and even added a cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The latter felt like an in-joke that I just wasn’t privy to. Maybe I’ll ask one of my friends to explain that one to me, or maybe they’ve already done enough by just convincing me to see Idles live. I was happy to be at a real rock show – one with peril and punk and politics. And I was happy to see it in a big room full of fans bouncing off one another, singing vivaciously, lost in moments of exhilaration. Now I know what the fuss is all about.