It’s an eternal question: is it a faux pas to wear a band’s T-shirt to one of their shows? The implied answer from thousands of Idles fans wandering the rolling fields of Clifton Downs is no. This is a sprawling event, featuring 16 acts on three stages, plus bonus late summer sunshine, and yet a reminder of who’s topping the bill is never more than a few feet away.
“We haven’t done this in a while, and neither have you,” vocalist Joe Talbot says from the stage, the afternoon’s disparate gatherings having coalesced into one heaving mass. It’s only a white lie. After travelling down the M4 like a 10-legged version of Phil Collins, this is Idles’ second outing of the day, following a lunchtime appearance at Wide Awake festival in London. That engagement apparently blew any cobwebs away.
Idles gigs are framed as a collective release, and rarely have circumstances demanded they deliver on that promise quite like this. That this show is a homecoming, and perhaps a dry run for future arena plans, only adds fuel to the fire. But at no point are Talbot and his bandmates cowed by expectation. They seem to need this as much as anyone else.
Opening with a cataclysmic War, where Talbot’s primal howls are drowned out by the audience’s own, Idles rip through a set that leans heavily on their third studio album, Ultra Mono, which hit No 1 last autumn as the pandemic nixed plans to transpose its songs from wax to stage.
In that sterile reality, Talbot’s lyrics withered, undermined by online discussion and denied the opportunity to become rallying cries. Here, couplets that rang glibly on record gain impetus in the throats of thousands. It matters not that the metaphor behind the middle England satire Model Village is strained when boisterous pits are kicking off a hundred rows back from the barrier.
Lit from below, backed by disorienting strobes, Idles move through the gears with bullish power and appreciable control. It is hard for a band to fail with a drummer as good as Jon Beavis, and he drives the pace, windmilling into snare rolls and unleashing punishing kick-drum salvos that lose none of their potency to the open air.
Guitarist Lee Kiernan makes his obligatory crowdsurfing voyage during Queens, while his partner in squalling noise Mark Bowen, wild hair tossed across the shoulders of a navy suit with an air of Rick Danko, is a lurking wildcard. It’s Talbot, though, who dominates from the lip of the stage, dressed head to toe in black and displaying the spring-loaded unpredictability of a seasoned middleweight.
“Do you hear that thunder? That’s the sound of strength in numbers,” he cries as Grounds, all mechanised distortion and jagged percussion, ramps up the drama. It’s a perfect sentiment for the moment, drawing the NHS tribute that prefaces the Brutalism-era staple Mother, those Idles shirts scattered across the Downs, and the lineup together under one banner.
Throughout proceedings, bands marvel at the bumper crowds before them, and the majority rise to the challenge. In fact, the day’s running order is dusted with standout moments, many of them founded on virtues that Idles don’t possess. The headliners lack the DayGlo energy of fellow Bristolians Grandmas House, and the immersive quality of Anna Meredith’s electro wigouts, which are facilitated by dazzling musicianship. They can’t light up Raincoatsy indie-punk with three-part harmonies as Big Joanie can, nor can they match the low-slung charisma of R&B star-in-the-making Alewya. But today they don’t have to. That’s the sound of strength in numbers.