Joe Talbot, lead singer of the very special English punk band, Idles, is a complicated character. I say that based on a dedicated run-in the last few months with their two albums and then a fleeting encounter in Toronto. And by encounter I mean that I saw them play an incendiary set at Lee’s Palace to kick off the impressive new record, Joy As An Act Of Resistance, all the noise that night causing bits of plaster to fall from the ceiling like a celebratory confetti.
There was a moment during the show, though, when Talbot seemed suddenly, inexplicably, angry. A second later it was gone, but after a few minutes he acknowledged the moment and apologized. Later, very near the end of the show Lee Kiernan’s guitar failed. He coiled his cable and put his arm around Talbot as he left the stage. He was apparently done for the night. Talbot shrugged him off, seeming to want none of that. The sense was of a man not impressed.
When I arrived at the club a couple of hours earlier, Talbot, head down, was just leaving. Out for a breath of fresh air, I suppose. Some peace and quiet in a life built on noise. I saw his bandmates moving among the crowd mostly unnoticed too. Adam Devonshire, the bassist, was just hanging out at the merchandise table.
The idea is that Idles are a band committed to openness, to exposing an often “toxic masculinity”, and to staring down the pressures involved, the vulnerabilities we should own. I buy that. And they’re a political band too. Our country would be fucked without our immigrant friends, is to paraphrase them almost not at all. Danny Nedelko is the single that epitomizes the thinking.
There are moments, lots of them, during the show when Talbot tenses every muscle and screams, seizes up in the spotlight almost, a man hell-bent on aneurysm. You wouldn’t want to be alone with him then. But at other moments he is flexible and relaxed as a limbo dancer, the smile on his face is that of your best mate handing you a fresh pint.
And it’s this complicated presence that helps make Idles so damn good. I mean it’s the music too - a bracing mix of nearly comically earnest pub rock and a bleak, martial sort of post-punk - but the drama comes equally from the band’s prowling around up there on stage. They command the old floorboards in a rare sort of fashion. And It doesn’t feel like a stretch to suggest that Talbot seems torn at every moment between a non-threatening openness and a much more nihilistic sort of thrashing.
So they are an imposing collective. And they write impossibly catchy music. This new album is only a couple of weeks old but I can’t remember seeing a crowd sing along so whole-heartedly. What Joe Talbot would do with the adoring lot of us, or to us, was a question impossible to answer until he simply disappeared stage right some time shortly after 11 pm, leaving his drummer and two guitarists, to finish things off proper.