IDLES at House of Blues on 10/12/21

I am between Scylla and Charybdis. I am in the press pit at the House of Blues, spit and people flying above me, a whirlpool on one side, a great five headed beast on the other. I am at IDLES, I am directly below Joe Talbot, rasping with a yell of “GOES AND IT GOES AND IT GOES” as bottles and wallets and keys get launched into the air and come flying back down again, new objects sucked back into the typhoon and expelled again; thrashing, it “GOES AND IT GOES AND IT GOES,” with a leap. Mark Bowen, guitarist, is swept into the audience, soaring and sifting about, his figure bobbing in and out of sight, caught in the mist of hands and the ever-churning crowd of bodies that throw him in a gust back onto the stage. The noise grows even louder, howls and yells on both sides of the impossibly narrow press pit, (“GOES AND IT GOES AND IT GOES”) the crowd trying to yell even louder than the piles of speakers, a synchronized cacophony self-cannibalizing in energy without end, snarling. The five-headed beast, all connected with their tangle of cables, rooting back together, with an explosive percussion, propelled outwards, perpetually increasing in volume, it “GOES AND IT GOES AND IT GOES,” the air shaking with the speakers and the hands and the bodies and the cables and the beasts of Scylla and Charybdis, all erupting into triumph.

That is how the first song IDLES plays goes, but the night does not start like this. The beginning of the concert is heavy, dark, and trodden with boots inching towards the doors ant-style. The line is subdued and quiet, the kind of energy that you would expect from a crowd queuing to see a foreign film about suffering. Here somberness seems a necessity to conserve energy for what is to come, when the attitude will transcend into a crowd scrambling like a shipwreck in an ocean squall. But now, shoes seem to hang heavy with the routines of entering a concert. First, the deciphering of the hot dog line versus the concert line versus the stragglers. Then, the vaccine check, the ID check, the security check, the ticket check. But slowly, as the line winds its way into the venue itself, the air gains an intensity. There is a gentle jostle, an excited chatter, a noticeable anticipation. ‘What do you want them to play?’ ‘Have you heard their new single?’ ‘Which t-shirt should I buy?’ ‘Have you heard the opener?’

The opener: Gustaf. Gustaf is a band of trapezoids. First, at the most fundamental level; all of their album art features the same harried and titled box with a sloping roof. Then there’s the lead singer’s glasses. Black, thick, and with a dawn-ish tint of red – and in the same trapezoidal shape, of course. The glasses have a minor aggression, but with a nonchalant-ness and a distinct vulnerability; frontwoman Lydia Gammill’s eyes feel unblocked by whatever else the glasses represent. But the essence of Gustaf is a trapezoid too. The rigidity and form of music as you know it, but with one side at a jilted angle. Guitarists and singers and bassists – and a percussionist whose array of tools consist of squeaky chickens and folgers coffee cans. Gustaf is serious, and Gustaf is excellent– but Gustaf is irreverent. The band has talked about how they began one of their first ever sets by dragging frontwoman Gammill out of the bathroom, in an antic that they said was inspired by the energy of comedian Andy Kaufman. But where Kaufman sought to entertain the audience through discomfort and laughter, Gustaf entertains the audience through their punkish, trapezoidal joy, a joy that sends the crowd into a swirl of dancing and cheering and shouts.

That energy does not stop when Gustaf ends their set– instead there is an immediate air of anticipation for IDLES. Every shadow that slightly moves sends the crowd into a chorus of cheering and jostling. When a technician comes on stage to plug instruments in, the attitude increases even more, into a slow and peaceful sloshing where everyone starts to jockey to get even closer to the stage. A placid sea stirring into a gentle swell, swirling into the moment when IDLES finally walk out: the ocean turned into a typhoon.

In Greek mythology, the Strait of Messina was a treacherous passage of water guarded by two deadly monsters: Scylla and Charybdis. To pass through the strait, as Odysseus had to do in the Odyssey, sailors would have to choose between the two monsters as the channel was so narrow that avoiding one meant putting yourself in absolute peril of the other. On one side was Scylla, a beast with twelve legs, the body of a serpent, and six long necks, each mouthed with three rows of vicious teeth. Letting out loud canine howls, Scylla was perched in a crag and would pick out and kill six sailors, a victim for each head of the monster. On the other side was Charybdis, a great creature chained underwater by Zeus that created the tides by sucking in great volumes of water and expelling them out. As Charybdis would gulp and gasp the waters, a great whirlpool encompassed the strait, sucking all vessels into the waters and launching up an intense fog of spindrift. Death was a near guarantee in passing through the strait as the channel was all but guaranteed to take six sailors in the mouths of Scylla or an entire ship in the maelstrom of Charybdis. 

The press pit at the House of Blues is that tiny strip of semi-tranquility between the two monsters, with a four foot crag of stage on one side and four foot barrier from the audience on the other. Even so, the press pit is swarmed with press photographers, security guards, and crowd surfers launched into the sliver of relative calm. This is the calm in the Strait of Messina, the perilous spot between two soaring monsters. IDLES are Scylla; the yelping, hollering beast with six heads (or, in IDLES’ case, five.) They move with a knowingness, a purpose, a confidence; an attitude of a fist soaring, snapping, exploding with inertia. IDLES are not static, they are moving, shifting, launching, flying, loud. Their heads and necks and bodies roar, lurching across the Strait of Messina, snaking out and over the press pit and into the crowd; over and into the great crowd of Charybdis. Charybdis is swirling in turbulence, awe inducing in its velocity and clash. The crowd eddies and bounces, swirling and churning. Crowd members are sent up into the air as they thrash and float like flotsam, being twisted and sent all about. Scylla yells across to Charybdis, yelling to open up the pit; for Charybdis to take a big gulp of water, the floor of the ocean to be exposed, only for everyone to re-fill the space, moshing back into the ocean floor, eddies collapsing and building; and macerating everyone into everyone. Standing in the press pit, the sliver of calm of the Strait of Messina, it seems an impossible chaos on both sides.

However, if you were to visit the non-mythological Strait of Messina, you would find yourself on sandy Mediterranean beaches. The Strait of Messina is found between the island of Sicily and mainland Italy. If Italy is a boot kicking a soccer ball, the Strait of Messina is the exact spot where the boot hits the ball. It feels wrong to associate it with the beasts of Scylla and Charybdis. The water is calm, the sun is loud, and there is a relaxed air. The strait does produce a small whirlpool in the right conditions, but it is a gentle curiosity, not a danger. There is no yelping many-appendaged menace lurking about; the only thing that looms over the area is a pair of electrical towers, bridging across the strait and connecting Italy’s ball to its boot. And under the power lines there are beaches and benches and quaint shops and houses. It is not a spot of danger and foreboding; this is an idyllic spot of peace.

For all that IDLES might seem to be, they are an idyllic spot of peace far more than the land of Scylla and Charybdis. The ocean of people might birl like a whirlpool, but it is also like a flock of birds dancing in the dawn. Here, aggression is elegance. There is peace in anger. Joy is an act of resistance. 

Roughly halfway through the show, IDLES see the crowd trying to get a member of the crowd up on stage. After confusion and yelling back and forth, eventually the crowd member gets up onto the stage. Frontman Joe Talbot asks in his grainy voice ‘what’s your name’ and there’s a response of ‘Max’ back: it turns out Max is 12, from the South Shore, and a massive fan of IDLES. With many cheers from the audience, Max is given a microphone and co-sings the next song, the pro-immigration anthem “Danny Nedelko”. The crowd is ecstatic, joyous, rippling. Max gets launched out to crowd surf, bouncing in the waves, before being sent back to the stage to a final cheer of ‘Max! Max! Max!’ Talbot is blissful, and frankly, the whole crowd is. Those moments felt like a lesson, a demonstration, an affirmation of what aggression in music can be, and why IDLES are such an alluring band. IDLES are the Strait of Messina: in mythology and word of mouth; they are loud, brash, aggressive: the whirl of the waves and the howl of a monster. But more than that, so much more than that, IDLES are an idyllic town on the water, a place to come and escape from the day, a place to watch the water flow in and rush out, a place of compassion and peace.

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