As 2020 continues to 2020, live music continues to be in a drought. So when bands aren’t churning out the latest cover or “isolation-inspired” single, we’ve also had a number of live streams of bands performing, all with their own unique take on it. As IDLES prepare to release their upcoming album, Ultra Mono, they’ve gotten together to play in Abbey Road Studios. With them as the only people in the room because…y’know.
But they went about it a little bit differently. Because it’s IDLES. They don’t do things the same way as every other band. They did three sets. All of which were completely unique. Thankfully, they gave advance warning of which songs would feature in each set, so if you really wanted to see “Mother”, you’d put your cash down for the second livestream. Of course, you were more than welcome to buy tickets for all three and given their die-hard fanbase, it’s likely that’s what most people did.
Moreover, each set was career-spanning in itself. All three sets went from their early EP days, all the way to Ultra Mono, showing off the most recent singles alongside numbers you’ll hear in a few weeks and will likely perform when we’re all allowed to be in the same room again. And each of them were squeezed into an early evening festival slot length.
With three completely different sets, each with their own special cover song (the only secret part of the set), it begs the question: which was the best? It may be the cop-out answer but all of them, in part because inevitably, all the songs you’d want to see them smash out were spread across the three. But more than that, each set showed them in a full reset, looking dry and well-rested and by the end, drenched in sweat and exhausted, giving it their all to a set of cameras, knowing their fans would be fixed to their screens. It showed how consistent they are as a live act.
While the set-up may seem strange to those more used to watching bands perform on a stage – singer Joe Talbot in the middle of guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, bassist Adam Devonshire and drummer Jon Beavis – this configuration is far more visually exciting than a band congregating in an empty gig venue and making pretend. It allows for the band to at least interact with each other and the multi-camera setting to really work its magic. It may be a pre-recorded feed streamed over the Internet but at least it’s the five of them in a room together. All three sets are well-rehearsed and drilled but there’s still that authenticity from a live set – there are still technical issues with equipment and the occasional flubbing of vocals or notes.
They could surreptitiously re-do it and edit it accordingly but they don’t, they simply take it in their stride and present it as is and it’s that level of geniality you don’t get with every band. More than that, you can see the band are happy to be back in a room with each other, it doesn’t need to be perfect, especially in the current circumstances. They’re having fun as they always do, the only difference being, this is the first time getting the chance to do so in months.
Regardless of which set you watched, the newer material slotted in perfectly with the older numbers. “Kill Them With Kindness” hits with the force of a battering ram, thundering to its end whilst “War” is one of the most ferocious IDLES songs to date. While it may feel a touch shiny and polished on the recording, “Mr Motivator” in the live setting fits in with its layers peeled back but “Model Village” may still take some getting used to.
There are some brief acknowledgements of the band being watched but as Talbot admits himself in the first stream, he’s not very talkative these days. Instead, most of the banter happens between band members themselves with the odd dedication for songs. But in the context, it works. It becomes this strange amalgamation of watching a band practice but with the energy of playing to a room of thousands of fans.
It’s an inspired move to showcase new material with old and how it will all fit together when the time comes for shows rather than just “Hey, here’s an older show we found and chucked on YouTube!” In an intimate setting like this, it’s like peeking behind the curtain, especially when seeing IDLES in such a small space is no longer a possibility (just look at how fast their gargantuan UK tour for 2021 is selling). It’s a rallying cry, telling you to be ready. It’s never going to be the same as being in the room with the band and since our traditional format won’t happen for any band until a decent way into next year at the earliest (accept it), this is the next best thing.