‘The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time’ goes the George Bernard Shaw quote, one now so ubiquitous you can find it emblazoned on novelty coffee mugs.
This isn’t the start of a debate about the unchanging human condition but one has to wonder, by determinedly writing about themselves these past few years, whether Idles have been doing so about all people and all time. After all, just in our time there’s Boris, border walls and Brexit. And of course there’s Trump himself, who’s not even good enough to be alliterative.
And, committing the cardinal sin of success has had the likes of Sleaford Mods and Fat White Family pouring scorn on their more celebrated contemporaries; ’A phoney is someone who demands respect for the principals they affect’, Grian Chatten grumbles tonight when opening Fontaines D.C’s set with Chequeless Reckless, immediately offering up their own very pertinent quote to said naysayers.
Fontaines are in New York following the release of Dogrel, a debut album entrenched in the highs, lows and evolution of their native city to a degree few have matched. Dublin, its people, and the band’s formative experiences there dominate the record and thus the evening’s (May 10th) first show. As cliched as it is, once Big ends proceedings with that defiant, banging mission statement, this truly does feel like a band already matured, already with a distinct voice and identity.
If it isn’t for all people and all time, the universal appeal of what Idles were writing about on Joy As An Act Of Resistance and Brutalism before is obvious tonight. We don’t need to delve any deeper on populism, on the political travails blighting the UK, the US and beyond, on how common these themes have been down the ages, but to visit Brooklyn, a thriving hub of regeneration and sub-culture, to be at this gig and witness the fervour with which songs dreamt up thousands of miles away by a hitherto bunch of misfits are greeted…well it’s to truly appreciate how much of our world is currently sharing another collective, exasperated sigh.
For Fontaines D.C. however, at the moment it’s more about home truths than universal ones. The Lotts falls somewhere near first album Black Rebel Motorcycle Club if Been and Hayes had been under grey Dublin skies rather than cloudless Californian ones. Too Real is covered in a layer of grime, darting all over the place in an almost garage genre like a supercharged Irish version of Mike Skinner on Original Pirate Material. Roy’s Tune brings the Dublin romance across the ocean, Grian at his calmest and almost crooning. Boys In The Better Land by contrast, already taken up a few notches on the album, is even faster live, as frantic as the frontman’s near-constant pacing across the stage and over in a heartbeat.
It’s the moody Hurricane Laughter, delivered live with the considered menace of an old steam train lumbering into a quiet village station, that takes top plaudits though. The band are near-silent throughout, just a ‘thank you very much’ and ‘cheers’ to prove mics are still working during pauses, but tracks such as this one shout all for themselves. In every sense, from the inscription on the drumkit to the size of the crowd looking on, they’re not far from equals here and will be back in this greatest of cities headlining these venues before we know it.
And so Brooklyn laps up Idles’ bite against the fire-stoking British tabloid press on Rottweiler as if The Sun is splashed all over their breakfast news every morning, to the eternal tug-of-war over the NHS on Divide And Conquer as if Obama Care hadn’t caused enough turmoil of its own. To songs written for these people, and this time. Songs held together by Jon Beavis, who’s (not so) quietly becoming one of the best rock drummers in the business. The band are tight from so much time on the road; an air of anarchy remains, but it’s slightly more organised chaos these days.
Only slightly more; there’s still an extended breakdown during Love Song which amounts to a mad Idles duet in which Joe Talbot and Mark Bowen scream missives at each other understood only by themselves; there’s still Where’s My Ice Cream?; there’s still a false start which results in Bowen being brought to the front of the class to explain himself. “We’ve been looking after him for 11 years,” Talbot sighs.
But now the aforementioned Rottweiler ends the night with an extended outro that flails manically like a drunk picking a fight with a lamppost at closing time, Benzocaine earlier starts the argument in its own expertly judged stretched out form, and Man With A Perm too has a live punch harder than anything the one big neck with sausage hands could muster. As does Samaritans; it absolutely crushes upon Talbot’s defiant roar of ‘I kissed a boy and I liked it’ and is increasingly giving off the air of being their best tune.
Bowen and Lee Kiernan are regularly in and out of the pit inviting singalongs and scratches of their guitars like they’re compelled to do so. Like they’re compelled to be as one with us here, with those who’ve bounced to any one of the countless other shows somewhere else in the world this past year. Talbot introduces songs by addressing feminism, by proudly proclaiming his love for his bandmates, by speaking of ‘yours and our countries’ and their shared histories. As it hurtles on the crowd in turn join as one with cries of ‘love yourself’, of ‘unity’, of ‘feeling free’. It all amounts to a mood that feels too big for these relatively narrow confines. A mood that must abound in wider societies we’re told are growing further divided. That these really are songs written about all people and all time.
So Bernard Shaw was on to something then, of course he was, yet whether it applies to Idles or not for all here at Brooklyn Steel, and all who continue to embrace them during this world tour, it’s more than enough to instead end on the band’s own universal quote:
Long live the open minded.