Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Concert Memories: Radiohead (August 3, 2008)

(Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood of Radiohead performing)

Any study of modern rock music will eventually come across Radiohead. This English quintet has become one of the most critically acclaimed bands by doing essentially what a good band should do: carve its own path. After their 1993 hit "Creep," the band refused to be pigeonholed creatively. With 1995's "The Bends" and 1997's "OK Computer" they made other alternative music sound tired and flat. After that, they pulled a 180 and released their techno landscaped "Kid A" in 2000, which proved they could change up their game, without sacrificing excellence. In addition to all of this, their seventh and most recent record, 2007's "In Rainbows," was released via the internet where listeners pay for the amount of the album their own way. This is unheard of in this day and age of music piracy and iTunes domination.

Personally, I have an immense fondness for this band. Listening to an album of theirs is lucid dreaming on record, even more than Pink Floyd sometimes. That doesn't mean I worship at the alter of everything they do. About half their records are not as high on my list of acclaim, but that's okay; you can't win 'em all. So after years of waiting, I finally got to see these guys live. Usually, they are placed high on lists of the best live acts ever and the footage of them on YouTube has always intrigued me, highlighting their prowess and confidence.

Sure enough, they simply walk out on stage, bow and immediately start into the twitchy opener, "15 Step" with the same kind of confidence as I see in those videos. Still, during the first two songs, guitarist Ed O'Brien kept fiddling with his deck. Poor guy. It probably still was acting up from Lollapolooza or something. After that though, they didn't slow down. Not for a bit. Even when guitarist and mad scientist Johnny Greenwood and vocalist Thom Yorke were trying to figure out starting chords, they didn't take forever, it was almost systematic.

The main way you can tell when a band is having fun onstage is one of two ways. Either, they're smiling and really enjoying the energy around them; or, they are in intense concentration, giving the feeling that nothing else matters at this moment except the music. Radiohead has always been a band in the latter category. Not even rowdy crowd members, flashing lights or loud amps can stop these guys. The best example is Johnny Greenwood, whose face you never see, only his black hair being visible. His head is always down to his instruments in deep focus. The only way you could possibly get his attention is if you smacked him on the back of the head and insulted him, but I'm not sure if even that would work. You could also say the same for drummer Phil Selway, whose eyes are either continually forward to the drums or closed in diligent calm. He takes keeping the band in time together very seriously and you never get a sense of wear and tear from him. He just keeps plowing away with vigor.

Now this doesn't mean that the band is serious all the time. As I watch Thom Yorke move his head around and dance, I always get the feeling that the music is continually playing in his head and he must get it out, or else. He concentrates, but almost in a trance-like way. The music is his muse and he must follow it. The bassist Colin Greenwood however, is the only member who outwardly looks like he is having fun all the time. You see him smile, bob his head in rhythm and put his arms in the air to get the crowd going. This makes for a cool contrast between him and Phil, giving the rhythm section a fiery energy. The one member I couldn't read as well was Ed O'Brien, but he seemed to be sort of ticked off the entire time. Probably because of his deck acting up, throwing off his groove.

The stage was set with a back row of screens and several rows of rod lights which set an appropriate tone with each song, including some bright back lights for effect. Even if those rod lights were eco-friendly, they certainly lit up the night beautifully. I turned back a couple of times and saw a crowd beneath the cover of radiant colored light. The screens themselves showed off each band member, but with a kind of voyeuristic feel. You never see their faces directly often, as you would a regular concert. Usually, they're shown in very arcane angles, keeping with the setup they established in both "Thumbs Down" and "Scotch Mist" video podcasts; both shot during the promotion of "In Rainbows." It's a great continuation of the idea established in U2's groundbreaking ZOO TV Tour where you use video screens to obscure rather than enhance the action onstage. Although that didn't stop Thom from gooning in front of the camera during "You and Whose Army?"

But even if you have the lights and attitude, if you don't have a good performance, it's all for naught. Thankfully, that was never an issue. Apparently their four weeks of rehearsing 70 songs paid off in full. The band played with precision and tact with each member switching to different tasks and instruments, not unlike the way The Band used to do. The set list was varied, both in date and musicality, even picking good songs from "Amnesiac" and "Hail to the Thief," albums I don't care for as much. It also impressed me that they played "In Rainbows" in full throughout the show, whereas most bands favor the tired old hits for their gigs. Even when they went back to earlier material, the band picked many hidden gems, including two of my personal all-time favorite Radiohead songs: the haunting "How to Disappear Completely" and the elegiac "Exit Music (For a Film)." They didn't ignore their hits entirely though, they ran through awesome renditions of "There There," "Pyramid Song," "Karma Police" and the poetic show closer, "Street Spirit (Fade Out)."

Overall, they have gained a higher esteem in my mind from this outing. I do hope that they continue setting their own vibe; otherwise they'll be just as innocuous as most of their peers.

As a final note, the opening act was independent act Grizzly Bear, which I didn't have the privilege to see because of tardiness on my part.

Main Setlist:
1. "15 Step"
2. "Bodysnatchers"
3. "There There"
4. "All I Need"
5. "Pyramid Song"
6. "Nude"
7. "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi"
8. "The Gloaming"
9. "Climbing Up the Walls"
10. "Faust Arp"
11. "Videotape"
12. "Morning Bell"
13. "Idioteque"
14. "Reckoner"
15. "Everything in its Right Place"
16. "Just"
17. "How to Disappear Completely"

First Encore:
18. "You and Whose Army?"
19. "Bangers and Mash"
20. "Exit Music (For a Film)"
21. "Jigsaw Falling Into Place"
22. "Karma Police"

Second Encore:
23. "House of Cards"
24. "The National Anthem"
25. "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"

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