MONDAY, MAY 5, 2008
Better than: Singing about the techno-apocalypse by yourself in your room.
Thom Yorke wears a white linen jacket, Jonny Greenwood’s mop of hair dangles in front of his stooped head like the curtain in front of the Wizard of Oz. Stalactites of light hang over the stage, and as they purposefully stride forward you realize Radiohead is just a handful of small, scrawny, pasty Englishmen. But the realization fades quickly, with the lights, as the band eases into a set of two dozen songs, most of them from In Rainbows, beginning with the Eno-ish “All I Need.”
For the dedicated, keep reading for the play-by-play / set list; for those who want your news up front, Radiohead kicked ass kicking off its world tour in West Palm Beach last night. All I can really say is, do you listen to Radiohead, people?
“Bodysnatchers”: Yorke’s jacket comes off after just one song, unable to contain his outsized frenzy. Jonny and Ed O’Brien each fetch a pair of standing tom drums, so you know you’re in for “There There.” “Reckoner” brings us back to the sweeter strains of the new album, but don’t go thinking things might lighten up, because next comes the creepy, loopy “The Gloaming” (like "There There," also from Hail to the Thief), and Yorke becomes a spasmodic dervish, his vocals captured and repeated in still more loops.
Yorke takes the keyboards for “Morning Bell” (Kid A); Greenwood is amid his mass of Moog-type synthesizer stuff – everything he plays becomes an appendage. After tooling around with his gadgets (which he does beautifully), he chops at his guitar in muted staccato.
What’s with drummer Phil Selway? Usually the drummer is the sweatiest and least clothed member of the band, but Selway, as ever, is buttoned down and cool. Improbably so: He and bass guitarist Colin Greenwood (that would be Jonny's bro) make a tight, virtuosic, indispensable rhythm section. “I’ve got no idea how much people know of what we’re doing tonight,” Yorke aww-shucks. “I don’t get out much.”
“Nude”: Yorke’s fragile vocals move toward the muscularity of the music behind him, then end in upward-rising falsetto: that’s right, new (melodic, upbeat, and sweet) material. “How to Disappear Completely” brings back modes of alienation from Kid A; “15 Step,” “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” pick up energy and blast off with “Idioteque,” more apocalyptic frenzy that leaves the stage spent, bathed in an orange glow.
“Where I End and You Begin” from Hail to the Thief: Every time Yorke straps on his wine-colored Gibson SG you appreciate that he has his chops, and we believe him as he rides out the song with, “I will eat you alive, I will eat you alive, I will eat you alive.” “Airbag” (OK Computer) finds Jonny Greenwood hunched (is he ever otherwise?) over his machines, then launching into a bitchin’ guitar solo. Some words about China and their “record on human rights in Tibet” disappear quickly into the pristine electronic hum of “Everything in its Right Place” (also Kid A). The last time I saw them do this (also in West Palm), my jaw dropped. This time, I was merely blown away: Greenwood and O’Brien capture the song in progress on digital delays, and as the song progresses, they start feeding the song back into itself, until these loops have (rather seamlessly) become the only thing you hear, and the band stands still, surrounded by its own sonic storm.
“National Anthem,” and the screen flashes between red and blue static – you know, the world is ending – but then, breath of fresh air, “Videotape,” the mournful, poignant ballad that closes In Rainbows.
Encore. “Optimistic,” from Kid A, in which Yorke wails, “Dinosaurs roaming the earth.” Is he talking about Miami Beach? “Just” is a welcome trip back to The Bends (1995), and Greenwood brings typical swagger to his tremolo. Then, more serendipity, Jonny and Thom duet on acoustic guitars for “Faust Arp,” another new tune, with shades of Pink Floyd (ca. Animals).
With “Exit Music (For a Film)”: J. Greenwood plays seagull delay-riffs while someone in the next row says simply, “That’s beautiful.”
Banter. “So we’re in Miami Beach for three days. Fuckin’ ’ell, man,” Yorke says, “what’s going on there? That’s a weird reconstruction. I was proud to be pale and English.”
What’s this? Yorke brings out a kit – snare, hi-hat, bass drum – for something called “Bangers and Mash,” and like all the songs into which extra drums get tossed (not that they’re really needed, but you admire the initiative), it’s a weird juxtaposition of tribal rhythm and disaffected white European males.
Second encore. “House of Cards,” which I have said before reminds me of an old Sam Cooke demo I used to own. Yorke and his SG carry most of the tune. Another trip back to The Bends closes the show: “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” appropriately.
Personal bias: “There’s Radiohead,” says the guy next to me, holding his hand up over his head. Then he lowers it to chest level, and adds, “and then there’s everyone else.”