It’s strange that they would have me, or anyone else for that matter, review Thom Yorke’s show at The Kennedy Center last Friday. It should be obvious to everyone by now that any show involving Thom Yorke in any capacity is going to be amazing, awesome, mind-blowing, unbelievable, unforgettable, etc.: no review necessary. Even the sight of a disappointed baby boomer couple briskly filing down the aisle and out the door during the third song seems to confirm this feeling. To think, the man who half a century ago made my parents shudder in disapproval at “Creep,” is still able to offend the tastes of an elder generation today. Rock n’ Roll isn’t dead after all.
When Radiohead was at the Spectrum in Philly last August, I trekked up there to see what some were saying would be Radiohead’s last tour. “Yeah, dude, Jonny’s doing his orchestral thing now,” lamented my friend, Alex, who was doing 25 over the speed limit and slaloming through traffic to get us there on time, “Besides, I think they’re getting tired of all the craziness and bullshit of touring.” Ends of bands can be hazy and ambiguous. They go on farewell tours only to reunite a year later. They swear never to talk to each other again only to capitalize on hell freezing over decades later. Nevertheless, the thought of Radiohead never playing again, whether true or not, sat like a pit in my stomach during that show. Perpetually on the verge of tears, I sang every word, hummed every riff, bassline, and synth lead, recalling with uncanny precision where I was when I first heard each song: sitting around set of PA speakers at Gold Leaf Studio listening to King of Limbs the day it came out; sneaking downstairs at 13 to watch MTV and having my whole world changed by the “Paranoid Android” music video; hearing Hail to the Thief the summer Bush invaded Iraq.
Seeing Thom Yorke last Friday was nothing like that for me. I didn’t know it was happening, never mind that I was going until a few days before. Besides, I thought Thom Yorke’s solo project was ostensibly Atoms for Peace. It turns out Thom has so much music that two bands aren’t enough to perform it all. I was hearing all this music fresh; and just like all those old Radiohead songs, I’d have a precise memory of where I was when I heard it all for the first time.
The Kennedy Center is a funny place to have a Thom Yorke show. It’s not everyday you file into the Hall of Nations behind a pair of lanky hippies bragging about taking E before the show. You certainly don’t expect a dude to scream “WOOOOO!” in the middle of Edgardo’s solo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. But if Björk can turn the opera house into a house party, why couldn’t Yorke? I imagined Thom seated at a grand piano with a small string section and maybe a DJ, playing soft ballads like “Nude” or “True Love Waits.” As the security lady rummaged through my backpack at the entrance to the theater, she looked at me and said, “I hope you brought ear plugs.” So much for a night at the opera!
Yorke’s solo performance has all the stadium rock power of his other bands with twice the danceability. If Moon Shaped Pool was heading in a more orchestral, heady direction, Thom Yorke solo is a continuation of King of Limbs. More repetitive and trance inducing than dramatic and epic, this music had a way of making you lose time, often leaving you wondering where one song starts and the other begins and almost never caring. Through it all, Yorke repeats stark phrases like “I don’t have the right to interfere” in his signature existential wail. At first, the awkward opera house crowd, unsure how to deal with the juxtaposition of the infectious music and the stoicism of the venue, stayed seated. Within minutes, Yorke admonished the crowd to get on their feet. From that moment on the dancing never stopped. You can imagine the poor ushers, accustomed to three month runs of Don Giovanni, trying to keep enthusiastic fans streaming into the aisle and to the front of the stage.
His band can be best described as a four piece with three members. The two non-Thom members of the band mostly stayed behind electronic gear stations, pushing buttons, moving faders, and making magical sounds happen. Yorke appeared at times stage right behind a piano and at other times behind a gear station with some kind of mod synth and a drum machine. Such an arrangement would have risked leaving the stage plot with an awkward asymmetry, as if one band member was perpetually missing, if not for Yorke’s magnetic presence. The long time performer has a special connection with his fans. Every sway and swagger sets the crowd into admiring cheers. He’s particularly fond of looking out at some fixed group of audience members, striking a fierce pose, and then basking in the excited screams. Even if Yorke’s iconic hipster dance wasn’t enough to look at, you still had a five panel HD video screen playing some of the most psychedelic shape shifting kaleidoscope patterns a skinny hippie on E could ask for. At times the multidimensionality, of the patterns made it seem like the band was getting sucked through the Stargate. It was cool.
At the end of the night, after the band had taken their bows and the cheers wouldn’t stop, Thom returned to the stage and sat behind the small electric piano. As he looked out to the crowd, he felt compelled to grace the moment with some improvised words. “This next song is called… oh… wait… Hi! I’m Thom Yorke,” he said, triggering uproarious laughter from the hall. He then proceeded to play a gorgeous piece from the Suspiria soundtrack. Yorke provided the score for a 2018 remake of the classic 70s Italian horror film of the same name. With an understated bow and a wave to the crowd, Yorke exited the stage for the last time.
In an age when everything changes and nothing seems to last, it’s nice to know that Thom Yorke can still slay in any context. I don’t know whether Radiohead is done or not, but clearly we are not going to be stuck facing these next few decades without the timely and irresistible music of its members. That gives me hope.