All words by Colin Wilhelm
All photos by Shauna Alexander
When people think of cataclysmic, civilization ending events, “alien invasion” usually winds up in the mix sometime shortly before or after “nuclear war”, “impending animal revolution”, and “zombie apocalypse” (though that may have moved up the threat list in light of recent events). Well your brains may not be safe and Lassie probably wants to murder your ass, but if the Third Kind shows up for a ‘close encounter’ you can sleep well at night knowing that Radiohead will annihilate them with a fury of sound and light; multi-colored LEDs set to beats of organ and drum, birthed from their live performance of “Lotus Flower”.
They began this song in darkness—rare to come by in this show—while their monolithic multi-story wall of light flickered behind them for the opening minute or so, only to begin flashing more fully and aggressively, a long string of visual body blows to stave off our fictional alien invaders with reality altering sensations.
That light array accentuated one of the most elegantly simple stage production observed by man. A cadre of ultra high-definition screens dangled above them, breaking and reassembling formation in a variety of different positions, albeit with a gradual nature. This was the rare ostentatious stage setup that complimented music rather than distracting from it. Each screen continuously relayed a dedicated closeup feed of one small aspect of the performance, like Ed O’Briens’ fingers on guitar strings, or Colin Greenwood peering over drumkit and mic at Phil Selway, keeping the rhythm section tight through all those weird time signatures, and Thom Yorke’s eye, staring down the gullet of a lens while hunched over a piano for “Codex”. That last shot gave a “1984” feel, Yorke ‘Big Brother’ come to lead us in our 120 minutes of sad and/or wonderfully spastic dancing. During the first encore he broke from his piano (“You and Whose Army?”) to turn crowdwise and egg on cheers and applause with a manicly outstretched, upward palm, gesticulating for a like some sort of introspective 1930’s fascist dictator; the crowd puppeted exactly what he wanted.
Indeed Radiohead has handled their transition to arena rock band quite gracefully, especially for a band whose songs have provided soundtrack for millions of high school breakups. Even though they’ve played massive venues for years, the albums that made Radiohead (OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, and I would argue The Bends) Radiohead all felt intimate or personal. Even “The National Anthem” (in my opinion the best song of their Sunday set and one that features a number of instruments played loudly) features lyrics that sound like an internal monologue [“Everyone around here/Is so near/What’s going on?”] in Yorke’s tenor, and its famous horns honk like a teenaged boy still adjusting to speaking an octave lower.
And just like that teenager on the strange and awkward journey towards manhood, that transition from grunge-era guitar rock band to heralds of experimental electronically focused rock in the’00s to contemporary arena headliner status ought to have been more awkward than it is. That emotional intimacy built their stardom; the continuous video feeds, moving monochromatic photo portraits more than anything, provided a reminder of that. One does not think of them as an arena rock band in the same vein as, say, The Foo Fighters and a soldout ~15,000 person venue like Verizon Center seems a difficult setting to translate Yorke’s reflective themes. And to be fair his vocals did seem to be eaten up by bass and drum machines on some songs. But Radiohead also seems to have adapted well to the U2-ification they’ve undergone; their King of Limbs and In Rainbows tracks (along with a couple new ones), of which many were played, have a sonic architecture designed to fill those larger spaces. Though personally I find them less interesting than their middle catalogue, the selections from TKOL and In Rainbows translated quite well live. Maybe my living room isn’t spacious enough to enjoy them properly.
Though in retrospect it should have been expected, Yorke seemed more at home on stage than I would have expected given his reputation as a musical auteur; one does not perform for nearly 30 years (20 spent intermittently on television) without reaching some sort of comfort level though. He did a charming faux-surprise ‘what you’re still here?!?’ stumble backwards after walking onstage for their second encore (“Give Up the Ghost”, “Separator”, and “Reckoner”). Hell, if you squinted from a distance at Yorke, sporting a ponytail and beard, sideways snake dancing, you could see a little bit of Axl Rose.
“Now this one you might recognize”, Yorke said after the band finished playing “Supercollider”, a single from the TKOL sessions that may or may not be on whatever secret album stream one can supposedly get on the interwebs. A pregnant pause followed, in which the band seemed to silently ask themselves, ‘should we really play “Paranoid Android?”’ only to deliver the final climax of the night, though Yorke did minorly flub a lyric, as he started to skip a line ahead past “Kicking and squealing gucci little piggy” to the “you don’t remember” that accompanies the introduction of that song’s terribly powerful guitar bridge, though he quickly caught the mistake. Given how much the set sounded beat for beat like their recordings, but with better sound, it was nice to be reminded of Radiohead’s humanity during a song in which Yorke reaffirms his humanity [(“I may be paranoid, but no android”)].
That said he does predict his own non-benign ascendancy to power as well: “When I am king, you will be first against the wall.” I fear someday in the not-too-distant dystopian future, when the alien menace has been defeated, we will all receive behavioral modification treatments in the form of Radiohead live sets, and Thom Yorke will rule us all.