Radiohead Toyota Center March 3, 2012
See more photos from Saturday night in our slideshow.
Radiohead just doesn't add up. The band has effectively turned its back on the music business, pioneering alternative methods of distribution of its music to fans (most of it online), short-circuiting the traditional promotional apparatus by releasing last year's The King of Limbs exactly a week after they announced its existence, and spending at least the previous decade exploring and refining their interests in electronic and avant-garde music.
Yet there they were Saturday, selling out the same arena where Nickelback and Coldplay - two bands who have followed a considerably more conservative model, both in business and songwriting - will play here in a few months. Either Radiohead knows something bands like that don't, or they are grifters who would make late Texas-born author Jim Thompson proud.
There was probably very little Saturday to contradict once-ardent fans of the band's beloved guitar-heavy albums The Bends and OK Computer who think, to borrow an expression from Radiohead's home country, that they have been up their own arse for a while. But there were moments where Radiohead's esoteric, challenging music also made great arena-rock theater - who knew Kid A's frenetic electronica track "Idioteque" would make such an excellent clapalong?
Heavy on irregular time signatures, electronic and regular drums - at times there were four people playing drums onstage, including Portishead's Clive Deamer - and songs pasted together by sequencers, vintage keyboards and whatever it was that looked like an old-timey telephone switchboard Jonny Greenwood was using when not playing guitar, most of the set was more performance art than rock and roll.
Add the LED backdrop, multiple flatscreen monitors hung overhead and pastel-heavy color scheme, and it felt more like something you'd see at the Contemporary Arts Museum than a sports arena. Maybe Radiohead should look into a show at MOMA in New York, although it's too bad Kraftwerk got there first.
But even for someone not terribly familiar with the newer material, it was still recognizably Radiohead: The throbbing bass pulse of Limbs' "Little By Little," front man Thom Yorke's wounded howl on solo-piano setpiece "Codex," the Phillip Glass-like wash of ambient guitars and keyboards of In Rainbows' "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi."
Some of it felt like it wasn't quite all there, appropriate considering shadows and spirits, sleeping and dreaming, are a recurring theme for Radiohead ("The Gloaming," "Identikit"). But for those of us wondering if it would kill them to throw in a chord change, they gave us "Airbag" from OK Computer, and once in a while dug out a riff that is still as sharp as a blade, like Hail To the Thief's "There There."
Yorke seemed to be in a congenial mood, addressing the audience several times during the evening, starting with a drawled "Thank you kindly, y'all" before "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi." Remarking on all the band's equipment before "Codex," Yorke said "we've got much so much shit." Maybe it even annoys him sometimes, because it gets in the way of his sprite-like stage dancing.
But it is reassuring that Yorke has a sense of humor, because so much of Radiohead's music does not. Before "These Are My Twisted Words," he said, "You may be lost now, but all will become clear soon... but perhaps not." For all the racket going on around him, a number of songs - "All I Need," "The Reckoner," "Codex" - it's easy to picture him as a folksinger, singing those songs in a subway station or under a tree on some college campus, or taking over the piano at his neighborhood pub.
For all their fancy avant-garde gizmos and bizarre meters these days, Radiohead really does (still) have a lot of heart and soul. So maybe it's not hard to understand what they were doing up there Saturday after all.
Personal Bias: As much as I get annoyed by the blind love lavished on Radiohead by some parts of the music press, especially bloggers, I think the band deserves most of the acclaim. But my favorite album will always be 1995's The Bends, which didn't make the set Saturday.
The Crowd: Fitted jeans, expensive ladies' shoes, hoodies and flannel shirts enjoying a night on the town. Very few people under 25 or over 50.
Overheard In the Crowd: Not as many shouts for "Creep" as I expected.
Random Notebook Dump: Radiohead's guitar tech sound-checked with the first few bars of Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over."
Bloom Little by Little Weird Fishes/Arpeggi Morning Mr. Magpie The Gloaming 15 Step Codex Cut a Hole These Are My Twisted Words Airbag Identikit Lotus Flower There There Feral Idioteque Reckoner
Separator All I Need Myxomatosis Everything In Its Right Place
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Give Up the Ghost Nude Paranoid Android