Friday, June 27, 2008

How to Reappear Uniquely

Radiohead, Victoria Park, London 24th June 2008

These shows in Victoria Park may have been Radiohead’s biggest UK concert performances outside the festival circuit, but that certainly didn’t direct the group to offer any concessions to mainstream popularity. From the choice of support act (the self-conscious and quirky Bat For Lashes had clearly read too much Angela Carter) to the unpredictable focus of their own setlist, the group continue to do everything on their own terms.

They are now a stadium rock group without ‘hits’. Whilst Thom Yorke’s alienation-by-numbers lyrics (he dismisses some of them as ‘nonsense’ himself during the show) frequently make the group an easy target for criticism, the harmonic and rhythmic innovation of their music more than compensates for this. Perhaps their universal acclaim merely shows the paucity of original rock music in this country, or hints at an overly-conservative music industry in decline, but I prefer to accentuate the positive.

The set helps cement my view that ‘In Rainbows’ is their most consistent album – all but one of its songs are included in the show. Some of them work superbly, whilst others sound a little too meticulous. The latter point seems particularly true of the show’s opening stint, which seems a little highly crafted and lacking in chemistry, Ed O’ Brien frequently relegated to shaking percussion and little communication with the audience. ’15 Step’ is an ingenious recording, but on stage it sounds like too close a replication – a more ragged and spirited reading might have been preferable. Similarly, ‘Bodysnatchers’, which sounds so gnarly and nasty on disc, seems to drag a bit in this highly disciplined performance.

It does get going eventually though, and turns into a pretty inspired and intense performance. Although there’s a suitably eerie ‘Pyramid Song’ before it, the turning point for me came with a determinedly linear and transcendent ‘Arpeggi/Weird Fishes’, the volume at last audible over the hoards of angry teenagers singing along. This track proves that the group work best when they exploit the chemistry between Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’ Brien. Too often, O’Brien is left doing very little.

From this point on, there’s very little messing about between sets, the various keyboards and synths being wheeled on and off-stage with ruthless efficiency and Thom Yorke rarely addressing the crowd other than with the occasional thank you. There’s a meaty, forceful version of ‘There There’ on which O’Brien and Greenwood join in with the drum-thumping, and Yorke’s voice rings out beautifully. It reminds me what a great song it is, and how I simply can’t understand those who found it underwhelming on release. ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ is presaged by Yorke leading a ‘Free Tibet’ chant, and it’s surprising how well this restrained mood piece works in live performance.

In fact, the selections from the ‘Kid A’ through to ‘Hail To The Thief’ period are particularly inspired. ‘The Gloaming’ was never my favourite track on record – a little too mechanistic and soulless, perhaps. In this performance though, it is both demented and terrifying, Thom Yorke dancing manically, arms flailing everywhere. It benefits from a more organic, percussive treatment. ‘Dollars and Cents’ is spindly, slow burning but also hypnotic. ‘The National Anthem’ actually sounds far more appealing without its tacked on bit of free-jazz skronking, a style of performance the band seem to have absorbed but not really digested.

The choices from further back are less predictable. ‘OK Computer’ is represented only by the dignified and elegant reading of ‘The Tourist’ and the claustrophobic ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, one of many tracks ushered in tonight by radio static and sampled voices. It bathes the park in an atmosphere of creeping menace. There’s no ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Karma Police’, ‘Exit Music’ or ‘Let Down’. From ‘The Bends’, we get ‘Just’ and ‘Planet Telex’ alone (no ‘High and Dry’ or ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, but neither of these songs were great losses for me). The former sends the crowd totally wild, but it sounds limited and dated when placed next to there far more adventurous later material.

The superb encores feature some curveball selections. Yorke performs a solo version of ‘Cymbal Rush’ at the piano, there’s a deeply sinister ‘You and Whose Army’ and a furious, highly intense charge through ‘Bangers and Mash’ which features Yorke attacking a mini drum kit at the front of the stage, with admirable gusto. Closing the set with ‘Idioteque’ was a moment of total inspiration.

Wednesday’s set was apparently considerably more predictable, with the likes of ‘Karma Police’, ‘My Iron Lung’ and ‘Paranoid Android’ all included, at the expense of anything from ‘Amnesiac’. I think we got the better set, but I guess many would disagree. It certainly wasn’t the kind of set tailored for the vastness of the crowd, and there was a notable degree of restlessness in parts of the audience. The visuals were effective though, with some maverick camera work, day-glo tubular lights (apparently carbon saving?!?) and plenty of bold primary colour on screen. It was a pretty singular return to the big stage – they seem to respect their audience’s ability to progress with them.


Tom Armitage said...

They also played "Airbag" that night...

But yeah, I loved it; not obscurist, just not as populist as it could have been - and I was quite happy with that. You can't really break up their history - they've had a gentle, logical progression, and it's important to see songs like Just and Airbag alongside the more recent stuff. Made the crowd a bit awkward - going wild for Just, but not as interested some of the equally great tracks from later albums. But hey ho, I mean, it's a big outdoor gig in London, so that's pretty par for the course.

Encore was particularly good - and I'm now a massive fan of Bangers and Mash, which was just fab. Oh, and a lovely You and Whose Army...

Daniel said...

Thanks for the correction Tom - they did indeed play 'Airbag' - I'd forgotten!

I basically agree with your assessment of the show.