Indie gods show why they’re the kings of pushing the live-arena envelope
Radiohead followed their own muse at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Thursday, May 31. The 23 songs covered in a mind-expanding 122 minutes skewed mainly toward the band’s post-modern, forward-thinking 21st-century sound: percussive and electronic-driven loops, multi-guitar soundscapery, on-the-spot manipulated live samples, and the distinctive tone of Thom Yorke’s pleading vocals. (Night 2 at “The Rock” at 165 Mulberry Street is tonight, and you can check out other tour stops on the band's site; note that tix are still available in some locations.)
Apparently, I’m on a Decade Cycle when seeing them myself — I first caught Radiohead at CBGB in NYC on June 24, 1993, stationed halfway back in the club next to the bar in a
packt packed and sweaty room, and I saw a young band begin to find its original voice in real time (i.e., figuring out how to sidestep the songwriting/performing expectations that swarmed around their long-since-retired hot-button indie-rock anthem “Creep”). FF 10 years to when I next caught them at Madison Square Garden on October 9, 2003 on the Hail to the Thief tour that showed a confident band pushing its limits.
Radiohead continued their thrust beyond the norm last night. The volume from where I was standing stage left in Section 8 (don’t say it!), about 25 rows up from the floor, was such that I kept my earplugs in my pocket the entire show, and found the arrangements coming through clearly with minimal distortion. The snare drum pounded on by Jonny Greenwood during the set-opening “Bloom” was crisp, and the hi-hat employed by second drummer Clive Deamer resonated in what could have easily been a busy mix. Later in the set, I felt the bassy thumps that announced both “The Gloaming” and “There There” in my chest, and perhaps they even made my pantlegs move (unless I was taking the latter song’s key line “Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there” to the extreme, that is). Yorke got behind both keyboard and piano here and there throughout the night, his piano playing especially effective for setting the table for a track culled from The King of Limbs sessions, “The Daily Mail,” its chords and vibe at the outset reminiscent of John Lennon’s “Isolation.”
Besides an animated Yorke — when he wasn’t behind a keyboard or playing guitar, he danced and pranced like Muhammad Ali showing off some new kung-fu-inspired boxing moves — it was also a treat watching the tag-team of the sometimes bowler-hatted stage-right guitarist Ed O’Brien and stage-left checked-shirt-clad Jonny-of-all-trades Greenwood, the latter’s rooster-comb of jet-black hair flailing in front of him when his head was bowed and his guitar-strumming arm jerking like he was forcibly pulling ticks off his fretboard on “Bodysnatchers” and “The Daily Mail.” The often mix-dominant backline stayed consistent with what I call Radiohead’s patented skittish-percussion approach, led by the tandem of stage-right main drummer Philip Selway and the aforementioned stage-left Deamer, and anchored by bassist Colin Greenwood, who never much ventured beyond his spot between the two.
The stage design was a visual treat. The band was backed by a massive LED wall, its colors morphing textures from ice-cool blue to fiery orange song by song. Above the stage, a movable array of 12 screens rotated into different positions and alignments to match the mood and intent, visuals running the gamut from the players’ faces to shifting waveforms. (A contiguous band of LED screens mainly spotlighting the performers was perched atop the front-stage rigging.) It’s refreshing when A/V presentation on this high-def-leaning scale is so well-integrated throughout an entire set.
While it was indeed exhilarating to hear the audience bellow, “This is what you’ll get” during the set’s 14th song, the *OK Computer* classic “Karma Police” — Yorke grinned and turned his mic toward the floor’s general-admission crowd for emphasis — I really didn’t miss hearing other tried-and-true chestnuts from Radiohead’s catalog. Instead, I basked in a show that celebrated innovation and took chances. More bands’ setlists could take a cue from these ’Head masters at work.
PS to 5.1 fans — seek out *The King of Limbs Live from the Basement* on DVD (or Blu-ray, if you have an all-region player) for immersive mixes of Radiohead playing *Limbs* material live in studio (even though the onscreen menu dubs it “Dolby Stereo 5.1”).