England’s inimitable art-rock titans Radiohead graced Massachusetts with their presence last night for the first time since 2008. This marks the start of the final leg of their North American tour in support of The King of Limbs, and they brought along Canadian electronic act Caribou for the ride.
Radiohead’s story up to this point is a pretty fascinating one to me. Here are five guys (we’ll disregard honorary member/live drummer Clive Deamer for the moment) who formed a rather unremarkable rock band called On A Friday in the mid 1980s, and have stuck together over the ensuing twenty seven years to become one of the most highly respected and consistently brilliant bands on the planet. There are very few bands out there who have maintained a lineup for so long and evolved so drastically, and even fewer who can claim so many indisputable classic records along the way. Radiohead have been my favorite band since I first got into music, and last night was my first ever opportunity to see them live. ‘Challenging’ doesn’t even begin to describe the experience of purchasing tickets, navigating one’s way around the policies of the Comcast Center, doing a whole lot of standing around and eventually getting a few feet back from the front rail at a Radiohead concert, but don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t worth it.
Eager to kick things off were Dan Snaith and band, also known as Caribou. Openers tend to get even less respect at these stadium-type shows than they do at club gigs, and last night was no different. It’s unfortunate that so few people chose to arrive early and catch Caribou’s set, because they’re a band deserving of the attention opening for Radiohead ought to garner. Snaith and company played a forty minute set consisting of songs from their stellar 2010 album Swim. One might be inclined to point out the lack of variety there (especially with a back catalog four albums deep), but it’s difficult to argue with a set of songs this strong. Album highlights “Sun,” “Bowls,” and “Odessa” all made appearances in extended, slightly reworked forms. Swim is an electronics-heavy album, but Snaith wisely augments the beats and samples with live percussion, guitar and bass. The songs feel lively and organic in their live incarnations, and no less danceable and hypnotic than their album counterparts. Caribou are a perfect fit for a Radiohead opener. A shame that a large portion of the audience wasn’t much interested.
By Radiohead’s 8:45 start time though, interest was peaked. The venue lost its collective mind as the band took the stage in front of a back-lit glass wall and opened the show with “Bloom,” as they have on each night of this tour. The song’s skittering percussion and gradually building groove would set the tone for the rest of the set. The influence of last year’s The King of Limbs was felt throughout the evening with the band’s emphasis on rhythm and texture, especially in the addition of second drummer Clive Deamer. Deamer’s presence wasn’t always obvious, but he added subtle touches to songs old and new. “Morning Mr Magpie” was transformed from a typically solid Radiohead song to an intense, heavily percussive showstopper with his help. As a whole the band sounded cohesive and agile, deftly navigating through an intensely varied discography with ease. Radiohead is one of very few bands able to pull off the melding of extremes from the rock, electronic and ambient universes with such effortless mastery. Electronic jams like “The Gloaming,” full of sampled, warped vocals and huge swells of bass, fit side by side on a setlist with three guitar rockers like “Bodysnatchers” and ethereally eerie ballads like “Pyramid Song” naturally. Only one of the many feats Radiohead pulled off during this show.
After “Bloom” came another two album openers: “15 Step” from In Rainbows and OK Computer‘s “Airbag.” Who knows whether three first songs from their respective albums in a row was intentional on the band’s part, but it felt like a fitting introduction. Phil Selway’s distinctively off-kilter percussion intro to “15 Step” garnered nearly as large a response from the crowd as the signature guitar riff of “Airbag.” That would be the first of only two OK Computer songs for the night, but that wasn’t particularly surprising considering the band’s forward-thinking approach to this tour. New songs, including the majority of The King of Limbs and its accompanying singles (“The Daily Mail”/”Staircase” and “Supercollider”) were the real focus of the show. “Bloom” and “Morning Mr Magpie” were definite highlights, but “Lotus Flower” and seductive unreleased track “Identikit” (featuring guitarist Ed O’Brien’s killer backup vocals) were also outstanding. Older standbys still got their due diligence as well. Kid A was represented by glitch anthem “Idioteque,” a typically extended, sample heavy “Everything In Its Right Place” (with an “After the Gold Rush” intro), and a thrash-y, cathartic “The National Anthem.” Only “Pyramid Song” surfaced from Amnesiac, but this take, featuring Jonny Greenwood employing a Jónsi-esque trick with a bowed guitar intro, was especially haunting. This wasn’t a setlist that threw any particular curveballs, but essentially any set of twenty three Radiohead songs at this point in their career is guaranteed to be brilliant.
Radiohead have always been unfairly pegged as an exclusively mopey, depressing band. If this night definitively proved one thing, it’s that this band can have plenty of fun amidst the admittedly heavy nature of much of their music. There is melancholy and sadness in these songs, but also catharsis and even joy. And the band knows that. Frontman Thom Yorke looked to be having an absolute blast on stage, especially during songs like “Idioteque” and “Myxomatosis” when he was unencumbered by guitar, piano or keyboard, free to prowl the stage and dance in that incomparable Thom Yorke style. From the far rear of the stage, bassist Colin Greenwood’s energy and exuberance were still evident. Even the notoriously shy Jonny managed a few smiles and waves to the crowd. The fact that the band seemed to enjoy the show as much as the audience simply elevated the whole experience.
With a two hour performance as energetic and consistently exhilarating as this one, it’s evident that Radiohead are committed to truly putting on a show. They are live performers at the top of their game, and a band still intent on constantly reinventing themselves without totally abandoning their past. The hype and the hassle may threaten to overshadow the actual experience of a Radiohead concert, but having now seen the band perform a near career-spanning set of mindblowingly good songs in person, I’m confident in saying that the hassle is worth it, and they live up to every bit of that hype.