Friday, August 29th 2008
While the rest of the nation was watching Barack Obama accept the Democratic nomination in Denver, Radiohead was in Santa Barbara, CA, bringing their international summer-long In Rainbows tour to a triumphant, if subdued, close. The biggest band in the world proved last night exactly why they can give their album away and still be a wild success; they’re maniacally passionate about what they do, and the authenticity of delivery matched with sheer instrumental genius lifts them head and shoulders beyond the lion’s share of arena bands out there.
Over the span over seven albums and two millennia, they’ve become an airtight, utterly telepathic band, seamlessly tearing through a setlist spanning their entire careers to an enraptured crowd, without having to resort to masturbatory, dated hits unreflective of their current sound (that means you, Creep). The gig was broadcast live around the world from the band’s official website, and featured a diverse careering-spanning setlist. But this was no buoyant, high energy affair; after the first batch of songs (including a fantastic and much more colorful Optimistic), the band downshifted into a set of slow, downtempo numbers that left us all wanting a bit more fire.
Opening act The Liars, a beat-heavy New York noise-rock outfit, could be interesting if their singer were as heavily invested in being on key and melodically creative as he is in his own ego. The guy’s a self-absorbed prick, and everything about his contribution to the band is dreadful. This is just the kind of band that hipster critics and indie-rock scouts compare to Sonic Youth and swear to high hell are bursting with misunderstood genius (I’m serious- look ‘em up), but let me tell you- I’ve seen enough shitty bands (and amazing ones) to know that there’s nothing fucking genius about the Liars. They are to Sonic Youth what Ex-Lax is to a candy bar, and their frontman is an asshole who can’t sing.
After that pathetic fiasco we watched the sunset from our seats in the Bowl, where you can see the palm-lined beaches hugging the ocean in the distance. It’s a beautiful venue setting, nestled into a little canyon in a surprisingly suburban neighborhood. There was a house party at the top of the hill, overlooking the stage. Imagine that- Radiohead playing in your backyard.
The band’s video and lighting presentation was impressive- an assortment of columns resembling appendages of a massive pipe organ surrounded the band, serving as a fragmented luminescent canvas for a mesmerizing light show that resembled everything from a canopy of fire to twinkling Christmas lights to binary code falling like rain in the Matrix (appropriately timed for the It should be raining… line in The Gloaming). At the rear of the stage was a rectangular video display spanning the stage’s entire width, with alternating sections of the screen broadcasting each bandmember with abstract angles in the camerawork. As a finishing touch, two Tibetan flags were also draped on the backs of keyboards, an interesting contrast to the LED icicles forming a cave around the band.
It was a downtempo evening. Thom Yorke and Co. have never seemed so collectively relaxed in all the years that I’ve seen them, and I’m tempted to say that’s a bad thing. Don’t get me wrong- they’re amazing at what they do and have honed themselves to a fine point of perfection, but they’ve gotten quite comfortable in their roles- something that can sap some of the thrill from any performance. Their mood overall seemed to be ragged triumph, with shades of can’t wait to get home. Understandably- they’ve had quite an eventful year.
Radiohead simply operates on a completely different level from most contemporary music heavyweights. Rather than milk the crowd with anthemic radio hits, the band focuses on hypnotic intensity and nuanced delicacy. It’s certainly not the band I saw tear the sky open at Coachella in 2004, making 60,000 bodies bounce like fucking kangaroos on speed.
But that was four long years ago, when Thom was still a bit pissy and the band had a more aggressive approach in their live performance. They haven’t lost all their bite, however, as evidenced by a blistering Paranoid Android- preceded by Yorke’s warning for participants in California’s plastic surgery craze.
“So this is for anyone who’s had surgery,” he smirked. “You’re gonna be dead soon. Its all going south brotha.”
The National Anthem was a show highlight, for sure, but the fact that it was sandwiched between two of the softest things the band’s ever done (Morning Bell and Faust Arp) didn’t exactly lend itself to a rising energy. Yorke and guitarist / multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood took to the pensive, gorgeous Faust Arp by themselves, huddled around the mic with two guitars and darkness surrounding them. Yorke’s voice is as unmistakably unique as the band’s electro / post-rock atmospherics, ranging between angelic and a wounded animal with a gravity of passion not to be underestimated.
Despite the reserved energy, the real fans were fully engaged throughout. In 15 Step, we (the audience) replaced the children’s choir with our own unprovoked “Yeah!” -right on time, too. During a faithful rendition of No Surprises, the line Bring down the government / They don’t… they don’t speak for us elicited a deafening roar of approval. Our excitement got the best of Yorke at times, who broke out his signature dance epileptics on several occasions throughout the night.
Not everybody was as appreciative of the moody texture; as stagehands wheeled out Thom’s upright piano for the longing, mid-suffocation love song All I Need, the crowd thinned out considerably, and the guy next to me shouted “It’s about to get lesbian in here!” before heading down to the beer stand. He later expressed disappointment that they didn’t play Creep- an unrelated detail, I’m sure.
I’m just an insect / trying to get out of the night, Yorke nearly whispered through the soft fuzz, as a swarm of cellphones and digital cameras lit up the crowd like electric fireflies.
For the first encore, Yorke delivered a gripping performance of his Eraser track Cymbal Crash, positioned so that the only way to watch him was on the huge screens. He performed several songs alone at the piano with his back to the crowd, which didn’t strike me as standoffish so much as an attempt to keep the focus on the subtle beauty of the music.
The rave-worthy Idioteque closed the show, serving as the only true sing-along of the night- an intensified climax bringing another Radiohead summer tour to a close. There were no arm-linked bows at the front of the stage, reveling in the well-deserved adoration of fans who’ve seen them through hell and back and followed them devotedly into uncharted territories, both sonically and digitally. The band simply departed one by one with a modest wave and a smile. No grandstanding, no personal glory.
That’s why I love this band.
Admittedly, things felt a bit incomplete as the lights went up and we shuffled out into the night (I almost knocked over Jack Johnson, of all people, who was coming up the stairs in the wrong direction). Sure, it would’ve been cool to see the guys rock out a little more, but something else felt off. It was only then that I realized that the Santa Barbara Bowl has a 10 PM curfew.
Early bedtimes and rock-out deficiencies aside, however, Radiohead proved once again last night that they’re atmospheric pioneers in a purgatorial electronic landscape, where the running theme is delicate despair with bursts of angelic optimism. Whether they’re pushing industry envelopes, making crazy laser beam videos or simply blowing minds and dropping jaws with their music, this band is undoubtedly among the best of our generation.
All I Need
Talk Show Host
The National Anthem
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
House of Cards
Everything In Its Right Place