Radiohead proves a study in duality (and OK with levity) in 2 nights in Berkeley

Radiohead at Berkeley's Greek Theatre (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Radiohead at Berkeley's Greek Theatre (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Review and photographs by David Brendan Hall

Once again, Radiohead has proven they’re the kings of turning a tricky situation on its head. On Tuesday night at Berkeley’s Hearst Greek Theatre – during the second of two nights ahead of their Coachella encore, the final date of this U.S. run behind “A Moon Shaped Pool” – the seminal British band ran into another sound snafu midway through first encore kickoff, “Give Up the Ghost.”

“Aw sheeeeeeit,” said Thom Yorke with a smirk when he and Jonny Greenwood missed a key transition toward the end of the solemn song (his loop pedal appeared stuck), prompting huge bouts of laughter from the 8,500-strong audience as they gave the track a second shot without pausing.

Of course, that tiny accident was nothing compared to the band’s sound cutting out completely for huge chunks of tunes during their Coachella Weekend 1 set, so the comical coincidence (made funnier by the fact that the re-recorded loop included the crowd’s mirth on repeat like some sitcom laughtrack) only served to make this intimate gig – enhanced by a spellbinding, chant-heavy opening set by Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis – feel even more up-close-and-personal.

The cozy tone was asserted frequently throughout the evening with a focus on the group’s more sobering tunes. To elaborate: A pair of their quietest, “Separator” and “Videotape,” stunned the audience into reverent silence early on; “Hail to the Thief” rarity “Where I End and You Begin” hypnotized mid-show; the main set ended on haunting “Kid A” highlight “How to Disappear Completely;” and the first encore concluded with the seriously sublime “House of Cards.” By contrast, the rainy first night Monday at the historic Bay Area theater leaned more on harder hitting numbers like “Myxomatosis,” “My Iron Lung,” “Reckoner” and “Idioteque” (the latter two closed out Night 1’s main set and second encore, respectively). So, as the end of Night 2 neared – marking the final venue stop for this stateside run, likely the last for a few years – it felt like the group might be holding back intentionally to amp things up to 11 with one of their most raucous. Perhaps we’d get as lucky as Coachella Weekend 1 with another tremendously galvanizing, eardrum-rattling resurrection of “Creep”?

But no, the second encore remained mellow – they kicked it off with the kinetic yet soothing loop-laden tapestry of “Bloom,” once again invoked total hushed attention with “Nude,” and tested the range of every voice in the venue with all-in finale “Karma Police.” The resulting feeling was that of attending the Radiohead equivalent of a sort of living room show with all their close personal friends present, markedly different from the Coachella crowd, where half-interested fans – who might’ve dipped out even earlier with the inclusion of some of these lower-key cuts – were as numerous as the diehards.

Fans hoping to gain a bit of insight from the Berkeley gigs, based on the set lists, about what the group might unearth during their Coachella encore on Friday remain in the dark. With the vast differences at the Greek – a total of 22 tunes across two nights not played Weekend 1 in Indio – this Friday’s fare remains anyone’s guess. Which is actually seriously exciting, when you think about it; whereas almost any other fest headliner (save for maybe Kendrick Lamar), won’t deviate at all from their touring set list, Radiohead could excavate almost anything from their extensive and fantastically eclectic catalogue.