Finally, Radiohead has made full use of its considerable creativity and talents with the richly satisfying, deeply moving recent album “A Moon Shaped Pool,” not merely affirming but advancing the notion that the Oxfordshire band is among the most consistently ambitious, and the most expressive act in (for lack of a better term) rock. It was worth the 23-year wait.
Seems the band feels the same, as it opened its Shrine Auditorium concert on Monday with the first five songs of that album in sequence, as it has been doing regularly in recent shows — this being the second of two Shrine appearances, sandwiched around Saturday’s set at the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco. For many acts, starting with five new songs would be risky. For Radiohead it’s a move of confidence, both in itself and its audience, and one that Monday paid great rewards to all. (And ultimately they played all but three of the album’s 11 songs in the course of the 23-song set.)
||| Photos by Michelle Shiers
“Burn the Witch,” the first, served as prologue, its au (and always) courant theme of fear of the other, of otherness, ultimately turning into celebration of otherness. And of fear. That set the stage, so to speak, but it was with the next song, “Daydreaming,” that the show really began — music made of notes that twinkled like stars in the fading night, giving way to the dawning day and its mix of hope and trepidation, the finely crafted music echoed by the vivid lighting display behind the band.
Next “Decks Dark,” Thom Yorke singing in his high plaint, “And in your life, there comes a darkness” … “It was just a laugh, just a lie” … “Whatever you say it is split infinities,” the treacherous of language eventually pushed aside by an electric guitar trio with Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien each seeming to play conflicting, incompatible lines nonetheless braided together in ways words cannot be. Then “Desert Island Disk,” Yorke on brittle acoustic guitar, singing, “Standing on the edge of you … different types of love are possible.” And ending the sequence, the pulsar throb of “Ful Stop” — “Truth will mess you up.”
Bringing the new music to life is no mean feat, as the album fully utilizes the ever-expanding sonic language Greenwood has explored in his acclaimed classical and movie score work, with strings providing key hues to the studio recordings. Here, the spaces left by their absence were not filled, but made part of the soundscapes, to gorgeous effect, bringing out all the nuance of Yorke’s expansively ruminative lyrics — and his lyrics-less vocalizing passages.
Soon a theme emerged, or more an aesthetic, or an experience. Throughout the show, there was the simultaneous sense that something big was happening, and something new was about to happen, of at once being content and expecting, or in quasi-Zen-speak, of being and becoming. Religious? Romantic? Quantum physics? Or just pretty darn cool? Take it as you may, it’s impressive, compelling and for the fans, enrapturing, engaging and involving.
“It’s going to be a glorious day,” Yorke sang in “Lucky,” originally from the 1997 breakthrough album “OK Computer.” “We are standing on the edge,” an echo of the “Desert Island Disk” line, though pulled from nearly 20 years ago. It’s still cautious and even a bit sarcastic in some ways, but Monday it was also earnest and optimistic hymnody. Even the OCD anthem “Everything In It’s Right Place,” from 2000’s “Kid A,” carried a sense that things do seem to fit in nature — including human nature — all on their own, disorder becoming, or revealing, order. Huh. Go figure.
Of course, that’s all there in the music as well, everything in its right place, no note, no chord change or modulation, no major lift or minor fall, no subtle time signature shift made without clear purpose, whether in a song somber and spare or massive and messy. The new music seemed to bring into sharp relief the elements threading through the band’s entire catalog, Monday spanning back to 1994 for “My Iron Lung” — in particularly the mix of Krautrock motorik pulse (“Bodysnatchers” seemed more than ever a Can/Neu! homage) and modern classical influences, from the sweeping celestial beauty of Messaien and Ravel to the intricate mosaics of Riley and Reich. Other times, a rubbery Colin Greenwood bass line would almost casually steal the attention, the other sounds orbiting around it. And same for the intricacies of Philip Selway’s drums (supplemented by second drummer Clive Deamer much of the time). On “Like Spinning Plates” from 2001’s “Amnesiac,” O’Brien introduced a casually swinging jazz touch a la Joe Morello of the classic, rhythmically daring Dave Brubeck Quartet.
But as mannered and manicured as it can be, especially on record, it was very much of and in the moment Monday. Of course, the band itself, familiarly, took on the physical presence of the music, with tall, rail-thin Jonny Greenwood hunched over his guitar, hair shrouding his face, Yorke snaking, lurching, undulating in awkward coordination with the oft-odd rhythms. And Yorke was playful at times, even. After staggering around stage while letting his voice get played with by a random sampler program at the end of “Everything,” he came back to the mic to find that the sampler was still regurgitating his words as he prepared for the next song — and found it quite amusing, letting out an exaggerated “ha ha ha!” Later, in the middle of the encore segment, responding to something (whether from the audience or on stage, couldn’t tell which), Yorke turned caricature English with an exaggerated version of his accent assuring, “You’re fiiiine, everything’s fiiiiiine” before the band launched into the big rock blowout of “2+2=5.”
Opener Shabazz Palaces proved a strong lead-in, a prologue itself, sharing the headliner’s sense of affectingly idiosyncratic sound worlds. It just comes from a different place (Seattle, hip-hop) and goes to a different one, but adjacent. Ditto for the loopy approach to emotions and identity in the material. The duo of Ishmael Butler (once of the ’90s progressive hip-hop troupe Digable Planets) and Tandai Maraire never seem satisfied to be any one thing, so several things were always in play, from the surreal narrative nature of the words to the varying mixes of beats and atmospheres, bridging Africa and Burning Man. The unexpected highlight came when Butler stopped rapping and Maraire picked up an mbira (his father was a star on the “thumb piano” in his native Zimbabwe) for a Central African trip-hop excursion.
Maybe it’s not for everyone, but it’s easy to see why it appeals to the Radiohead guys, why they would want to share it with their fans, enough of whom appreciated it too. For those who didn’t, no worries. It’s fiiiiiine. Everything’s fiiiiiine.