The Smile cut loose on an invigorating night at the Shrine

Thom Yorke of The Smile
The Smile at the Shrine Auditorium (Photo by Michelle Shiers)

The Smile, the pandemic-born project of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood along with jazz drummer Tom Skinner, alighted at the Shrine Auditorium on Wednesday night for the penultimate date on their first North American tour. Giving a performance that was at turns beautiful, fierce, experimental and challenging, they personified the spirit of a world freed from the cabin fever of the past 2 1/2 years.

The trio return to the Shrine tonight for the 12th and final date of their tour.

They started Wednesday’s set with “The Same” and “Thin Thing” from their debut full-length, “A Light For Attracting Attention,” and as is true of anything in which Yorke or Greenwood has a hand, cinematic unease seems to prevail. Only this time, scrappy grooves, smatterings of Afro-pop and heavy riffs are in there as well. “The Opposite” was a frenetic spectacle sprinkled with woven arpeggio, and no matter how improvisational the songs felt, Skinner never looked to be concentrating too hard.

“Speech Bubbles” was a gorgeous poem with Yorke’s echoing moan, followed by “A Hairdryer” which felt improvisational but always coming back to that space where modern life meets modular otherworldliness. Greenwood rarely looked up from his guitar, which he often held upright. His head was down, hair flowing to cover his face, except for between songs when several crew members would appear onstage to switch the band’s myriad of instruments, sometimes even mid-song.

A large portion of the set was devoted to unreleased tracks. “Colours Fly” featured saxophonist and set-opener Robert Stillman. Yorke sang “Circumstances change / Let your colours fly” with his ominous howl. Throughout the evening, Greenwood and Yorke traded off bass and guitar duties, which seemed to keep them busy while on the cusp of synth-laden recklessness. “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” motored into a snarling alchemy. Like many of their songs, new song “Under Our Pillows” felt jam-like towards an end that rippled and faded away. “Free in the Knowledge” and “Skrting on the Surface” are two of the Smile’s most straightforward tracks but still very capable of pushing the listener in all emotional directions — an abstract painting come to life with a spectral sadness made only more real by Yorke wailing, “When we realize we are merely held in suspension / till someone comes along and shakes us.”

New song “Read the Room” seemed to shake the entire audience out of one trance and into another, its progressive build heading into a glassy-eyed soundscape. A piano was brought out front and center of the haunting “Pana-vision” before the trio closed the main set with “The Smoke” and the most obvious banger, “You Will Never Work In Television Again.” Yorke finally seemed to let loose more than he has perhaps in years, and Greenwood locked in stomping and attacking his guitar with intention with Skinner’s spiked hits.   

The trio returned for a four-song encore, beginning aptly with piano ballad “Open The Floodgates,” which starts with the cheeky lyric “Don’t bore us / get to the chorus” while Skinner moved over to synths. They then showed off “Bending Hectic,” which built into one of the most expansive throbs of atmospheric rock noise we’ve heard from a member of Radiohead in decades. “Just Eyes and Mouth” finally got Yorke overheated as he did his signature dance moves behind and around the keyboard.

Although the band have previously explained their name does not come from “the Smile as in ha ha ha” but rather the Smile from a Ted Hughes poem about “the Smile of the guy who lies to you every day,” the entire venue lit up like a collective grin as they closed their 105-minute set with Yorke’s solo-single “Pulled Apart By Horses.” Happily disoriented and heady as ever together, the Smile reminded us that, as the opening track of their album reminds, we are all the same.

Setlist: The Same, Thin Thing, The Opposite, Speech Bubbles, A Hairdryer, Waving a White Flag, Colours Fly, We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings, Under Our Pillows, Free in the Knowledge, Skrting on the Surface, Read the Room, Pana-vision, The Smoke, You Will Never Work in Television Again. Encore: Open The Floodgates, Bending Hectic, Just Eyes and Mouth, Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses.

Photos and recap by Michelle Shiers