Twisted words and singalongs: Capping four nights and 25 years with Radiohead in New York
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
On the train ride down from Boston to New York City, I pulled up a playlist called “There, There,” which is about three hours of my favorite stuff from Radiohead arranged in what would be something like a dream setlist. “There, There” is the first song, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” closes, and in between are a sampling of all the twists and turns their work has taken in the past 25 years. I sat there, read my book, looked out the window at the Connecticut coastline, and sang to myself in my head as the songs played.
Of course, it’s not nearly enough. It’s just skimming the top of their ability, a body of work that’s left me and so many other people equal parts confused and galvanized. It’s one of the reasons I wound up taking the time to head down to Madison Square Garden to catch Radiohead close out a four-night stand in the arena. I wanted to see what they’d come up with. I wanted to be there when they’d do something I’d never seen or heard before.
Imagine my surprise, then, as the set unfolded like an alternate, equally satisfying version of a playlist I spent far too much time cultivating for myself. From the opening trio of songs from A Moon Shaped Pool through nearly all roads of their career, Radiohead did something I’d never expected. They put on a show that spanned all their years together, with a sound that was as deliberate and clear as it was unique. This was a not a “Greatest Hits” concert. It was something else entirely.
Their approach in these settings — unafraid to challenge a crowd while still conveying the deep emotions cutting through every track — is unparalleled, as usual. Truly, the presentation of the band in these large settings is nearly flawless. The lights on the opening “Daydreaming” were nearly nonexistent for the first half of the song, keeping the musicians hidden in darkness, until a forest of beaming light emerged as the song broke out. And in between songs, lights would cut and quickly switch to match the disposition of the next song and reveal new details on the stage — drums set out for the guitarists, an upright piano at center stage, a six-foot-high synthesizer ready to be utilized.
But beyond the stage and the choreography of the staff to make this all happen, the band itself is fascinating to watch as they make all this music come to life. There’s Jonny Greenwood looping Thom Yorke’s vocals on “Give Up the Ghost.” There’s Yorke leading the way on piano on “Spectre,” their gloriously rejected attempt at a James Bond theme song. There’s Ed O’Brien on his knees manipulating pedals and creating the ghostly sounds on “Idioteque,” while Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood maintain those deceptively complex beats and rhythms. And there’s Selway’s mirror, Clive Deamer, adding complexity to an already head-spinning mix.
It didn’t take long before I was shocked at the setlist — hearing “2+2=5” in the fourth slot might have been the trigger, but the surprises didn’t stop there. Some of my favorite songs were present and accounted for, songs I’d never heard them play and thought I’d never hear play. Alongside were newer tracks like “The Numbers” and “Present Tense” that should already be considered classics in their cannon. If their material can be initially difficult and impenetrable, those same songs bore their way into a listener’s subconscious over time.
Upon further inspection, the previous nights in New York were just as unpredictable, with nearly all their phases represented, weaving in and out without regards to chart status or critical reception. Even “Blow Out,” from their fledgling debut Pablo Honey, was on a prior setlist but not performed. It was one part playing what they wanted to play and one part acknowledging their extensive catalog.
In addition to the material from A Moon Shaped Pool, the band darted in an out of their catalog with something approaching abandon. Running through singles has never been their game, but this show was arranged as unpredictably as ever. Deep tracks from In Rainbows like “All I Need” and “House of Cards” sat alongside “Lotus Flower” from The King of Limbs and “No Surprises” from OK Computer. Ignoring most of the bigger songs from the latter, their most famous album, they pulled out a sweeping reading of “Exit Music (For a Film)” towards the end of the main set and topped their first encore with “The Tourist,” the track that took the listener home all those years ago with its pleas to slow down, slow down, slow down.
If one thread bound the setlist together, it was a consistent mood — one of low, methodical plotting. Their intention was to take the crowd on a purposeful journey and not necessarily perform a revue of the Radiohead songbook. It’s just that it happened to span the discography that way. Digging out songs like “Street Spirit” served the purpose of getting their point across, not just to please the crowd. As always.
But they certainly thrilled this audience. Even from the upper reaches of Sec. 224, the majority of the arena stayed on their feet for the entire show. If one or two impatient fools were angsty about not hearing “Fake Plastic Trees,” the rest of the audience was enraptured listening to this band, so unlike any other band of their time in terms of reach and ambition, take them on another trip. And finally, the fans made their voices heard.
In those closing moments as the final notes of “Karma Police” rang through, the entire evening of nearly hit-free side trips that were so rightfully and eagerly gobbled up by the crowd built to a catharsis. This song was, and remains, an anthem, a ready made calling card for a band as otherworldly as they are loved by this audience. To have pulled this off without owning an obviously accessible catalog is as impressive a feat as any.
So before the band completed their exit, a moment of recognition came over Yorke as he listened to the audience sing back to him, over the din: “For a minute there, I lost myself / I lost myself / I lost myself / For a minute there / I lost myself / I lost myself / I lost myself...” To cap this final of four nights in New York’s iconic arena, he lifted his acoustic guitar up like a diminutive Springsteen even as half the band had left, began strumming, singing and leading the crowd on a campfire-like send-off:
“For a minute there
I lost myself
I lost myself
I lost myself... “
For a band that seemingly could not care less about adoration and looking back, this was a surprisingly celebratory moment. That it came spontaneously made it all the more authentic and poignant. The members of Radiohead, as a collective, do not play the pat-yourself-on-the-back game and they don’t pander to audiences, but they are human. And on behalf of his group, Yorke reacted with a simple joy that he rarely lets past the surface.
In acknowledgement of four nights of near-instantaneous sellouts, for the years of leading listeners on the most glorious of journeys through forests of mysterious sound, for seeing them back on the other end, under the glow of spotlights and the sunlight implied, he took the crowd on a singalong. He listened to thousands of strangers sing him one of their favorite songs, he smiled, and for just a few moments, he sang it with them. A fitting end to a dream set.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org