Radiohead does the math for you…again

By Andy Marchesseault

After a decade of recording, one thing is certain about Radiohead: they matter. This statement is true simply because of the interest the band attracts and the respect it commands, as the group has won as many devoted fans as they have turned off potential listeners with their seeming pretentiousness and attempted inscrutability. The band takes itself seriously, and music fans reciprocate the sentiment, whether ogling at the jacket art of Kid A, or just ignoring the slurred speech of frontman Thom Yorke. After ten years and six studio albums, there are many reasons to both love and hate Radiohead.

Having released their latest LP, Hail to the Thief in June, Radiohead embarked on the North American swing of their tour on August 13, in Mansfield, MA. ‘Where the hell is Mansfield?,’ you might ask. The answer to that question is ‘farther away than it should be,’ as it takes multiple hours waiting in gridlock to trek down from my home north of Boston to this tiny hamlet of musical delights just south of the city. However, like many Radiohead converts, I found the trip to be well worth the time and energy, as Radiohead shows are kind of like solar eclipses: rare, dazzling, somewhat brief, but never disappointing.

Any Radiohead devotee is bound to love their live show, as the band’s superb recorded material takes on new life within the context of the performance. However, those who may be turned off by the band, especially by their more recent ventures into electronic, often minimalist soundscapes, may also come around. This is because the band in concert is a well-oiled machine, and they looked especially limber and enthusiastic after their European and Japanese dates. Not only is the band’s playing tight and exuberant, which serves to fill out even their most “studio”-sounding tracks, but they have a damn good light show to go along with it, which served to accentuate every post-apocalyptic dirge and, yes, even “Creep.”

Former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus opened the show right at 7:30 with his newest band, the Jicks. To my surprise, having seen them before in the intimate confines of the Metro, the band managed to fill the spacious outdoor Tweeter Center venue with their fun pop-rock. The Jicks jogged through about a forty-five minute set comprised of songs from their two studio albums, as well as a few new ones thrown in for good measure. The ironic indie-hipster vibe that Malkmus helped patent kept the gathering crowd in good spirits on the warm summer evening, before the usual prolonged wait for the vaunted Featured Performers.

The setting-up of the Radiohead Extravaganza gave me time to observe the packed house, which is reasonably-sized and well-designed for a large outdoor venue. For as many vintage t-shirts and trucker hats I saw there was an equal number of gray-streaked ponytails and dress shirts, including that of my brother, who had just come from his job in online advertising in Boston. Perhaps some prospective converts had chosen to pony up fifty bucks for the pleasure of seeing Thom Yorke’s lazy eye firsthand? Or maybe this was a sign of the diversity, and the numbers, of the crowd that Radiohead attracts: smart, literate, indie, preppie, goofy, drunk, frat boy, pretentious, genuine, music-loving.

After about forty minutes of marinating, Radiohead was ready to stick a fork in the crowd, as the band came on amidst a flurry of flashlights like lightning bugs, and then lit into the opening two tracks of Hail to the Thief, “2 + 2 = 5” and “Sit down. Stand up.” Video screens on either side of the stage showed pixilated and artificially colored (presumably live) footage of the band, which was interspersed with other computer-generated imagery. Behind the band, rows of light bulbs created patterns of all sorts of shapes and colors. This was all complemented by the video screens which hung from the roof over the covered reserved seating, as the picture jumped between various oblique angles, overhead shots, and close-ups of band members.

From the very beginning, Radiohead was in sync with one another and with their ambitious staging, and they seemed (gasp) genuinely happy to be there. This was especially evident in bassist Colin Greenwood’s constant jumping around in place, and Thom Yorke’s impromptu limb-flailing dances. The set was, naturally, heavy with material from Hail to the Thief. But they did select some choice cuts from their five previous albums, many of which were transformed in concert. The tile track from Kid A, consisting mainly of garbled vocals and electronic noodling on the album, was turned into a four-minute groove that Yorke could dance to. A similar treatment was administered to “Everything in Its Right Place,” while Yorke replaced the backward-playing whirring of Amnesiac’s “Like Spinning Plates” with haunting piano balladry.

The crowd responded best to some of the old favorites, as the dynamic “My Iron Lung” was the only track taken from The Bends, and “Airbag,” “Paranoid Android,” and “Lucky,” all from OK Computer, catapulted themselves into the night sky. “Climbing Up the Walls” and “No Surprises” both managed to beautifully haunt the crowd in their own way. Two songs in particular, however, too the cake: set-closer “There There,” with guitarists Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood keeping percussion with giant drums, built to a tremendous crescendo, while show-ender “Idioteque” mesmerized the crowd with its icy beat and wonderfully cryptic lyrics.

While Radiohead are often hailed for their studio mastery, the opening-night concert once again proved that they are an equally compelling live act. Each song in their daunting catalogue, from the straight-up rockers to the piano ballads to the computer-tweaked experiments, finds its place organically in the context of the live show, taking on a voice that cannot be captured on any compact disc. In terms of musicianship, creativity, and energy, Radiohead’s concerts rival those of any act currently touring. Many already know this, eggheads and hippies alike. The trick is convincing the kid still hung-up on deciphering the lyrics to “Kid A” to see the band for himself.