On Saturday, August 23, the members of Radiohead found themselves in the unlikely locale of East Troy, Wisconsin. For reasons unclear to most, the band had chosen the venue Alpine Valley as the only Midwest stop on its tour for its new record, Hail to the Thief. So it was this venue, just off of Highway D, that thousands of fans from all over the Midwest converged upon.
The 40,000 person venue was packed to the gills, mostly with folks who looked like anything but Radiohead fans. Beers were spilled. Footballs were thrown. And in the grass seats, yelled requests of "Does anyone have any rolling papers?" and "Can we get a guitar solo in this motherfucker?" drowned out the set. Is this Radiohead?
Unfortunately for those fond of categorization, Radiohead's work over the past decade has made it impossible to ascertain exactly what Radiohead is. In 1997, we had a pretty good idea; Radiohead was a band comprised of five boyhood friends from a small college town in England. The members spent their early years imitating the American grunge and alternative rock scenes, exploring angst and self-loathing like so many that had come before them. On their second album, 1995's The Bends, the band exhibited a surprising maturity showcasing complex arrangements and spacey theatrics while vocalist Thom Yorke's lyrics became more abstract and grandiose. Finally, with the release of its magnum opus, 1997's OK Computer, Radiohead was fully fleshed-out. A brilliant concept album on the subject of alienation in the modern world, OK Computer was undoubtedly the work of a band in its prime. The instrumentation was the sound of the computer age. The screeches and whirs of Johnny Greenwood's highly effected guitar soared overhead while Phil Selway's unorthodox drumming pounded underfoot, often operating outside of the constructs of time signatures. Meanwhile, Thom Yorke's voice was the only human sound. Displaying his amazing range, he pleaded with the listener for sanity. It was clear now: Radiohead was destined to become the best rock band in the world.
But then something funny happened. After a year long international tour, the band returned to England, exhausted, perturbed, and weary of stardom. When it finally returned in 2000 with Kid A, it was only to issue a proclamation. Sterile electronics replaced real instrumentation. Pounding bass lines revealed only jazzy horns. Yorke's voice, layered with digital effects, was unrecognizable. Radiohead had produced the anti-rock record.
Ever since then, fans have waited, futilely, for Radiohead to return to guitar-driven rock. The band's most recent album, Hail to the Thief, though initially described as "OK Computer 2" by the band, turned out to be nothing more than an eccentric mix of electronics, jazz, and slow, meandering rock.
In accordance with the record, most fans expected Saturday's show to pan out similarly to shows on the band's previous American tour for 2001's Amnesiac. This, however, was not the case. The band rushed onstage before the sun had set, tearing into "2 + 2 = 5," "Sit Down, Stand Up," and "Where I End and You Begin," all from the new album. Three guitars roared. Thom Yorke grabbed the mic stand and gestured frantically in the air with his free hand as he sang. Pillars of lights behind the band flashed in unison. Multiple video screens displayed distorted footage of Johnny Greenwood hunched over his trademark Telecaster. Radiohead was again reborn, this time as arena rock gods.
The remainder of the show plowed along in a similar fashion. Drawing heavily from its repertoire of past hits, the band dusted off songs like "Lucky," "Paranoid Android," and "Just,"songs that hadn't been rocked out in this manner since 1997's OK Computer tour (widely regarded by Radiohead connoisseurs as the band's finest hour). Lulls in the set allowed for favorites, such as "Fake Plastic Trees," "No Surprises," and the beautiful "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," whose delicate guitar interplay was executed masterfully. On "Idioteque," Thom displayed the sort of dancing that would normally have one institutionalized; this time around he was even more frantic than on previous tours and even elicited participation by uncharacteristically gesturing to the crowd. "There, There," the first set-closer, found guitarists Ed O'Brien and Johnny Greenwood pounding out a tribal beat on mounted toms before picking up their guitars for the song's conclusion.
The two encores also offered a wealth of first-rate material. On "You and Whose Army?", Yorke made faces and smiled into the camera mounted on his piano, just as he had on the Amnesiac tour. "Myxomatosis," one of the new album's highlights, was slowed down a bit, yet was just as potent as Yorke sneered lines like "I been where I liked/I slept with who I liked/She ate me up for breakfast/She screwed me in a vice". During the final encore, the crowd was treated with what is perhaps Radiohead's biggest post "Creep" radio hit, "Karma Police." As the guitars faded out, Yorke led the crowd in an en mass sing along of the song's final lines: "For a minute there/I lost myself/I lost myself." And for a minute there, we all lost ourselves.
Perhaps most telling of Radiohead's current state of mind, however, was the bands choice of closing number. "Everything in its Right Place," the opening song and mission statement of Kid A, served as the closing remarks for a very different Radiohead. On the record, the song features the distorted and deconstructed voice of Thom Yorke, mumbling disjointedly in digitally sampled loops. Live, however, the song took on a whole new meaning, with Yorke hunched over his piano, his warm voice filling in for an emotionless sample. The statement was clear. Radiohead is again ready to be human.
For the record, the frat boys did get their guitar solo. The scent of marijuana did fill the air in the grass seats. And the rock gods of Radiohead finally embraced their place in the world of modern rock. As Thom Yorke smiled out at his adoring audience, I was certain that he wouldn't have had it any other way.
_Radiohead, Saturday, August 23rd, Alipine Valley, East Troy WI_