October 4, 2013

Atoms make electrons (and bodies) dance

Wednesday night, Atoms for Peace moved UIC Pavilion to dance. While the show was one of the most poorly attended I’ve ever been to—the stadium was only about half full when Thom Yorke and company played the standout track “Black Swan” to close the set—Atoms for Peace didn’t seem to mind. The band was full of energy from the moment they took the stage, compelling the audience to let loose even if it took some convincing.

Atoms for Peace is the side project of Thom Yorke, frontman of Radiohead, and also features Flea, the longtime bass-player of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nigel Godrich, famed producer of every Radiohead album since OK Computer. Band members also include Joey Waronker, a drummer for Beck and other groups including M83 and R.E.M., as well as Mauro Refosco, the current touring percussionist for RHCP.

It’s almost impossible to define the show in any way other than what it wasn’t: namely, a Radiohead show. It was clearly on the minds of much of the audience—I saw many more Radiohead than Atoms for Peace shirts, and everyone seemed to be trading stories about the last time they had seen Radiohead. Even as the band got things started with a few tracks from their latest album, Amok, playing “Before Your Very Eyes…,” “Default,” and “Ingenue,” the crowd clearly had the nervous high expectations that always seem to accompany a Radiohead show.

After a few songs, though, people warmed up. Gradually, the pit filled with dancing and cheering, and everyone relaxed in a way that would never happen at a Radiohead show. Flea was a joy to watch. He moved and bounced around the stage even on more melodic tracks, despite the fact that he was wearing a skirt. He wasn’t the only one having a great time, either. Yorke was having as much fun as the crowd. At most Radiohead shows, he dances wildly for only a track or two. On Wednesday, though, he was moving around the stage all night, as he became notorious for doing in Radiohead’s video for “Lotus Flower.” Even when he sat to play piano, he was full of movement.

The band’s relaxed energy made for a night when everyone could let loose for a while, even during the set’s more relaxed songs. Unlike the first time Atoms for Peace played in Chicago, they only played one Radiohead track, a deep cut called “Paperbag Writer” that all but the most devoted Radiohead fan wouldn’t recognize. The show seemed a lot better for it: There would have been little point to drag it further into the Radiohead corner. (While it would be wrong to say that Radiohead shows are an exercise in extreme seriousness, these moments prove to be the exception rather than the rule.) Even on subdued tracks from The Eraser, Yorke’s solo debut, the band injected the songs with a refreshing energy—something Radiohead has struggled to do.

Even the light show employed the same sensibilities that made the show such a welcome departure from a typical Radiohead set. Zig-zagging across the stage, the lights served to remind the crowd that the music was something that they should dance to, rather than look up toward in awe, as many seemed wont to do during Radiohead’s latest tour.

Hopefully, Atoms for Peace shows will continue to happen. They provide a welcome counterpart to Radiohead shows, which suffocate underneath all the expectations: of the crowd, the press, and probably the band themselves. With any luck, Thom Yorke can bring the energy he brought to the UIC Pavilion on Wednesday night to future Radiohead shows as well. And even if he cannot, Atoms for Peace will continue to serve as a compelling alternative to the tension seen across Radiohead’s work, giving both the artists and the listeners an opportunity to just kick back and relax for a moment.