Roundhouse, London, Thursday July 25
Beneath neon strip-lights set in uneven zigzags across the back of the stage, Flea, bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, stalks like an ape, grooving so hard it looks like his spine is made of rubber. Beside him a ponytailed Thom Yorke is in a vest, doing his best snake impression while shaking a maraca. Behind, Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco and drummer Joey Waronker, the latter of whom plays with Beck and REM, seem to be locked in a cosmic battle over who gets to play the strangest time signature. Refosco is playing a mad selection of instruments, including what looks like a tree made out of tambourines.
This is Atoms For Peace, the unlikely electronic supergroup formed in LA. Or, as Yorke said: “We were at Flea’s house. We got wasted, played pool and listened to Fela Kuti all night.” If that doesn’t set your wankery meter to high alert, then good luck to you. How they pull off what has the potential to be a massive musical circle-jerk is simply this: these are mid-career musicians, comfortable millionaires who stumble around in political debates about gun laws (Flea) and climate change (Yorke) and tonight, they’re having to scrap to keep these monstrously complex songs together. They’ve finally found something to challenge them. And they look like they’re having the time of their lives.
It’s not perfect. Yorke fudges ‘Ingenue’ on an upright piano. Behind him, Flea stands straight and attentive, waiting for a cue to pluck an elegant, baroque bassline. ‘Stuck Together Pieces’ is better, the heavy track pared down a little so the bass comes through. The tension between Flea’s loose, rhythmic funk, Yorke’s obsession with precision, and those ferociously talented percussionists raising hell at the rear is sending everyone mad. In the crowd, people dance until the sweat is dripping off them.
If the afrobeat that inspired Atoms For Peace’s debut album ‘Amok’ is present anywhere, it’s in this music’s ability to make people move involuntarily. You’d never see this at a Radiohead gig – even the biggest Radiohead dance track, ‘Idioteque’, inspires more head-nodding than hip-shaking.
There’s no Radiohead at the Roundhouse tonight, although the best tracks from Yorke’s 2006 solo album, ‘The Eraser’ are present, including ‘Harrowdown Hill’, ‘The Clock’, ‘Atoms For Peace’ and ‘Black Swan’, which closes the second of two encores. They sound safer. ‘Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses’ and ‘Hollow Earth’, Yorke’s 2009 double A-side, are both squeezed into the first encore, as is ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’, his 1998 collaboration with UNKLE, with Yorke hammering the chords on the upright and Flea mumbling the spoken word interlude into the mic.
But it’s on the ‘Amok’ tracks that things get gloriously, dangerously messy. And Yorke looks, for once, like he’s actually having fun.