Moody Theater, Texas, March 6th and Frank Erwin Center, Texas, March 7th
Last time Radiohead played to fans in the Texas state capital, they were in the middle of an overgrown field and third on the bill beneath Natalie Merchant and REM. The band had already received a flurry of attention Stateside, ‘Creep’ having left a surly imprint on US rock radio, but the track’s freak success had a negative effect: such was its impact that it became the only thing fair-weather audiences cared about. By 1995, they didn’t yet have the confidence to excise it from the set, but the band harboured hopes that their new album, the then six month-old ‘The Bends’, might be big enough that their sets weren’t merely something over which audiences loudly requested ‘the hit’.
How things have changed, eh? Well, not entirely. Seventeen years later, and three days before SXSW turns Austin into a scrum of queues, BBQs and brandished wristbands, Radiohead are back in town and faced with a familiar heckle: “Play ‘Creep’!” calls a voice from the front row. “Yeah, right, pal,” laughs Thom Yorke. Laughs. But it’s been that kind of evening.
It’s the night before Radiohead play the Frank Erwin Center and the band are taping a session for the city’s venerable public broadcast programme, [i]Austin City Limits[/i]. Now in its 38th season, ACL was once known for southern roots and singer-songwriter performances. Tonight, 2,000 rabid locals cram into the Moody Theater to witness the biggest coup in the show’s history. “We waited 38 years for this,” gushes ACL producer Terry Lickona just before the band take to the stage.
What follows is a 90-minute set of delirious greatness, featuring two new or unrecorded songs plus lost ‘Amnesiac’ B-side ‘The Amazing Sounds Of Orgy’, which originally, as a ponytailed Yorke puts it, “disappeared like a wet fart in the wind”. Even by his increasingly genial standards, Yorke is all chit-chat and smiles tonight, and the crowd make the most of such rare close proximity to their heroes. “I don’t think I can sign your poster now, love,” he grins to an over-excited fan after a climactic ‘Idioteque’. “I’m a bit busy right now.”
Such public displays of affection carry over to the next night, when Radiohead shake the sold-out 14,000-capacity Frank Erwin Center. Twelve LED screens suspended on steel marionette cables rise and fall above the band all night, like the electronic spiders from Spielberg’s [i]Minority Report[/i]. Yorke tells the crowd how the band visited Austin’s natural springs and remarks on the amount of ‘Keep Austin Weird’ T-shirts they’ve seen. “So ‘Arpeggi’ is for that,” he offers. “We’re all weird fishes.”
Save only for ‘Codex’, all of ‘The King Of Limbs’ gets a shakedown in this two-hour, 23-song set. Yorke’s keening vocal melodies imbue ‘Morning Mr Magpie’, ‘Little By Little’ and ‘Lotus Flower’ with a spectral beauty. They dip into the back catalogue, mainly for a few songs from the ‘Kid A’ and ‘Hail To The Thief’ albums, plus a triptych from 2007’s ‘In Rainbows’ that culminates in a gorgeous ‘Nude’ (as well as an appearance later in the first encore for ‘Bodysnatchers’).
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Curiously, they eschew two of the newer songs aired the previous night: ‘Skirting On The Surface’, a slinky, balladic track, and recent free download ‘Staircase’, a TKOL outtake which Yorke informs us “didn’t make the record ’cos we’re awkward buggers”. But one brand new song gets an airing: ‘Identikit’, which begins with a skeletal, metronomic beat, over which Yorke writhes, snake-like, as his vocals are echoed by and overlap with those of Ed O’Brien. And two download-only releases also feature – ‘The Daily Mail’, a piano meditation that finds Yorke hunched over in a melancholic trance, singing “[i]The lunatics have taken over the asylum/Waiting on the rapture[/i]”, and 2009’s ‘These Are My Twisted Words’, powered by three interlocking guitars and a motoring rhythm that builds in intensity towards the song’s end. The way each unfamiliar song is greeted, with a wail of excitement and a tense hush, suggests that Radiohead now find themselves in a rare position, where a set of newer material is almost as desirable as a set packed with hits.
Come the encore, Yorke is cracking jokes – “What do you call a fish with three eyes? A f-i-i-i-sh” – and while he’s never likely to make it in stand-up, it speaks volumes of how relaxed the band is, a majestic ‘Paranoid Android’ drawing things to a close.
Much has changed for Radiohead over the last 17 years, as Austin can attest. The UK only has to wait six months until the band return to its shores – but we’d be willing to bet on a few more surprises before then.
This article originally appeared in the March 24th issue of NME