It’s 16 years since the Avalanches’ era-defining ‘Since I Left You’. How can a follow-up that took so long sound so meh?
Everything in its right place. Old Trafford Cricket Ground, Manchester (June 29)
Seriously. On the surface, there’s little to the effervescent rock of Brooklyn’s MGMT, tonight’s first support act, that recalls Radiohead, but then again: experimentally minded pop-lovers, toying with progressive rock and synthesizers – hmm, now there’s a thought.
Next, Bat For Lashes stalks the stage in a diaphanous gown, unveiling a smattering of new songs such as ‘Daniel’ and ‘Siren Song’ that shimmer with dark seduction and dreamscape visions, clanking drums and gloomy piano... but try as you might you can’t shake the voice in the back of your head that’s going, “Woah – like Kate Bush meets ‘Pyramid Song’!”
Now, if you were Thom Yorke, you might be justified sitting backstage on a paper throne made out of recycled £50 notes feeling very pleased with all of this. Kudos to Radiohead, though – they might have spawned a legion of followers, but this isn’t a band concerned with looking behind. Instead, they pre-empt their set with 45 minutes of pounding, minimal techno – to which the crowd remain resolutely still – and when they do arrive, it’s to precious little fanfare; they just shuffle on with a wave, take their place under the environmentally friendly lights and casually mix themselves into the rhythm, the clacking machine beats of ‘15 Step’ at first forming abstract shapes, but slowly swelling with life.
It’s relaxed. Almost surreally so. But this is the way Radiohead roll nowadays. The songs of ‘In Rainbows’ find these one-time paranoid androids blissed out, in the mood for love – albeit, a Radiohead kind of love: “I am a moth/Who just wants to share your light” flutters Thom, on a gorgeous ‘All I Need’. But it’s evidence of new, strangely affirming warmth. Once painfully awkward in performance, now Radiohead are all about dropping the cloak and showing everything, the huge screens split into four parts, focusing on every element of the process: Jonny Greenwood hovering over his modular synth, Phil Selway’s clacking sticks, Ed O’Brien weaving tumbling arpeggios from his guitar. Yorke, meanwhile – who, in the distant past, was the sort to dismiss over-enthusiastic fans as “dickheads” – responds to one presumably over-familiar heckle with a fruity “Thank you very much, darling!” If you came expecting self-conscious angst, you missed it by at least a decade.
Perhaps with this in mind, Radiohead go about reshaping their own past a little. ‘The National Anthem’ is now a concrete slab of noise, Jonny toying with a portable radio dial, drenching the song in static and random snatches of dialogue. A feisty ‘Optimistic’ lopes along with a lively, krautrock swing and added guitar twang. ‘Just’, ‘No Surprises’, and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ all get an airing but, live, it’s the later material that really feels right.
Somewhere in the second encore, Thom decides it’s time for a Steve Irwin impression. “This one’s a nasty little bugger!” he announces, like the late Aussie animal-worrier yanking a struggling wallaby from its hidey-hole. The following ‘Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury And Executioner)’ finds him shimmying around in front of the monitors like a bonobo on spring break, his arse sticking out. He’s the frontman of one of the best rock bands in the world and you know what? He doesn’t care if you’re following or not. He knows exactly where he’s going.
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