Radiohead; 93 Feet East, London, Wednesday January 16

Radiohead; 93 Feet East, London, Wednesday January 16

What happens when the world’s greatest rock band goes record shopping?

They set the standard for Gig Of The Year… in January!

As one of Earth’s biggest rock bands, keeping the very existence of your new album a secret until a week and a half before release could be seen as a crafty gimmick. When you manage the same with your return to live action, only with less than 24 hours’ notice, it starts to look like some kind of evil genius. Whatever, Radiohead returned tonight, and the first thing you should know is that, just two weeks into 2008, the gold standard for Gig Of The Year is already set. The other big news is that today marks a further step in Radiohead’s bizarre slide towards hip-hop. The evidence, as it piles up: the funkified beats which lavish most of ‘In Rainbows’, the brazen references to shagging that run all the way through it (more on that later) and, tonight, the fact that they’re keeping to hip-hop time. When the first bleeps and chimes of ‘15 Step’ shimmer up at 10.20pm, Radiohead are two-and-a-half hours later than they said they would be. Some going, but then this was hardly a normal day. It went something like this…

Having clearly got a taste for cloaks and daggers with ‘In Rainbows’, Jonny Greenwood announced in the morning via the band’s Dead Air Space site that they would be a playing a short set of ‘In Rainbows’ material at the Rough Trade East store just off Brick Lane in east London. Apparently this had been in the works for months – even the shop’s manager Spencer Hickman expressed disbelief that they’d managed to keep the secret and, as darkness fell, he was busy sending home staff who weren’t fans of the band in order to get more fans in. He needn’t have bothered. Benevolent souls, the band had put up plasma screens for the people without wristbands to watch it outside. And that was when the trouble started. London sensed a free party, skived work, turned up in droves and spent all afternoon drinking, so the police feared for public safety and called the whole thing off.

Or they would’ve done were it not for the nice people at the nearby 93 Feet East venue stepping in to save the day. The show gets pushed back for an hour to allow people time to get home and watch the live webcast; everyone else is herded from one queue to another and proceedings take on the clandestine nature of an underground rave. In as much as there’s no booze being served.

And then it begins. “Warts and all,” winks Thom, sitting on a stool, “it’s gonna be messy.” And he leads the band into the sunshine-flecked ‘In Rainbows’ opener ‘15 Step’. With ‘Bodysnatchers’ next up, it becomes tantalisingly obvious that the rumours are true: none of this six-songs rubbish, they’re going to play ‘In Rainbows’ from start to finish. “Can you guess what’s next?” asks Thom as they glide into ‘Nude’. But his words are drowned out by the screeching. Things like: “Thank you!”, “Legend!”, “You changed my life!” and, NME’s favourite, “Play ‘Wonderwall’!”

The thing with Radiohead is that nobody’s seen them this up close for so long that they’ve become intangible; masters of grand hyper-reality – light shows, festival headline slots and all that those things entail. It all adds up to making them not quite human any more. Even if it’s only for one night, it’s a jolting reminder – for them as much as us – that it’s a man’s warts as much as his genius that makes him human. And tonight is overflowing with humanity. Hearing the person who’s made a career out of documenting the dull insanity of office jobs (that he’s probably never done) and grimly fantasising about kicking squealing Gucci little piggies, crooning, “I don’t wanna be your friend/I just wanna be your lover” on ‘House Of Cards’ was stunning enough. To see him singing it so close that you can see the beads of sweat pouring down his face – his features twisted with emotion – is nothing short of cataclysmic. Meeting people is easy? It is now. And you can see them laughing and joking with each other. As they fluff the opening to ‘Reckoner’, it’s all any of them can do to keep a straight face. “I’m not taking the blame for that,” huffs guitarist Ed O’Brien in mock indignation. “That was a bass note and there’s a bass player here!” It’s a special band that can pull this off, anyway. ‘In Rainbows’ is as intricate and complex as any music they’ve ever made, yet here they manage to recreate it almost note-for-note, yet also somehow sound stripped-back and intimate, from ‘Faust Arp’’s skittery beatmongering to the lush, ambient ‘Videotape’ that closes the first part of the show.

And that would have been enough, wouldn’t it? For free, and as a total surprise? But it’s not. Moments after the band leave, Thom returns alone with an acoustic guitar, declaring, “We’re gonna play some other shit now, because this is a gig, innit?” We get ‘Up On The Ladder’ –

a bruising lullaby from the bonus Disc Box edition of ‘In Rainbows’, before the band return for ‘You And Whose Army?’. This time it’s Jonny who cracks up, so much so that Thom actually has to look the other way while playing his keyboard: “I’m trying to have a serious moment here!”

‘The National Anthem’ gets re-told as a juddering anti-rave dancefloor smash, and gets the reception of the night as these 200 disciples make like beardier Klaxons fans. And then we simply never come down. Never let it be said that Radiohead are afraid of giving people what they want: we finish with a valley of classic nostalgic, simplistic Radiohead: ‘My Iron Lung’ and ‘The Bends’. And it’s only then that it dawns on us that they haven’t played a single song from ‘OK Computer’. And you know what? You don’t even miss it. It seems that, freedom from their bad marriage to EMI, purged of their paranoia and, one suspects, getting a lot more sex than they’ve had in a while have conspired to lead Radiohead to an album that can sit comfortably alongside their masterpiece/albatross. They’re going have a blast when they finally get to play it on a proper tour.

Can it be coincidence that Radiohead’s rapturous return took place in the same week that EMI plunged deeper into chaos and despair? Probably, but who cares? The upshot is that we got our best band back to their best. And on the basis of that, the future looks rainbow-bright.

Dan Martin