From Panic Attack to Solace: The Arc of a Radiohead Concert
Radiohead perform at the Shrine Auditorium on Aug. 4, 2016.
Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
Aug. 4, 2016
Radiohead return to the stage at the Shrine Auditorium for two encores on their first of two nights in Los Angeles. Taking their positions again for the second encore, proceedings stall. There's something up with the tuning of Thom Yorke's keyboard gear. Attempts at testing it send loud clangs throughout the room like the bleats of a dying sheep. Suddenly, with a flick of a magic button, Yorke launches into the opening bars of "Everything in Its Right Place" and, well, then everything is.
It's a cute accident for a band that doesn't do cute. Tonight, orchestrated disarray defines their set (which has varied every night of this tour), and amazingly, this hiccup at the end of two hours of unparalleled musicianship is the first of its kind. Despite the chaos that surrounds them, Radiohead are always in control. Via enormous light displays, they create an emergency in order to demonstrate how we can survive one. Radiohead's forte is in breaking songs apart so they can put them back together, like jagged jigsaw puzzles that seem unsolvable. How sweet the relief when the pictures come together.
Yorke laughs at the tuning mishap — to himself, of course. In general, however, there's something markedly humorous about him at the moment, almost playful. After "Desert Island Disk," he moves to chuck his acoustic guitar at his roadie instead of handing it to him, giving a huge grin. Before playing crowd pleaser "No Surprises," he starts muttering in that inaudible way he does, like you're straining to hear him through a neighboring bathroom stall: “I've got a great idea. Let's put an unhinged, paranoid megalomaniac in charge!” You can assume he's talking about Donald Trump, though at this stage in 2016 he could be referring to a number of global leaders.
During a recent interview I conducted with esteemed British music journalist Sylvia Patterson, I inquired about her time spent with Yorke around 2000. “You wouldn't think it, but he really is a very funny man,” she told me. Tonight I believed it. Radiohead's 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool, which dominated the setlist, was inspired by the demise of Yorke's 23-year relationship with wife Rachel Owen. The band has often made music from a place of oppression, taking the severe solitude of something as individual as, say, a panic attack and forcing it to be communal, thereby disseminating the fear that caused the solitude in the first place.
“No fear. I mean really, no fear,” comes the prerecorded voice of Nina Simone before Radiohead open on "Burn the Witch." Then Yorke and his bandmates spend the rest of the night smiling in the face of danger. Via lofty realizations on tracks like "Ful Stop" (“you really fucked up everything") and "Identikit" (“broken hearts make it rain”), all of Yorke's inner anxieties and inconsolable turmoil are laid bare. The visceral reaction from Radiohead fans is obvious throughout the show. Their incessant hooting and howling only calms on "No Surprises," when the audience provides the world's first entirely mute sing-along, just a sea of open-mouthed goldfish, no sound emerging. As a band who make headphone music, Radiohead turn people inside out — emotionally speaking — in settings like these.
With Yorke's defenses dismantled, he has no choice but to smirk at life's oddities. The way he dances during "Lotus Flower," "Myxomatosis" and "Idioteque" — like he's trying and failing to do an impression of Napoleon Dynamite — embodies extreme liberation. "Idioteque" — the intellectual's "Born Slippy" — allows for his two-stepping, spasmodic freestyling, whereas "Myxomatosis" sees him with three maracas in one hand and dragging his mic cable around with the other; half of his body channels "The Macarena," the other a mad geriatric pulling his catheter drip around a hospital ward. Having aired his dirty laundry, Yorke performs from a place of having nothing to lose. He is as close to being Beyoncé singing "Freedom" as any privileged white dude with a man bun could ever possibly be.
The contents of A Moon Shaped Pool may be deeply personal, but it's difficult to ignore the wider messages during one of the worst news years in recent history. Opening song "Burn the Witch" is about social unrest, blame culture, distrust and superimposed hysteria. As the light display on the vastly widescreen stage flashes red like emergency sirens, the balcony upstairs shakes with a sinister yet deliciously dangerous feeling of instability. The morbid neurotic in me struggles to keep tragedies befalling the Bataclan, Orlando and Nice out of my mind, particularly given the lyric “This is a low-flying panic attack” and the sentiment of lynch-mobbing. Where is the nearest exit should I need it?
Moments later, the escape hatch is provided via a rendition of "Daydreaming," which calms the tension with graceful defiance. A beam of white light peeks out from behind the black pillars onstage, reminding me of an architectural structure at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a dark chasm lit by a tiny hole at the top of its peak. That particular Holocaust memorial is emblematic of a hope for eventual survival. Whether aware of it or not, Radiohead achieve a similar feat through gorgeous wafting piano here.
I would be remiss in discussing the momentous peaks of "True Love Waits," "There There" and "National Anthem" without praising guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, a modern icon completely uninterested in being such. Hours before the gig, his interview with NPR was published, during which he admitted that as a teenager he played the recorder until he was 18 and never socialized. He described himself as nothing more than an “arranger” of Yorke's songs. Standing tall in the corner, usually facing adjacent to the audience, he remains the outsider, commanding his own space as if he's in a lab trying to finding new methods in his self-made petri dish of sounds, while Yorke sings like an imam crossed with an English town crier. Drummers Phil Selway and Clive Deamer also play like machines, not people. Particularly on "Separator," they transform into two copacetic parts of a state-of-the-art whole.
Radiohead are as close to a full-blown panic attack as you can hear on record and see live. If you've never had a real panic attack, essentially you can feel an overwhelming need to die if it won't cease, yet your fear is compounded by an acute awareness that you're not ready to die. The trick is to keep breathing and make it out the other side.
Tonight that other side comes in the form of closer "Street Spirit (Fade Out)." With lyrics such as “These machines will not communicate the thoughts and the strain I am under,” it's the perfect precursor to "Burn the Witch," but also provides a fitting coda to an evening that began with the unofficial anthem to this year's horror dystopia. When Yorke concludes with the line, “Immerse your soul in love,” it transcends empathy and solace. It gives us hope that this too shall pass. You can take it from a man who knows.
Set list below.
Burn the Witch
Desert Island Disc
True Love Waits
Climbing Up the Walls
Everything in Its Right Place
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
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