All photos by Timothy Norris
Perhaps it’s most illustrative to consider last night’s Radiohead performance at the Hollywood Bowl not as a "concert" but as a massive geometric light sculpture constructed in a natural basin, with grand musical accompaniment. Kind of like Cirque de Soleil, but designed not by cheesy baby-boomers but by hipster Brits. The first of a two-night stint, it was a feast for the senses, and the only way the band could have sated us more would have been to torch some incense sticks and commissioned 17,376 masseuses to rub us down while they played.
A vast three-dimensional presentation of music and sound that centered around glowing, pulsating set pieces, the concert was crafted by the band and longtime Radiohead set designer Andi Watson, who deserves a little placard somewhere at the bottom right of the stage acknowledging his work. He arranged in a simple rectangular pattern a bunch of tubular lamp-post-sized LED lights which framed the the band like an illuminated, futuristic forest. Purples moved to reds to computer greens to blinding white to deep blues. Through these trees and behind the band were jumbo video panels working in sync with the LEDs.
One combination of light and video looked like an old Blue Note record cover, with action shots each of the band members’ heads grooving to the music while baby blue bars glowed in the foreground. At the show's peak, which I'll submit was the moment that Thom Yorke strummed the shockingly great opening distorto-guitar riff of "Body Snatchers" (from the band's most recent In Rainbows), my corneas nearly exploded: raspberry and gold tubes danced and flashed with locksmith-like precision as the band rolled through the pure, solid rock song.
The music? I’m a sucker for it. I feast on it. Detractors who think Radiohead have “lost their way” are kinda sorta halfway right, and that's what makes them great. I so much prefer my bands to build grand catacombs of sound with meandering pathways and secret passageways that they wander around in for the duration of their careers. Each song is a surprise, each doorway filled with potential. They can lose their way from time to time, get stranded in some golden dungeon that might be too soft or cushiony for my tastes (“House of Cards,” for instance), but eventually they're sure to roam elsewhere, somewhere with bigger columns and cathedral like resonance. That’s cool with me. I’m more a fan of that approach than to the more blue-collar Hold Steady-type bands who build a single, sturdy wooden room with one solid stage, a toilet in the back and a ragged bartendress that they pass night after night. Same room, songs as variations, rebuild tonight what we destroyed last night. I like surprises, and apparently so do a lot of other people. Shivers. Lots of them. Lots of joy. Lots of desire.
The ticketless were pretty desperate last night, in fact. Walking in, I heard a dude shouting, “hand job for a ticket,” and he was only halfway kidding. Somebody else further out was simply saying over and over again, with a weary desperation, “Five hundred dollars. Five hundred dollars.” What we won’t do for that feeling, eh?
So having said all that, Radiohead are kind of the opposite of rock and roll. They’re so tasteful, so precise, so rich, textured and, well, safe in their own way. Seldom has the band ever inspired any sense of danger (unless you're an EMI executive), and the show, while stunning, certainly didn't inspire much fear -- "Paranoid Android" came the closest, but that's only because it's such a weird pop song which sounded even weirder live. And maybe that’s what’s annoying to their detractors: too much Beatles and not enough Stones. Which is a valid argument if you’re talking rock. It’s not like Thom Yorke’s gonna go all Jerry Lee Lewis with a .38 Derringer any time soon, and Johnny Greenwood’s composed music for the BBC Concert Orchestra. He ain’t sticking no spike into his veins, and he most certainly doesn’t seem to want to die before he gets old. No: they’re less rock, more pop narcotic (and more psychedelic). Which is okay by me, because their brand of pop narcotic allows for totally awesome light shows, which is most times a lot cooler than watching somebody slice their chest with glass or drink themselves silly. Which is to say, there weren't any Kiss-like explosions or fireballs at last night's show.
That and the fact that Radiohead’s music enters my ears and makes a beeline to the vein that is the tunnel to my heart. They know every twist and turn of that route, and over the course of 25 songs and two encores the band funneled note by note into my body, causing my pumper to pump harder, pushing blood faster to my brain. Coupled with the eye candy flashing and strobing and spinning my rods and cones in ridiculous directions, the band nailed it. Nailed me. Nailed the Bowl. Let's see what happens tonight.
Set list, August 24, 2008.
1. 15 Step
2. There There
3. Morning Bell
4. All I Need
5. Pyramid Song
7. Arpeggi/Weird Fishes
8. The Gloaming
9. The National Anthem
10. Wolf at the Door
11. Faust Arp
12. Exit Music (For a Film)
13. Jigsaw Falling into Place
15. Climbing up the Walls
17. How to Disappear Completely
19. Paranoid Android
20. Dollars and Cents
22. Street Spirit
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23. House of Cards
25. Everything In Its Right Place