Radiohead at the O2 Arena, London, 9 October 2012

On 9 October  I went with my friend Jon to see Radiohead at the O2 Arena – the Dome – in the Docklands.

The best band in the world today? After last night’s concert, I would say so.

What makes them so good? I’d say it was that combination of great songs from the past combined with a relentless desire for innovation, which has taken them into deep electronic territory, hugely different from the big rockers of breakthrough album, “The Bends”, but as identifiably Radiohead as those early classics.  When you go to see Radiohead, you know you are going to hear a lot of new stuff, you know there will be moments of wilful obscurity.  But you also know you will hear some astonishing music, beautiful music, astonishingly presented. And last night was exactly like that.

For those of you who are Radiohead fans, here is the setlist, courtesy of the brilliant website, setlist.fm. It was on the site by the time I got back home at 12.30am. Of course I knew the songs, apart from a couple from a recent single, but for some reason I still find myself unable at times to put the names to the tune, even tunes I really like! It might be because the titles rarely jump out at you in a chorus or opening statement. Or maybe it’s just something that my brain doesn’t do too well.

So here is the list.

The main set

Lotus Flower

Airbag

Bloom

The Daily Mail

Myxamotosis

Bodysnatchers

The Gloaming

Separator

Videotape

Nude

Weird Fishes/Arpeggi

Reckoner

There There

The National Anthem

Feral

Paranoid Android

Encore 1

Give Up The Ghost

I Might Be Wrong

Planet Telex

Morning Mr Magpie

Street Spirit (Fade Out)

Encore 2

Staircase

Everything In Its Right Place (True Love Waits intro)

Encore 3

Idioteque

Just tapping out this list makes me feel, wow! Such rich variety. Such awesome power. Such intricate beauty.

The emphasis was, not surprisingly, on recent albums, especially as “King of Limbs” hadn’t had a proper airing live. It’s an album which got criticised, on release, for being rather slight, though I found it entrancing, especially the two wonderfully mournful tracks, “Codex” and “Give Up The Ghost”. Live, it was harder-edged, those industrial beats and bubbling rhythms pounding out of the speakers. First song, “Lotus Flower”, set the tone. In the same spirit, “Hail To The Thief”, probably the least applauded Radiohead album, got a decent hearing, with three tracks, spearheaded by the burbling rock of “Myxamotosis”.

But still central to the show, with five picks (compared to “King of Limbs’” six) was “In Rainbows”. And why not? I think it is Radiohead’s finest. When I last saw Radiohead, in Hackney’s Victoria Park, in June 2008, it was the latest album.  Some of the songs may still have been a little unfamiliar to the audience, but they were greeted with huge enthusiasm. That is the distinctive nature of a Radiohead crowd – the new is as good as the old. Change is part of the template.

“Bodysnatchers” provided its trenchant rhythms just after “Myxamotosis”, the hardest rocking section of the show. Then from “Videotape” through to “Reckoner” there were four in a row from “In Rainbows”. Not that I was doing the nerdy thing at the time and counting them: I was just too engrossed in the music. It actually felt like five, because “Separator”could easily be an “In Rainbows” song. Of course “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” was a highlight – it’s my favourite Radiohead song. (See my Radiohead Top Ten, which also has a few of the other songs mentioned here, like those “King of Limbs” mournful favourites). But the one that stood out most was “Nude”, in all its hymnal beauty.  I was struck during that song how good Thom Yorke’s voice is, as he soared into his falsetto. Has it got better over the years? I think so. There’s a wonderful vulnerability about his delivery in the – what shall I call them? – ballads, laments, slow ones…  “Nude”, the beautiful “Give Up The Ghost”, with the trembling backing vocals from the band, and of course “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, which ended the first encore in a blaze of anthemic glory.

What other high points? So many, in fact it was more a high plateau. The Table Mountain of music! Well, I rejoiced when the pulsating bass line of “The National Anthem” kicked in, and of course when those first chords of “Paranoid Android” wafted through the light-spangled  air.  And during Johnny Greenwood’s guitar frenzy in that song. “Planet Telex”, opening track of “The Bends”, was magnificent too.

And enhancing the aural experience was an amazing video and light show.  It featured a series of panels that were suspended from the roof and moved to different spots throughout the show.  It was as if they were floating in space. Sometimes they showed video of the band, sometimes they fell in with the light show.  That was composed of a series of columns of light that seemed able to show just about any colour, or image at will, and a backdrop that again pulsed with colour and entrancing, abstract images. This is another thing about a Radiohead concert.  Everything about it stimulates, provokes. Dazzles. These guys really care.

Then, right at the end, we had three songs, which just summed up the Radiohead way. One song, “Staircase”, was the B Side of the recent single “The Daily Mail”. In an encore! Then we had a total reworking of “Kid A” opener, “Everything In Its Right Place”. It started off with Thom on piano, singing a song called “True Love Waits” (which I’m not sure I know) before what I can only describe as an industrial techno version of “Everything”. With Johnny Greenwood going crazy with his box of musical tricks.  Eat your heart out Brian Eno!

And in the same vein, the last song, also from “Kid A”, the album when Radiohead made their break from the stadium rock idiom, once and for all.  And perplexed and delighted people in equal measure. “Idioteque”. Again with the beats per minute cranked up, the bass beats pounding and Thom dancing like a Dervish. A really exhilarating end to a spellbinding concert.

(The irony of course, being that Radiohead are a stadium band. But on their own terms.  They play festival dance tent music in stadiums and on main stages. With a couple of anthems thrown in. And we love it!)

Most concerts you go to, there’ll be moments of downtime, time to take the loo break;  there’ll be new tunes you’d rather not hear as they are holding up the favourites.  None of that applied to Radiohead last night, even though there was plenty of “difficult” stuff.  It was just a totally engrossing experience.  Not all punch-the-air. A lot was about giving yourself to the music and the show, taking in all the fascinating musical and visual moments in front of you.

I was truly moved by the experience.  Privileged to have been there.

No doubt in my mind after that – best band in the world.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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11 Responses to Radiohead at the O2 Arena, London, 9 October 2012

  1. Jon Grantham says:

    Brilliant summary John

  2. John Hutchins says:

    Yes – completely agree different set on monday when we were there. They didn’t do street spirit, but then you didn’t get the floydesque twisted words. The video panels as you say presented an ever-changing visual environment. The guardian review had it right when they said thom’s dancing and stage performance shouldn’t work, but he has a magnetic quality that fixates you. Using portishead’s drummer to produce a pair of folliclely challenged stick men was genius. As is there exit when they play with electronics and set up tape loops to continue after they have departed.
    Agree best band in the world today – mainly achieved because they don’t give a damn if they are or not!!

  3. Lulu says:

    Wow, you managed to get tickets, congrats! Must have been a great show 🙂

  4. I bet this was an incredible night! I’ve only ever seen Thom Yorke play on his own. Seeing Radiohead live is still just a dream for me..!
    Great post 🙂

  5. DyingNote says:

    Good for you 🙂 I’ve been surprised by the less than enthusiastic reception that ‘King of Limbs’ received. I thought it a terrific album. I enjoy Radiohead’s music, although I’ve stayed away from the ‘best band in the world’ argument from my teens as a result too many such about the Beatles and the Stones.

    I’m curious about what you think of Muse. I’ve heard a bit of them – seems like another band that’s not afraid to try things out

    • John S says:

      I like Muse and have a few of their albums. I think of them as a cross between Radiohead and Queen. They look very good live whenever I’ve seen them on TV, but on record I sometimes find them a bit over the top, bombastic. So I find it hard to take them seriously at times. But worth a listen.

  6. Pingback: Have You Heard? – (37) “Amok” by Atoms For Peace | Thoughtsfromwestfive

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