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
The Daily Mail
The National Anthem
Give Up The Ghost
I Might Be Wrong
Morning Mr Magpie
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Everything In Its Right Place (True Love Waits intro)
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.