The scene at Seattle Center after Radiohead's two-hour, 25-song, three-encore set Saturday night was dreamlike: Ten thousand people wandering in all directions, glowing, like sparks popping off a bonfire. Though I'm sure plenty of them were just trying to remember where they'd parked the car (where'd you park the car?), many of us were in a euphoric daze, stunned to discover that music had retained such transformative power so late in the process of the world's collapse.
As I mentioned in this piece from last week, Radiohead are as divisive as they are beloved. Every super fan has a different idea of who and what the band is. And so alongside the anticipatory excitement surrounding their return to the stage, there was a component of enigmatic mystery: Who would Radiohead be this time?
The answer came when they opened they show with “Dadydreaming” from A Moon Shaped Pool, which Jason Dodson described as “a panic attack lived through and ably managed. Time slows down, you become the observer, watching the wheels go round and round; other people and their actions seem alien, but fear has been replaced by a breathing resignation.”
Not exactly "Good evening, Seattle! You ready to ROCK?!" material, then.
It takes both courage and mastery to step into a full arena, packed with 10,000+ people who have waited years to see you, and spent hours in line (to say nothing of hundreds, even thousands of dollars on tickets) and all the excitement and tension that attends it, and start off not with a cathartic release, but with a small, sad, cryptic surrender of a song.
Radiohead’s insistence on defining the terms of their participation in the rituals of both recording and performance has been the dominant trait of their existence for two decades now. And the dividend of that commitment is a moment like the start of this show, where all expectation is upended, all on-demand-ness is suspended, and you simply put yourself in the masters’ hands.
My particular Radiohead vintage is The Bends through Amnesiac. I like the subsequent albums, but they strike my dusty ears as more admirable than essential. Which made this show’s setlist all the more thrilling, because more than half the numbers came from Hail to the Thief and after and every one crackled with vitality. Even the rhythmic high-wire acts that didn’t fully connect (“The Gloaming” fell apart midway through) showed evidence that the band is forever pushing itself, and its audience, not to be complacent about what constitutes a song, and not to settle for thrills that come too cheaply.
And speaking of high-wire acts: The dancing. I have of course seen the “Lotus Flower” video, but the spectacle—even the thought—of Thom Yorke dancing continues to be a total anomaly in my mind. After years of assuming that his full range of motion was contained in the pent-up, serpentine neck rotations of old, how jarring and how wonderful to see Yorke, his long hair tied in a topknot, his spine curved into the shape of a question mark, grooving like a hippie in the parking lot of a Dead concert (a small vintage keyboard in his hand in place of a rain stick or a six-foot Graffix bong) while the band invested complex, urgent life into their mid-to-late-period catalog.
Who was I, who were any of us, not to follow suit?
Then, he strapped on an electric guitar and slid into the signature intro riff of “Airbag,” and the arena hurtled into a time tunnel. Instantly, it was 1997 and 2017 and every moment that had come between, for you, for the band, for the culture, for the world. The effect of hearing this deathless music, which had changed so much about all the music that came after it, was bewildering, ecstatic. Then, after a brief detour into In Rainbows for “15 Step,” they tiptoed into “Exit Music (For a Film)” and it all started again.
In addition to all the life that had passed between then and now, this heroic song brought with it the consciousness of all the death, all the loss, all the absent people you assumed would always be standing next to you at a Radiohead concert because they always had. The effect was the richest, deepest kind of devastation music can visit on you.
Let's pause to remark on what you can easily take for granted as years go by: the staggering capacity and utter commitment of Yorke's vocals. From the meager, defeated opening lines, to the soaring wail of the song's climactic climb, it seems impossible that one singer can do all of that. The versatility invests lines as simple as "breathe, keep breathing" and as defiantly petulant as "We hope/ That you choke/ That you choke" with heartbreaking conviction.
Meanwhile, the precision of the band's dynamic control, the maelstrom of sound from the almost total absence of it, was astonishing. Again, the impulse to take a full arena down to the scale of the loneliest bedroom on Mars, and again, the ability to execute that impulse, just drops the jaw.
(And by the way, in case you're one of those people who likes to say that rock'n'roll is dead, rest assured, rock’n’roll is doing fine. You'll know rock'n'roll is dead when people can refrain from yelling “WE LOVE YOU, THOM!” and “PLAY CREEEEEEP!” during the quiet bits at Radiohead shows in 2017.)
But despite Radiohead’s appetite for deconstruction, there were several legitimate Rock Moments, like when Thom Yorke led Jonny Greenwood (whose default mode is less brandishing a guitar than curling his lithe arms around its neck like ivy grows around a drainpipe) in a drawn-out tandem guitar head-bob session at the top of the 2009 single “These Are My Twisted Words,”
Or when they closed the main set with a rendition of “Numbers” that shifted the decentralized Moon Shaped Pool arrangement into a sound that evoked On the Beach-era Neil Young. Fan familiarity with the band’s mechanisms is so intimate and thorough that when the crew wheeled out a couple of medium-sized patch bays full of by tiny telephone cables, the crowd seemed to know instantly that we were about to be treated to “Idioteque,” which, indeed, we were. Even the gear boxes got a massive ovation.
Perhaps the most rock thing of all happened when the band then said thank you and goodnight for the first time, took a bow and left the stage, and the entire arena was set aglow by the flashlight apps on the audience’s phones. I have, of course, seen this phenomenon before—the phone having long since replaced the lighters that became the default encore signifier in the 1970s. But I’d never seen it look beautiful.
The symbolism was almost too perfect for a Radiohead show: the tokens of pernicious technology to which we have all become shackled in the name of convenience being reclaimed and repurposed into thousands of little handheld lightning bugs in the service of celebration, communion, art.
But so was the irony: Weren’t those phones, which were surely stuffed full of shaky video captures and poorly lit back-to-the-stage selfies now just being used to demand more show, more songs, more consumable content? If so, it certainly didn’t feel that way. It only felt sublime.
Three encores’ worth of sublimity, ending in a rare (I think) performance of “Fake Plastic Trees,” the only sign of The Bends in the whole show. And watching them play it, you could absolutely see why and how the state of just being a guitar-bass-drums band playing songs qua songs, however beautiful those songs still are, was something they left behind a long time ago. How utterly magical it was to see that they could still inhabit that state without any wincing, or winking, or condescension. Even as he was exactly what we wanted, Yorke inhabited the words “if I could be what you wanted” with the commitment of one who will never forget how it felt to really feel that way.
Despite their ability to send one hurtling down the corridors of time, Radiohead's Key Arena show demonstrated commandingly that they remain, forever, a present tense band. Which is why it was fitting that the indisputable pinnacle of the night came in the form of “Burn the Witch,” the spooky first single from Moon Shaped Pool.
With the stage lit a solid, deep, diabolical red, the band transformed the nervous scissoring string section of the album track into a blown-out, distorted hellscape—the difference between the record and the live rendition of the song was the difference between paranoia and pogrom. It was easily among the most thrilling, chilling pieces of rock music I’ve ever seen.
Yorke and his confreres have been the Cassandras of life under the thumb of the corporate-fascist state for many years now. When they started singing about it, it seemed a little ironic, a little overstated, a little British. By now, it seems they had it sorted out from the beginning, and if anything, they were being subtle.
That point came screaming to life when they played “No Surprises,” the creepily subdued OK Computer single that opens with the lines “A heart that's full up like a landfill/ a job that slowly kills you/ bruises that won't heal” as the first of many encores.
The difference between what those words meant in 1997 (the articulation of a certain mode of despair that many could recognize) and what they mean now (pretty accurate description of most adults’ professional lives) is the story of this century. “No Surprises” used to vibrate with the ironic juxtaposition of the languid, Valiumy arrangement and the sinister lyric. Now it vibrates because there is no irony, no juxtaposition. The culture has transformed, and we’ve been listening to the song while watching it happen.
As unmistakable synth cascade and propulsive beat of “Everything In Its Right Place” signaled the end of the second encore, I was also reminded that Yorke’s response to the adulation heaped upon him for the innovations of OK Computer, was to create a musical and verbal context into which it was not only acceptable, but appropriate, even poetic, to simply repeat a phrase like “yesterday, I woke up sucking on lemon” like a mantra, each iteration simultaneously enhancing and obscuring the meaning, until all that remained were sounds and impulses and feelings about humankind facing its own self-imposed demise. That line changed so much about the culture of the rock'n'roll singer/prophet figure.
And what was the response of 10,000 people congregating to hear those sounds, share those impulses, feel those feelings? It was to dance till our legs ached, cheer ourselves hoarse, and stumble out into the night, floating at least a foot off the ground. Just like going to a rock show used to be. Only WAY better. Because it was a Radiohead show.
When it was all over, I ran into several friends in the Key Arena forecourt and smiled, hugged, and teared up with them as we shared the experience of vainly searching for words to express the magnitude of the band's prowess, the thrill of the song selection, the overwhelming sense of gratitude, luck, and joy we felt for having been able to be in that room together, to be alive now—in other words, sensations that seemed to be in direct conflict with the alienation and dread expressed in Radiohead songs. Which is and always has been the glorious paradox of this band.
It was momentous in a way I suppose I had forgotten a rock show could be.
I've had similar experiences—that stunned, staggered, holy-shit-was-that-even-real? sensation—every time I've seen Radiohead, going back 19 years (almost to the day) to the OK Computer tour shows at the Paramount and the Salem Armory. Which is to say: It's not surprising that Radiohead was astonishingly good. What else would they be? They're Radiohead. The surprise came from realizing that you still have access to such transcendent feeling, that their greatness still mattered as deeply as it did.
But it really, really did.
Radiohead, Saturday April 8, 2017 at Key Arena
(Opener: Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis)
Desert Island Disk
Exit Music (for a Film)
Burn the Witch
These Are My Twisted Words
I Might Be Wrong
You and Whose Army?
Everything in Its Right Place
Fake Plastic Trees