The sign on the auditorium door reads, “Radiohead kindly request no crowd surfing or moshing. Thank you.” Such considerations are, you’d imagine, relatively uncommon among rock bands. But as we have come to learn, Radiohead are not exactly anyone’s idea of a conventional rock band. As their first London show in four years ably demonstrates, commendably they still have a tremendous capacity to surprise; tonight’s show is never less than exciting, its twists and turns through the band’s canon often thrilling and digressive. They cover a lot of ground in two and a half hours, and the scope of their set allows out every iteration of Radiohead its moment in the spotlight.
Satisfyingly, car park rave Radiohead (“The Gloaming”, “Identikit”), folky Radiohead (“Separator”, “Present Tense”), Led Zeppelin Radiohead (“Talk Show Host”, “Myxomatosis”) and others are present and correct tonight. Though much of the material is drawn from their post 2000 catalogue – an extended period of wilful experimentation and dramatic reinvention – they still dip back into their earliest days. We don’t get “Creep” – they played that in Paris earlier in the week – but we do get “My Iron Lung” and a stunning version of “Exit Music (For A Film)” that is met by the audience in hushed, awed silence.
All these competing Radioheads jostling for air is a reflection that, in 2016, they have a number of public images and historic responsibilities they must try and reconcile. In much the same way A Moon Shaped Pool, released three weeks ago, found them mining their back catalogue while obstinately pushing their compositional skills forward. “We have a long history of writing songs and having them hang around unrecorded for years,” Jonny Greenwood told Uncut in 2012. He specifically cited “Burn The Witch” (dating from the Kid A sessions) and “Present Tense” (debuted at Thom Yorke’s Latitude show in 2009) – both of which, finally, saw the light of day on A Moon Shaped Pool, along with “True Love Waits”, first aired back in 1995. This is not unusual – both “Nude” and “The Daily Mail” also experienced lengthy gestations – but in the context of Radiohead’s now constant state of motion seems a little incongruous. To some extent, you suspect Radiohead thrive on such contradictions: Greenwood, after all, has famously denounced the guitar as old-fashioned yet still favours the Ondes Martentot – an instrument dating from the 1920s.
With its talk of “low flying panic attack” and “avoid all eye contact”, “Burn The Witch” feels much closer to the paranoid, nervy Radiohead of old. But it’s a testament to Jonny Greenwood’s blossoming second career as a soundtrack composer that it flies – the nagging strings underscoring the sense of menace in Yorke’s lyrics. It is an effective opener to their set, with Greenwood sawing away on his guitar with a bow. They play the first five songs from A Moon Shaped Pool in sequence – as they have done on previous dates – which could be a risky move but here simply showcases the diversity and richness of the songs. “Burn The Witch” gives way to the haunting “Daydreaming”, which is followed by the swoon of “Decks Dark” and the warm folky stylings of “Desert Island Disk” replaced by the motorik thrust of “Ful Stop”. The transition to “Lotus Flower” is striking: emboldened, this King Of Limbs track is given propulsive energy and a muscular funkiness.
Sandwiched between the skittering beats of “Lotus Flower” and “The Gloaming”, the mid-Nineties couplet of “Talk Show Host” and “My Iron Lung” sit slightly awkwardly. There is no denying their fan appeal: they’re both met with rousing cheers. “Exit Music (For A Film)” and “Separator” make a more favourable fit while the move into “Identikit” and “The Numbers” is smooth and organic. This tour has been notable for the way Radiohead have dusted down gems from the back of the cupboard. Although they might not quite be up there with Neil Young playing “Thrasher” or “Vampire Blues” for the first time in 40 years, tonight’s tour debuts for “Myxomatosis” and “Planet Telex” are enthusiastically received.
Critically, for a set that showcases assorted sides of Radiohead’s career, across this 25 song stretch, each member of the band is given a chance to shine. Yorke, inevitably, provides a strong focus – hey, there are even some LOLs during a glitch in the start of “Nude”, where he asks, “Is it buggered?” or mugging shamelessly, suggested “Let’s spend the night here and play everything!” Elsewhere, there is Thom dancing to content with. But otherwise while eyes may be on the ever-inventive Greenwood – folded over his piano, pressing buttons on a wall of equipment stacked to his left or attacking his guitar with his bow – there is strong work being done elsewhere on stage. Colin Greenwood has something of the John McVie about him: staunch, understated, masterly. Philip Selway, meanwhile, is a generous, adaptable drummer. Perhaps Ed O’Brien is tonight’s most undervalued contributor. His guitar lines add depth and texture to the songs while his tech intrusions add subtle but compelling nuance to the songs. He is the last man left on stage when the band finish their main set, hunched over some gadget on the floor, tweaking a sample of Yorke’s voice on “Everything In Its Right Place”.
Bring on tonight!
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Radiohead’s set list, May 26, 2016:
Burn The Witch
Desert Island Disk
Talk Show Host
My Iron Lung
Exit Music (For A Film)
Everything In Its Right Place
Morning Mr. Magpie
2 + 2 = 5
You and Whose Army?
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