Radiohead made its first-ever Cincinnati appearance at the Riverbend Music Center last Tuesday, touring behind their 2011 release, The King of Limbs.
I’m continuing to process the concert, and remain unsure of exactly what I saw. I know I liked it, and I’m glad I was there to experience the band’s take on reality, but like being abducted by aliens, I was immersed in an unfamiliar world, which is difficult to interpret.
I thought this verse from their song, Separator, offered an idea of how it felt:
“It’s like falling out of bed; from a long, weary dream; the sweetest flowers and fruits hang from the trees; falling off the giant bird that’s been carrying me; it’s like I’m falling out of bed from a long and weary dream.”
This was no straight ahead rock-n-roll show. Like Radiohead itself, the performance was built layer upon layer, to create a multi-dimensional, textural experience, composed of special effects, lights, videos and music.
I hadn’t been this excited for a concert in a while. It also happened to be my girlfriend Maia’s birthday, so she and my buddy Matt and I made the 90-mile trek north.
The atmosphere in the parking lot was enthusiastic. This wasn’t a balls out tailgating affair. There was some beer pong being played, but mostly it was folks hanging out and drinking imported hops with friends.
Inside the crowd was a mixture of young and old, audiophiles, music snobs, hipsters, trippers, liberal posers and psychedelic enthusiasts.
They had a book-ish quality about them.
There also was a subset present who came to “worship” the words preached by Radiohead’s singer, Thom Yorke, which was amusing and disturbing at the same time.
Regardless, everyone was here for the music.
The hum of synthesizers signaled the moment had arrived. A cacophony of digitally looped chants emanated from the sound system, swirling about the arena, giving the band cover as they took the stage.
Daylight lingered as the houselights dimmed and Radiohead assumed control.
A massive wave of blue light cascaded from behind the band, bathing the crowd in aquamarine, as they opened with Bloom, the first cut off The King of Limbs.
The halting chord structure and dense percussion on this track created a lost-at-sea feel when paired with an underwater lighting scheme, undulating, as if we were inside an aquarium with the band.
In order to bring these newer songs to life outside a recording studio, and to breathe diffused energy into older tracks, Radiohead brought along a second drummer, Clive Deamer, from Portishead, to join their regular drummer, Phil Selway, on tour.
The new music is more ambient and less direct than 2007’s In Rainbows. It resembles the feel from Kid A and Amnesiac, where fragments of sound are looped electronically and individual noises are built upon, like an auditory collage, until the pieces form into a song.
A message and mood are conveyed, filling in spaces partially obscured by pronunciation, then placed in motion by syncopated back beats.
It creates a soundscape, or dream sequence with a soundtrack.
Casual fans expecting to hear Karma Police and Creep probably had a challenging night, but Radiohead was in magnificent form.
The thing with this tour is you can’t make a judgment about it based upon the new disc, or the setlist. This is a more complicated endeavor. The sights, sounds, performance and atmosphere all merit consideration as they coalesce into a finished product.
The setlist included 23 songs, with nearly half of them coming from the last two discs, plus four songs (Staircase, The Daily Mail, Identikit, and These Are My Twisted Words), not previously released.
This by no means made for a disappointing night. The flow felt a little disjointed compared to the setlist on In Rainbows, but that’s because I don’t know the new material well enough.
Radiohead prepped 75 songs for this tour. Around 15 are played nightly, leaving eight at-large songs to be added.
The band decided that on this tour they were going to keep themselves amused by playing what they wanted to play. After changing their sound once again, this is what Radiohead is about right now and they want to turn people onto that vibe and the aura it creates.
There’s no use fighting it – just kick back and enjoy their ride.
Cincinnati responded reasonably well. The attendance, while curious, remained standing and were supportive throughout.
Highlights included the haunting exhale that punctuates Nude; the tour debut of Subterranean Homesick Alien; the Neil Young teaser from After The Gold Rush that introduced Everything In Its Right Place; the disorientation of Morning Mr. Magpie; the driving symbolism behind The National Anthem, with an outro from Hunting Bears off Amnesiac, and my favorite cut of the evening, Reckoner.
The stage lighting and choreography were brilliant. The inevitable comparison that Radiohead is this generation’s Pink Floyd is legitimate considering both bands embrace conceptualization and experimentation, but I saw those last two Floyd tours and their lighting design was fuck-all compared to what was unveiled Tuesday.
It’s very European feeling, clean and crisp, just like Radiohead’s sound.
One large bubble screen, made from recycled plastic bottles, ran the length of the stage behind the band and rose 20 feet high. This usually set a primary color for each song.
On top of that screen was another one of equal size that had narrow, vertical tubes of light, that could be set in motion, depicting streams of code like in the Matrix films, running up and down, perpendicular to the base screen below.
Eleven flat LED panels floated above the band, like mirrors, sometimes forming a lighted ceiling, other times tilting out towards the crowd so live videos of the band members could be shown on each individually.
There also was a row of six box screens posted above the front of the stage, each dedicated to an individual band member, that featured close-up shots of their faces or their instruments being played.
Nearly all the lighting was from behind or above, in a grandness that drowned the room in color – most likely by design so the audience would forget about trying to watch the band and instead concentrate on listening.
Radiohead became invisible as trance sounds washed across changing video screens, like electro-brain impulses zipping about the cerebral cortex.
The overall result was fantastic, but there was a whole other level of connectivity with this show for those who could see the effort involved by Radiohead to create this sonic landscape.
The fragmented screens only offered glimpses, meanwhile lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and rhythm guitarist Ed O’Brien were busily playing their own instruments plus added percussion, programmable pads, keyboards, and DJing; Colin Greenwood’s bass rocked the house; the drummers stoically beat upon anything they could get their hands upon; and Yorke coaxed meaning from his voice, guitars, a piano, and his spazzed-out alien dance moves.
The band piled it on, sounding huge, happy and bleak all at the same time.
Adding to the simmering intensity at Riverbend was the attendance of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In town to play U.S. Bank Arena the following night, bassist, Flea, who plays with Yorke in Atoms for Peace, was seated up front with drummer Chad Smith and new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer.
For those guys to come over and spend a rare night off attending a concert means something – it’s respect.
After seeing Radiohead it takes a minute for everything to absorb. It’s always interesting, even if you don’t know the material, but a few months down the road, when it all digests and I get some perspective, it gets even more impressive.
As I said at the beginning, alien abduction is a bitch to make sense of, but it makes you think, and thought provoking is a rare commodity these days in the corporate driven, “play the hits and do what sells,” world of popular music.
Radiohead’s performance eschewed immediate gratification for substance, a message needed now more than ever.
Thanks for stopping by boys – keep fighting for freedom, keep fighting the power, and please don’t stop being weird!