Whether you’re a fan or not, there’s no denying that Radiohead is one of the most progressive & singularly unique bands in the world today. They define what it means to be ‘unclassifiable.’ In fact, their sound is so distinctive that there isn’t really anyone out there who even attempts to copy what they do. They have a style that rejects any notion of genre boundaries and it’s impossible for anyone to bite. A rare combination and a truly remarkable thing to possess for such a huge band in this age of bland, phoned-in, song-of-the-week driven popular music. Naturally, when you’re a band with such an idiosyncratic style, there will be people who hate. With the way that Thom Yorke sings and the generally odd arrangements of their songs, it’s understandable why some people simply don’t like them. Well, theoretically understandable, because I’m not one of those people and I can’t imagine not loving this band.
This show was a long time coming for me. It was Radiohead’s performance at Bonnaroo in 2006 that launched my complete obsession with live music. As cliche as it might be, it was one of those life altering moments where the music became so much more than sound. I could feel it gather on my skin, soak through every cell in my body, transcend my spirit, and lift my entire consciousness to a level I’d never experienced before. After that show I was hooked for life, and to this day I consider it one of a small number of major events that inspired me to become a music journalist. I saw them again at Lollapalooza in 2008, which was a phenomenal show, but left a little something to be desired. Since then, I’ve felt a magnetic pull toward seeing them indoors, so when this tour was announced, my eyes were immediately drawn to this show at The Palace of Auburn Hills. It was decided. And what a great decision it was.
Unfortunately, I’ve been spoiled by the jam scene in the respect that I’ve come to expect new setlists every night. But with Radiohead, that’s just not the case. They bring a stock setlist, only changing a few songs from night to night in order to present uniform concerts across the entire tour. But that isn’t to say that the setlist is boring, because they built a tremendous blend of old and new material, with huge songs in crucial spots, and a drawn out ‘encore’ that made it seem like they never wanted to leave. Of course they hit the material from their latest album, The King of Limbs, pretty hard. This is a very strange album, feeling a little like the estranged, awkward cousin of Amnesiac, which is already the awkward cousin of Radiohead albums so you know this one is out there. But in the live setting, each one of these songs took a breath of new life and grew tentacles that stretched well beyond where the album stopped. “Lotus Flower,” the single from TKOL (read: somewhat normal, fairly tame, and definitely accessible) assumed a much thicker consistency that oozed a exceptionally mysterious tone. The low end swelled up, filling the air of the song with palpable ominous vibrations. Then “Feral” — pretty much the apex of Radiohead’s weirdness –arrived as a sensation that blew across like a gust of dense & formidable fog. All at once this song was slippery and rough, haunting yet comforting; a contrast of textures and emotions that seemed nearly impossible to combine; something that no other band on the planet can really do.
The physical sensations that this concert produced were augmented by the tremendous stage production they featured. Over the years I’ve seen lights, LED screens, and on-stage cameras utilized in myriad ways, but I’ve never seen the space on the stage altered in such a direct & powerful way. The hanging squares above the stage were on cable pulleys, which enabled them to be lowered and have their display angle tilted to create different effects. They could go from hanging at a high position, facing fully forward which gave an aerated feel to the aesthetic like during “Nude.” And they could drop all the way down, facing towards the stage, closing the band in like a cage, creating perilous tension in “Feral” and “Myxomatosis.” No band that I’ve ever seen has challenged the perception of the physical interval of the performance in such a profound way.
Naturally the largest floods of crowd reaction came during “Paranoid Android,” Idioteque,” “Karma Police,” and “Everything In Its Right Place.” Everyone loves these songs and the band plays them nearly every night. What wasn’t amazing was how tightly they played “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police” to their album versions, but how much they transformed “Idioteque” and “Everything In Its Right Place” into pieces that you will only hear live. Each one of these songs was sort of ‘remixed,’ presenting material that everyone in the building has been obsessed with at some point in a completely fresh way.
“Idioteque” had a completely different percussion, this twisted, electronic polyrhythm that made the whole thing feel even more on edge and gave it a completely different sense of timing. “Right Place” had a Neil Young cover intro (where’d that come from?), additionally deviant distortion of Yorke’s vocals, and an all-out electronic freak out that felt like an off-the-cliff acid trip. These approaches really hammered home just how much of an electronic band Radiohead has become. They are very often referred to as a rock band, and while listening to the albums it’s easy to get caught up in Yorke’s voice, eerie guitars and staggering percussion. Yet, in person, the music assumes this amorphous quality, a malleability that comes from being backed by a lush textile of studio production that hybridizes with all of the live instrumentation. Instrument and electronic are indelibly intertwined. The line has been completely blurred.
For a band that began as a grungy, garage rock group, Radiohead has transformed into something so much more. They’ve grown beyond a normal level of human musical capability to a level where they are utterly peerless. That isn’t to say that they are the only other-worldly band out there — all music is a matter of taste and one person’s genius is another’s dreck. But there’s no possible way to deny when a band is simply radiates talent and forges progression the way they do. There’s no question in my mind: Radiohead is the greatest band of my generation.