British band walks a mellower path, maintains volatility
Even at lower volume, volatility reigned during Radiohead's performance at a packed Schottenstein Center on Monday.
It was there in everything from the arrangements, which felt deeply unsettled even in the music's quietest moments, of which there were many, to the words of singer Thom Yorke, who lobbed cryptic proclamations warning of technological creep, nefarious forces gathered at the door and corruption rooted in the halls of power — subjects the band has addressed for more than two decades but that feel particularly prescient in this era.
No matter how grim the tidings, however, the music never lacked for beauty, with the band spending a bulk of its two-hour-plus set exploring the dreamier pockets of its rich, deep catalog. Indeed, much of the performance appeared to take shape around an introductory aside Yorke offered leading into one tune: “Despite everything, one has to remain optimistic.”
Early on, much of Radiohead's output tracked this more hopeful course, with songs centering on good fortune (“Lucky,” where Yorke sang of being pulled from an air crash in a widescreen voice that appeared ready to take liftoff), the contentment that awaits in the afterlife (the gorgeous, piano-driven “Pyramid Song”) and, on “You and Whose Army?,” the suggestion that those in power could find a worthy adversary in the common folk. (When Yorke gestured to the crowd during the chorus, he appeared to be signaling, “This army,” in response to the song's central query.)
Radiohead concerts always have an inherent tension built in, as the band wrestles with ways to recreate songs live that were often the result of long hours in studio. A lesser band might simplify the songs, turning up the guitars to compensate for the missing sonic bells and whistles. Radiohead, for the most part, eschews this approach, instead moving instruments in and out of the set — keyboards, guitars, laptops and whatever music-making oddity guitarist Jonny Greenwood might have dredged up this week — with the bandmates adopting myriad roles over the course of the evening.
At different points during the performance, Greenwood could be found clawing out terse riffs on an electric guitar, drawing out haunted vocal samples on what looked to be a transistor radio, playing pristine piano arpeggios and crafting a glitchy electronic beat on a piece of equipment that could have passed for an old-time operator switchboard.
This malleability allowed the band to shift effortlessly between aggressive electronic numbers (“Ful Stop”), swollen acoustic ballads (“Exit Music (For a Film)”), warped, Dali-esque sonic explorations (“Kid A”), multi-part guitar suites (“Paranoid Android”) and propulsive, hypnotic rockers such as “I Might Be Wrong,” which served as an ideal centerpiece for Colin Greenwood's consistently impressive bass playing.
Throughout the evening, the rhythm section frequently took the lead, with Colin Greenwood, drummer Phil Selway and touring percussionist Clive Deamer giving the music not just its backbone, but often its overall shape. Witness “Bloom,” a supremely weird, knotty, polyrhythmic cut off the 2011 album The King of Limbs, which the trio was able to transform into a loosely psychedelic arena rocker without sacrificing the song's insular character.
Of course, these transformations didn't always connect. Minus its central string section, “Burn the Witch,” arguably the best song of Radiohead's most recent album, A Moon Shaped Pool, from 2016, felt skeletal. A stripped-down “Give Up the Ghost,” which featured little more than acoustic guitar and Yorke's looped vocals, felt similarly thin, more a sketch than a fully developed song.
These missteps were rare, however. And even on a night where the band appeared more interested in exploring the slower burning corners of its catalog — perhaps taking a bit of the advice Yorke dispensed in “The Tourist” when he sang, “Hey, man, slow down” — the underlying dread fueling Radiohead's disquieting music was enough to raise the pulse even when the BPMs were dialed way back.