with The Beta Band and Kid Koala
Stone Mountain Park, Atlanta, GA • July 30, 2001
When a band reaches the level that Radiohead has achieved — best-selling albums, sold out concerts, splashy coverage on MTV and such — the focus of the band seems to shift from innovation to encampment. Rather than push themselves into new areas, they become timid and fearful of losing the core audience that they have cultivated. U2 anyone?
But instead of creating endless rehashes of their past successes, Radiohead veered off of main street — a street defined by the guitar-based, sing-along rock of The Bends and OK Computer — onto the darker, more ambivalent side alley of Kid A and Amnesiac. After a world tour in 1997 (documented in the film Meeting People is Easy), that left the band drained and seemingly disgusted, they forced themselves to examine the role that they found themselves in, and made the choice to follow their own muses — not those of the fans, or the sniping, gossipy British press. In doing so, their sound evolved from being “Punk Floyd” to something more along the lines of “DJ Radiohead.” Material such as “Idioteque” or “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” are built on loops and beats, with guitars being relegated to a non-melodic role. The anger that fueled previous work such as “Bones” or OK‘s “Exit Music” has not been lost, but instead it has become more pointed. Amnesiac‘s “Dollars And Cents,” built around what sounds like a portion of “In a Silent Way” by Miles Davis, finds leader Thom Yorke feeling like so much product — which he of course is, we all are — but instead of simply sniping about it, he demands the listener to “be constructive with yer blues.” Cheerleading your fans is one thing — Bono has made a healthy career out of not much else — but when you attempt to force them to rethink their place in the cosmos, the risks run high that you will alienate the very people you are trying to reach.
If any of Radiohead’s fans feel alienated, then they didn’t brave the searing heat and horse-dung scented mud of Stone Mountain to see the band perform in the Southeast for the first time since 1997. The crowd — made up almost entirely of pasty-faced white kids who are now most likely bathing in sunburn cream — began gathering at the gates hours before showtime. The band soundchecked for a while (including “Like Spinning Plates,” a song from the new album that the band has never played live), and we sweated like slow dancers on the face of the sun, until we finally gained entrance. Once in, the 7000-plus crowd arranged themselves comfortably on the grass of Stone Mountain’s Event Meadow, ringed by trees. At no point in the evening did it ever seem too crowded, unless you were one of those hapless goofs who felt compelled to get crushed against the security fence in a vain attempt to see up Yorke’s nose. The sound booth sat dead center in the field, blocking the view of anyone behind it, thus making 50% of the lawn unusable, but even so, you never got the feeling of being herded as you do at most outdoor events.
The Beta Band opened the show, and while I’m sure the singer’s statements of, “This is our new single, it’s number one in England now,” were true, his slagging of our government and its leaders came off a bit daft — first off, at least we don’t have a monarchy, and if you think America sucks (which, in many ways, of course, it does), then stay the hell home instead of coming here and getting paid to piss and moan. The band’s sound was thick and tight, but too nightclubish for the bright sunlight and humidity of the day. They were followed by Kid Koala, a DJ who did whatever DJs do. Whatever it was, it was displayed on the two large video screens, but a man in a baseball cap scratching records isn’t exactly the most visually compelling image to linger on. I went to get a T-shirt.
Thankfully a few drops of rain fell shortly before nine, but what little relief they offered from the heat was brief. A little after nine, Radiohead appeared, unannounced, and started into Kid A‘s “The National Anthem,” propelled, as much of the night’s music was, by the bass lines of Colin Greenwood. Wearing a shirt promoting Athens’ Elf Power, the brother of guitarist/sound manipulator Jonny Greenwood bopped back and forth, with glances at drummer Phil Selway and grins at the crowd. The impossibly tall Ed O’Brien delivered the required rock star moves while anchoring most of the songs on his assortment of pedals and guitars. Jonny moved from Moog keyboard to guitar to a sampler and back to a radio, often all in the course of a single song. With dark bangs obscuring his face, he almost seems detached from the rest of the band, and while you are never really sure what the hell he is doing most of the time, it is evident that the core of the band’s sound comes from him. When he does actually lead a song on guitar, such as the primal funk “I Might Be Wrong,” he does so with such energy that the rest of the band just grins and tries to keep up.
Visually and aurally the show was state of the art outdoor rock. Generally such events are sludgefests, with all songs sounding the same — bad. Radiohead takes instead a page from the playbook of performers such as Springsteen, and their live sound is loud without being painful, dynamic without causing ear damage, and able to convey the soft attack of “Pyramid Song” as clearly and powerfully as the set closer “The Bends,” whose three guitars and screamed vocals ended the night with a flourish. Those people who have never taken the time to dig below the media surface of Radiohead accuse them of being overrated. While of course, this is (for the most part) out of the band’s control, what aspects of their presentation they do control — from using “blips” instead of videos, performing in outdoor, unusual venues instead of arena sheds belies a band that is as carefully orchestrated as any Miami boy toy act. Live, the music gains a momentum and depth that the somewhat sterile studio recordings cannot hope to match, and show a band truly at the peak of their powers. Thom Yorke, international poster boy for emotional pain still grimaces and twitches as if out of control, and with his small stature seems ill suited to leading a rock band, but lead it he does. After starting the unreleased “Pearly,” Yorke called the song to a halt after a few moments, complaining about the sound of the snare. He got it fixed, and then went on. During “Pyramid Song,” a piano-based camera projected Yorke’s face up onto the video screens. The effect was as if you were watching aliens at play — with the song’s eerie, out of world lyrics and Thom’s face looking like a like one of those images of “little gray men” that seem to invade us every so often. He seems calmer and more in control than in years past, but that is not to say sedate. His dance during the frenetic “Idioteque” can make even the biggest fan shudder, and early on in the night, his voice suffered, most likely the effect of the Georgia temperature. As Yorke stated from the stage, “There’s hot, and then there’s this.” But once the band roared into “Airbag,” they clicked some internal switch on, and they never looked back, playing for almost two hours.
For a band that has released only five albums, for them not to perform any material from the first, 1993’s Pablo Honey is a testament to the amount of quality material the band has created. I’m sure some walked away from the show disappointed that they didn’t hear one song or another, and most likely some are stung by the refusal of the band to ever perform their first hit, “Creep,” again (unless you live in their home town of Oxford, England, where the band recently sang it for the first time in five years), but such complaints are minor and beside the point. You go to a live event not to hear a louder version of your record collection. Instead, you go to be presented with a musician’s vision of their art. How much you enjoy it is solely up to you with a band like Radiohead. They certainly aren’t going to pander to the lowest common denominator in hopes of larger sales — this show was the smallest of the rather brief North American tour, and twice as many tickets could have easily been sold, if a larger venue had been used — but rather, they seem to have found a balance between artistic morality and the rush that comes from a sea of Bic lighters in the air. For how long they will be able to maintain this posture is unknown, but for those of us in attendance this night, few things will ever top this show.