By: JC McIlwaine
Radiohead :: 08.13.08 :: Comcast Center :: Mansfield, MA
You've heard it all before, Radiohead is the best band on the planet. Well, it's true. The British quintet has been a critical darling and fan favorite since the release of OK Computer in 1997, if not before. That album has received countless accolades, and was named by Spin magazine in 2005 as the best rock album of the previous twenty years. Since their introduction to the world with "Creep," off their stunning 1993 debut Pablo Honey, Radiohead has gone from being considered a likely candidate for one-hit-wonder status to being recognized as the forbears of avant-garde rock.
Last year's In Rainbows sent shockwaves through the record industry. Free of the restrictions of a record label, the band announced the album's release shortly before its availability as a payment-optional (often referred to as "free" until it became known that the band had grossed up to $10 million from purchasers) digital download on their website. Other mainstream acts scrambled to get on board the independent bus, dropping their own labels and discussing plans for similar independent releases in the future.
It can safely be said at this point that Radiohead has become a phenomenon unto themselves. While they don't occupy number one slots on the charts, they've managed to sell over 25 million albums as of 2007. With tours encompassing North and South America, Europe and Japan, and headlining spots at festivals throughout, the band is no cult classic. Pardon me for such a broad generalization, but everybody in the Western World seems to know who Radiohead is, and just about everybody seems to like them - not only you but also your friends and neighbors. This may not be your parent's band, but odds are they can appreciate them, too.
So, why all the love? Perhaps we like Radiohead so much because they keep on surprising us as their music transforms and evolves, and their various answers to the question of how to survive as a rock band in the 21st century keep us always on our toes, wondering what's next. Whether the surprises manifest in a new direction in sound, a new record dropping out of thin air or the introduction of a new LED lighting system, the band is always ahead of the curve, if not creating it as they go.
|Radiohead by Heather Barlin|
Part of the band's popularity lies in its ability to maintain an element of mystique despite being one of the most popular bands in the world. Radiohead is an anomaly. "Nude," a single released off In Rainbows, was the only song of theirs to crack the Billboard Top 40 in the U.S. since "Creep," a perverse, unlikely fact for a band that creates as much buzz as they do. It's almost as if the band is dancing around the mainstream while not quite jumping in for a swim.
While each new record is met with anticipation unparalleled in rock circles (Guns 'N Roses' Chinese Democracy aside), it's the band's live shows that carry their charge, and it's for their live shows that they are known. Say what you will about some of their albums (while many say nothing but "amazing" mind you), but in the live venue they rarely disappoint.
Following a much-raved-about two-night stand at New Jersey's All Points West Festival (read the review here) and another night in Camden, the band hit the Comcast Center, a venue alternately referred to as Great Woods and/or The Tweeter Center in Mansfield, MA.
|Radiohead by Rod Snyder|
Grizzly Bear prepped the stage, sounding uncannily like Radiohead from the deepest pockets of the parking lot. Fans scurried from their cars to the venue, only to find out upon arrival that Radiohead wouldn't hit the stage for another hour.
When Radiohead finally made their appearance, they rolled right into "Reckoner," a tambourine-heavy track from In Rainbows, replete with some of the tortured lyrics of separation and sadness for which Thom Yorke has become known. Sufficiently warmed up, the band launched into "Optimistic," an often-overlooked song from Kid A, but a powerhouse in its own right. Here they set the tone of percussive intensity, which segued perfectly into "There There," as Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood joined Phil Selway on their own drum kits. The next song, "15 Step," found them trading their drum kits for synthesizers, ushering in the first of several electronically driven songs from their catalogue. Yorke danced in ecstasy to the beat, writhing in a manner reminiscent of Bacchic revelry, leaping at the microphone to intone his vocals.
Throughout the rest of the night the band switched gears many times, from rock anthems to electronic dance numbers, and covering everything in between. A piano was wheeled out on a couple of occasions for slower numbers like "All I Need" and "Videotape," but no matter the tempo, no matter the dominant instrument, everything they did they did with the utmost intensity and passion. Playing songs from every album save for their debut, Pablo Honey, the band thundered through a seventeen-song continuous set, followed by an eight-song encore. The setlist, as would be expected, drew most heavily from their latest album, with a great deal of older favorites like "The National Anthem," "The Bends," "Karma Police" and "Idioteque" serving as punctuation.
The lights were one of the highlights of the night (pun intended). A dangling menagerie of more than 25 LED (light-emitting diodes) bulbs, long and thin and cut to various lengths, illuminated the stage, shifting through every color in the spectrum. Sepia-toned during "Nude," red and blue through "The National Anthem," the bulbs took on a life of their own, far beyond the typical stage lights that we've all seen hundreds of times. The light cascaded through the bulbs, at times even spelling out the lyrics. Originally implemented to cut down on the band's electricity consumption, they have done wonders for the stage show.
|Radiohead by Susan J. Weiand|
Typically garrulous and known for his witty stage banter, this night Yorke was all business, as he kept pretty tight-lipped, only tossing out short descriptions of the songs here and there. "This is a love song," he said of "House of Cards." Totally lost in his own musical world, Yorke pointed out the obvious, as he mentioned, "For those of you who don't know, that song's called 'A Wolf At The Door'."
But that's part of the reason we come to see Radiohead - to get lost in their musical universe with them, alongside aliens and disasters and earth-shattering heartbreak. We want to take that journey with them, to witness it all as intensely as possible and to experience utter catharsis as the band responds through lyric and melody, as they vouch for, and deliver, release from anguish through further angst.
Radiohead confirms the role of eloquence in lyrics, while illuminating imaginative new avenues for a genre as road-weary as rock & roll to wander down. They make us feel cool, edgy, like a seemingly indifferent hipster who in reality orchestrates even the smallest of details. And, at the end of the day, they make us feel involved in something far beyond our comprehension, a beast of its own creation, the deus ex machina (or "god from the machine"). We don't want to pull the strings on the puppets. We just want to watch in wonder. Ask the band and they'd probably admit they're doing the same exact thing.
JamBase | Inside Things
|Radiohead by Rod Snyder|
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