We all have our passions. If you are reading this review, my bet is that one of your passions is music: music as a whole, certain genres, and favorite musicians. For most of us, being passionate about music means we buy a lot of CDs (or vinyl) and we read everything we can about our bands and maybe write about it, discuss it online, travel to see live shows, etc. I mean, how far can you go?

By J Henry Fair
Well, for at least one man, being a fan of Radiohead is more than just knowing the released and unreleased catalog backwards and forwards, more than just obsessively downloading live shows and knowing those obscure "this has never been played" gems, even more than getting his fingernails dirty with the trivia and minutiae of the bands ins and outs. For Christopher O'Riley, an accomplished concert pianist, he went several steps further than most of us regular obsessive-compulsive types could and literally transcribed his passion for Radiohead into art itself.

Perhaps you have heard of O’Riley – he has been reviewed in Rolling Stone magazine and interviewed for a Sunday edition of the New York Times. He has reinvented the Radiohead wheel and turned their repertoire into classical solo piano pieces and even recorded them for an album which you can pay real money for. You’ve seen oftentimes-elaborate cover bands and you’ve heard about they-get-even-the-smallest-details-right "tribute" bands, but last night at Joe's Pub in NYC, I caught one man turning his ten fingers into the ultimate fan club.

Now it gets weird, as I attempt to review such an occasion. I’ll start by offering the caveats that I am a casual Radiohead fan at best (and even that is being put into question after contemplating the late set I witnessed from my couch-cushioned seat at Joe’s last night), and not even that much so of concert piano in general. I can say that as a musical performer, O'Riley is flawless; his playing was excellent from top to bottom. But reviewing this show is not really about reviewing the performance, especially since I’m not of the position to be reviewing classical piano, nor is it about the repertoire, since technically he wrote none of the music. This is really a review of what I referred to earlier: the transcription of passion about music into music itself.

Radiohead's songs are a healthy muck of instrumentation, texture and mood. O'Riley essentially eliminates the first two by reducing each piece to solo piano. What he's left with is the mood. For the most part he gets it right. In each song he must decide what is essential and what can be shed and in doing so, much of what makes each song that SONG is lost along the way. In turn, though, much is gained in a sort of distillation and realization of the music's essence. O'Riley’s songs are jelly beans – a strong and somewhat realistic flavor, but no one will ever mistake a strawberry jelly bean for a strawberry.

As I sat and listened in the perfect vibe of Joe's Pub, and I contemplated the metaphysics of the music I was listening to, I struggled to define O'Riley’s art. My realization was that you could ask another concert-pianist/mega Radiohead fan to do the same thing for the same songs and you'd likely get completely different results. O'Riley's creations are truly a part of him and his loves as he transcribed the music to reflect what was essential to him, and that is the key. This became apparent as he rambled about his "absolute favorites" from this album or that.

At worst, the recreations evoked memories of bad 1980s drama soundtracks or "ugh"-inducing soundtracks. Yes, he captures the mood and the repertoire quite well, but loses so much of the dynamics that occasionally I found myself a bit bored. These moments were few, though, and for the most part, the show was a dazzling expression of a true love. O'Riley had a well-paced setlist and interspersed each song with some of the most heartening stage banter you'll ever find.

That's really what this music is all about, to me. It's not about Radiohead: it's about Christopher O'Riley – Radiohead superfan. His passions would be scary if he didn't ring so true with my own and if he wasn't so charming and self-deprecating about them. His comments included a perfect "break out the pocket protector" remark about his own dorkiness (we've all been there). The best moments were his introductions to the songs where he gave his own obsessive-fan inventory: remarking on where songs appear on the album and then saying where he thought they would have worked better; discussing in detail about songs that have never been played before live or only played once or haven't been played since so-and-so-year at so-and-so-venue; talking about collaborators (both real and fantastical) not as peers but as any one of us would – as idols to fawn over; and, my favorite, giving each song a superlative the way a TV network hypes its shows ("this is the best song Radiohead wrote to end an album" vs. "the number one mid-season replacement dramedy"). None of that "charm" is available on the album, I am sure. If this all sounds terribly corny, then it probably isn't for you. But if it even slightly piques your obsessive tendencies, O'Riley will not disappoint.

Finally, here is the setlist, running the gamut only a true fan would appreciate, from old to new and from ubiquitous to ultra-obscure:

Subterranean Homesick Alien
Thinking Of You
Karma Police
Sail To The Moon
Everything In Its Right Place
No Surprises
Black Star
Good Morning Mr. Magpie
Let Down
There There
Fake Plastic Trees
Motion Picture Soundtrack
E: Polyethylene (Part 2), True Love Waits

Christopher O'Riley is the manifestation of the relationship between us and our passions to the nth degree. And quite infectious, too – somehow I woke up singing (not air piano-ing!) "No Surprises," something not even the original has induced.

Aaron Stein
JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 7/16/03]

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