What difference does a decade make?
I sat above stage left at Radiohead's 2003 show at the UNO Lakefront Arena, in the middle of a tour following that year’s Hail to the Thief
. Fourteen years later, I sat roughly in the equivalent seat at the Smoothie King Center April 3. In 2003, the band was serious but not rigid, patient but not quiet, appearing to summon mysterious powers but not indulging them. Three albums and 14 years later, over nearly two and a half hours, the band invoked that same adventurous, almost-dangerous spirit, guided by more playful, loose hands and minds giving themselves over completely to their massive output over the last decade and the decade preceding it.
If the years are poles, Radiohead lives comfortably between them. Deceptively foreign and intensely personal. A distant star and a giant moon. Live, the intimacy of its studio creations are blown up to fill the vacuum between the stage and the rafters, or leveled entirely for a quiet, vulnerable moment or two, all bound by the band’s visceral performance — Thom Yorke’s frantic dancing and broken alien falsetto, Ed O’Brien pulling infinite sounds from the effects pedals at his feet, bassist Colin Greenwood focusing intensely between Phil Selway’s surround-sound percussion (next to Clive Dreamer), with Jonny Greenwood looming over a small army of ancient synthesizers and keyboards and hugging his guitars to his left shoulder. Present for the moment but lost completely in it.
Preceded by swirling harp, the band opened with A Moon Shaped Pool
’s elegiac “Daydreaming,” a vulnerable entrance inviting the sold-out crowd into the band’s living room. White light reflected from what looked like two halved disco balls at the back of the stage, sending out soft beams to the ceiling and over the crowd.
Colored light panels blasted across the stage through light fog, creating an opaque effect as if the band was covered in a thin, mood-changing veil. Its color palette changed with each song, reflecting pale blue and violet, warm orange, or harsh red and binary green. A giant parabolic egg behind the band streamed their faces and instruments, often layering them gently out-of-focus. Yorke's roving eyeball also filled the screen for "You and Whose Army?" as a surveillance-state climax and winking acknowledgement of the band's grim vision of 21st century misery and Big Brother. Of course, everyone sang along.
The band included six songs from Pool
— “Daydreaming” was followed by a woozy “Desert Island Disk” and the volcanic krautrock of “Ful Stop.” (“You’re dealing with professionals,” Yorke announced in a faux radio voice after some minor instrument changes. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. The name of this band is Radiohead.” He repeated all of that a second time.) Later, Jonny Greenwood replaced an anxious string section on “Burn the Witch” with his own, using a bow to mangle his guitar, and transforming the song into something more sinister.
Then there was OK Computer
, on the heels of the landmark album’s 20th anniversary and hovering over the band — “Lucky” entered the first half of the set along with “Let Down,” then, later, “No Surprises," with the crowd relishing "bring down the government. They don’t, they don't speak for us," amid the song's plea for a swift and quiet end. The crowd also sang along with "Karma Police," losing themselves in its coda, itself lost in its own song overwhelmed by our modern noise.
The band generously folded into the set 25 songs from all but one of its studio albums, including four songs from 2011’s King of Limbs
, three from 2007’s In Rainbows
, two each from Hail to the Thief
and Kid A
, and “Fake Plastic Trees” from The Bends
, the closer for two of three encores.
Yorke followed “Fake Plastic Trees” with a simple “Thank you very much everybody. Goodnight.” The band left, again, offering genuine, humbled thank yous to the crowd with big smiles and waves and deep bows, and returned to fit in one more, “some space at the back of the bus,” for OK Computer
’s opus “Paranoid Android.”
The egg screen filled with fast-spinning explosions of color, combining the night’s visions of distorted computer static and colored beams into one big psychedelic display — for those final seven minutes, the band entered the rare middle of its two sides, an ocean of sound and possibility.
“Desert Island Disk”
“2 + 2 = 5”
“Might Be Wrong”
“How to Disappear Completely”
“Burn the Witch”
“Morning Mr. Magpie”
“You and Whose Army?”
“Fake Plastic Trees”