Radiohead’s May 11 performance at the Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Virginia was simultaneously one of the best and worst concert experiences any of us can remember. The jitters of seeing the most important rock band in the world in concert were equaled by the sheer terror of facing the storm that welled up to greet them—marking the third consecutive D.C.-area Radiohead show that was met by a torrential downpour. At least one major connection between the venue and the nearest highway was flooded entirely and local police eventually closed off the entrance to the parking lot, turning away any latecomers outright. Sadly, that included one of the two PopMatters writers sent to cover the event. No matter which side of the blockade you ended up on, though, the adventure was absolutely epic.
From: Mehan, 6:05pm - “Looks like this is gonna take a while”
My friend Brian and I left 14th & T St. NW in Washington D.C. just after 6pm. I had gotten soaked on the walk over to Brian’s place and from that point on, the rain had only gotten worse. About five minutes past the hour we finally got rolling, assuming a one-hour trip and hoping to see the Liars’ set, which was billed as starting at 7:30pm. A little optimistic? Perhaps, given the rain. But certainly within reason. Of course, the minute we hit the freeway, it’s clear that the inclement weather is causing quite a bit of slowdown. It seems that the further we go, the worse the rain gets, resulting in almost zero visibility at some points. It looks like this is going to take longer than expected.
From: Vijith, 6:20pm - “No shit sherlock”
The narrow road leading into Nissan Pavilion is clogged with mud puddles and muddy people; about half are laughing about the absurdity of the situation as the other half trudges along in silence. It’s a long walk, and a big crowd, and an even bigger mess. We’re all no doubt hoping that the rain lets up before ruining the only chance we’ll have to see this band during this decade. Maybe that’s a bit, er, optimistic? I hope I’m not, um, let down.
From: Mehan, 7:32pm - “Waitin in line 4 the exit, prb gonna miss liars”
A good hour and a half after leaving Washington proper, we arrive at the exit for Nissan Pavilion. As we probably should have expected, there’s a line of cars waiting to exit the interstate. Having no other choice, we queue up, revising our estimated time of arrival to 8-8:30pm, depending on how long the line leading into the parking lot is. We probably won’t get there in time to see Liars, but at least we won’t miss the main event.
From: Vijith, 7:50pm - “meh”
Liars make no impression whatsoever. This has very little to do with their performance and more to do with the fact that I’ve buried myself as deep in my jacket as I can manage and spend the whole set staring at my toes trying to will the rain away. When the capillaries in my forehead start to burst and it still doesn’t seem to be working, I switch to meditating my way through it without losing my mind. That doesn’t really work out either.
From: Mehan, 8:01pm - “WTF no end in sight”
We finally make it off of the interstate and on to one of the small, two-lane roads that leads to the Pavilion. The traffic on this road is also bumper-to-bumper, moving only a few inches at a time. Brian can sense that I’m getting anxious and attempts to calm my fears by regaling me with the tale of his trip to Bonnaroo a few years back. Apparently, after driving all night and arriving at the festival grounds at 6 am, he was forced to sit in his car for a full 12 hours while waiting to exit the freeway. Meanwhile, his impatient cousin exited the vehicle, snuck into the festival via a hole in the fence, took a walk down “Shakedown Street” wherein he procured a number of illegal substances, was discovered, ticketless (his ticket was in the car) by festival security, promptly escorted off of the festival grounds and finally, triumphantly, returned to the car, hours later, drugs still in tow. All told, Brian eventually got into the festival, managed to miss only three bands’ sets and had more than enough opium to last him the entire weekend. If that story had a happy ending, why wouldn’t this one?
From: Vijith, 8:17pm - “might be in the bathroom when you get here - we’re at the front of the lawn and dead center”
Liars end their set with an explosion of whatever it is they’ve been doing all along (I’m still not paying attention) and we decide to spend the set break going to the bathroom in shifts so as not to lose our good vantage point. That’s a relative term—we can see, yes, but we’re still getting battered by the rain, and in my case the latter compromises the former given all the blurry droplets that insist on sticking to my glasses. The amphitheater lawn slopes downward toward the stage, as amphitheater lawns often do, and as soon as we hit the concrete walkway dividing the lawn from the properly sheltered seats, there’s a river of runoff to ford. I grumble a bit when I notice that it’s all pouring into a properly functioning drainage system, thereby leaving the folks up front totally unscathed. As I pass the merch booth, I squint through the blurry blobs and strain to make out the displays. Surely I’m reading that price wrong: $40 for a T-shirt? I think about proposing a more palatable price and maybe winking a bit during the delivery, but ultimately decide that at this point in the tour the merch kids have heard that one a zillion times. If I were stuck out in the rain and facilitating a British millionaire’s markups for minimum wage, I’d probably be willing to shoot someone for much less than pitching that for the umpteenth time. I’m pretty annoyed myself, and I only have to deal with the rain.
From: Mehan, 8:22pm - “Were almost there”
We reach the road that leads into the Nissan Pavilion. A large yellow sign on the side of the road reads “Right turn for Nissan Pavilion.” When we reach the intersection, however, we see that the road has been completely blocked off by flares and police cars. A policeman waves us across the street, motioning for us to go straight instead of turning. We go straight, yet have no idea where we’re going. We decide to follow a car ahead of us with Georgia license plates, which, we reason, must also be going to the show. After a few minutes spent blindly following the Georgians, we again find ourselves kissing the bumper of the car in front of us. At this point, we notice a few kids leaving their cars and bravely wading into the wet grass at the side of the road, in order to relieve themselves. We briefly consider following their lead but decide to hold out for the (hopefully?) dry confines of the Pavilion’s bathrooms.
From: Vijith, 8:25pm - “The worst part is going to be your socks”
The bathroom is full of people, most of them looking quite pathetic, but even they’re laughing at the dude trying to get some mileage out of the paper towels. My own aim is spot-on, but I can’t help but wonder whether the same is true of the others, especially given that we’re all basically sloshing around together in a giant puddle atop the concrete. I decide that next time I’ll just piss my pants—nobody will know because everything is drenched anyway, it’ll be way more convenient than trudging out here during Radiohead’s set, and the warmth will probably be delightful.
From: Mehan, 8:28pm - “???”
In the days following the initial announcement that Radiohead would play the Nissan Pavilion, there was a lot of grumbling about the band’s choice of venue. A good 35 miles southwest of the city, the Nissan Pavilion lies outside of the reach of mass transit, making it all but impossible to get to without a car. These complaints arose again a few weeks ago when the band announced that they were going to attempt to reduce carbon emissions on this tour and encouraged fans “to think about alternative ways of traveling.” Looking out at the endless line of idling cars ahead of us, I can’t help but marvel at what a farce this all is.
From: Vijith, 8:35pm - “hrry up they,re starting”
A week ago, I’d have considered “All I Need” a terrible candidate for an opening song, but live it has a majesty that just hadn’t translated to my earbuds. Maybe I’m still a little in shock at the fact that I’m actually here, or that they’re actually here, or both at once. Maybe it’s just the fact that these are the most aesthetically remarkable visual displays I’ve ever seen at a concert—monochromatic live images of the band are being projected in a thick band running across the back of the stage with dozens of giant vertical spires laden with programmable LEDs dangling down in front. No, scratch that. Even if both statements are true, I really just don’t remember the bass sounding so huge before.
From: Mehan, 8:41pm - “Fuck fuck fuck”
Still stuck in gridlock, on an unknown local road, we start to abandon hope. The minute that we learn that Radiohead is playing somewhere just out of our grasp it starts raining harder, as if on cue.
From: Vijith, 8:52pm - “hurry the fuck fuck fuck up”
Hey, I could probably drown myself in one of these puddles to put myself out of my misery. That would be mighty convenient, and also sort of hilarious. Who knows, maybe Thom will write a song for me and put it on the next album. Didn’t Pearl Jam do something like that once? Here goes: 3… 2… 1… hey, cool, Johnny’s switching to keyboards!
From: Mehan, 9:16pm - “Please tell me they didn’t play idioteque yet”
Tired, hungry, and quickly approaching a state of complete hopelessness, I try to focus on something positive. Surely there must be something that could redeem this night. I quickly scan my internal database of Radiohead information. A wholly unprecedented performance of “Big Boots/Man-O-War”, perhaps? No, we’ve got to be realistic here. Reaching back to my memories of previous Radiohead shows, I realize that there’s one particular moment in a Radiohead setlist that never fails to make me smile. It’s “Idioteque”, that inspired celebration/send-up of dance culture that sticks out like a sore thumb in the band’s catalog. I can still remember the first time I saw Radiohead perform the song live, on their 2001 Amnesiac tour. It was at that moment, watching Thom Yorke spastically writhe around the stage like an epileptic, that I realized that behind all of that existential dread, there’s an actual human being.
From: Vijith, 9:20pm - “nope mostly new stuff so far”
In Rainbows is dominating the set list, and the live renditions of those songs are making it even more obvious why that record should be considered such a resounding triumph. I absolutely adored it, but even the best albums still have their ups and downs; critical acclaim notwithstanding, emotional trajectory is usually unavoidable with anything of any personal significance. None of that applies here, though—my favorites aren’t my favorites any longer because I’m awed by every last one, even those that I’d always told myself had snuck onto my iPod by hiding in the shadows of “15 Step” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”. Some of these songs—“Bodysnatchers” and “Bangers and Mash” foremost among them—were heavily road-tested long before In Rainbows was even a ROYGBIV glimmer in Thom’s eye, and they’re all much more at home in the wild. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that this is the proper way to hear the album; now that I’ve seen firsthand what they were trying to convey on wax, I love the album even more.
From: Mehan, 9:24pm - “WTF still no sign of the parking lot”
Jesus—we’ve been inside of this car for almost three and a half hours at this point. No wonder I feel so stir crazy. “Put some music on,” Brian says and I realize that in my apprehensive state, I’ve failed to perform my sacred duty as a passenger. “Any preferences?” I ask. “Anything but Radiohead,” he replies. Scrolling through my iPod, I happen upon just the thing to soothe my jangled nerves. Immediately upon pressing play, we both realize that we haven’t listened to Dan Deacon’s Spiderman of the Rings in far too long. “You know,” Brian says over the jack-in-the-box melody and echoing Woody Woodpecker laugh, “I don’t think I’ve ever identified with this song… until now.” Embracing our budding insanity, we crank up the volume and jam the fuck out. It’s raining far too hard to be able to make out any of the passengers in the surrounding cars but I imagine that even if we could see them, we’d be the only ones with smiles on our faces.
From: Vijith, 9:30pm - “maybe no video screens? youre going to be really far back if you ever even get here”
Thom is singing about being eaten by fish, and the wiggly lighting spires, now blue, each turn on a single white bulb which all connect to create meta-wiggly worms floating above his head. It’s captivating and clever and visually impressive, but for a moment it’s not really enough: It’s becoming obvious that the band has no particular intention of ever switching on the giant projection screens on either side of the stage, presumably as part of their new green, highly carbon-conscious touring practices. I had panic attacks after “An Inconvenient Truth” too, but I’m still not sure this is OK with me—it took a lot of time, energy, and money to get me here. That, and also I genuinely hate Mother Nature at the moment.
From: Mehan, 9:46pm - “Srsly losing it in here”
Sensing, perhaps, that the band has likely already taken the stage, a few cars start breaking from the pack and heading back in the direction from whence we came. At first we belittle the drivers of these cars. Clearly, these are folks who lack the fortitude to stick this out until the bitter end. After all, we’ve been in the car for nearly four hours—there’s no turning back now. However, looking out the window at the torrential downpour unfolding outside, I can’t help but wonder if maybe they’re the smart ones.
From: Vijith, 9:50pm - “idioteque…sorry dude”
If the first few songs from Kid A left you wondering where the hell the guitars were, “Idioteque” was the moment where you finally had to face the dawning realization that they weren’t ever going to show up. As such, it’s the focal point of all those modernist adjectives that everyone insists on lobbing at Radiohead’s electronic incarnation: “post-apocalyptic” and “angst-ridding futurism” and so on. It is also, by a mile, the highlight of the night. Phil Selway cedes control of the tempo to metronomic pitch glitches, their intertwined phrasing creating a cyborg drummer as Johnny Greenwood’s latest and greatest effects pad concoctions slosh over everything else. The stage lights up with grids that change on every beat like a Tetris game with no discernible rules, but the graph paper is drunk, the squares instead turning into trapezoids and rhomboids. If there’s a macro-level point to this band, it’s ensuring that the future will have a pulse.
From: Mehan, 9:52pm - “GODDAMN IT”
Inch-by-inch, we approach what looks like a major intersection. There are a number of police cars and officers at the intersection, directing traffic and setting down cones and flares. It looks like they’re starting to close off the road, lane by lane, in preparation for the return traffic. This is a bad sign. Regardless, we manage to squeeze through right before they close off our lane. I start to wonder out loud if there’s any point to all of this—are we ever actually going to get into this venue or are we doomed to forever circle the Nissan Pavilion as part of an endless detour?
From: Vijith, 10:02pm - “ditch car on the side of the road and walk? cant be farther than the lot were in (seriously)”
Looking back, the lawn is now packed with fans, only a few of whom are shielded by umbrellas, and fewer still sufficiently so. We’re all sopping wet, and everyone goes crazy when the third movement of “Paranoid Android” hits—that’d be the part where Yorke howls out the “rain down on me” lines. If you ask me, the tail end of “Snakes and Ladders” would be better deserving of such enthusiasm: “the raindrops/the raindrops/the raindrops/the raindrops,” and so on. My brother wrings out the wrist of his wool sweater and sighs, “I’m a towel.” I can feel little rivers of water running down my arm as well, and eventually I notice that they’re inside my sleeves. It’s the worst timing ever for this realization: My jacket is now no longer even remotely waterproof, either because the seams have been compromised or because Gore-Tex has a limited shelf life. I find this annoying because it was an expensive purchase and I’m a cheapskate; I guess that’s also why I ended up with the lawn seats in the first place.
From: Mehan, 10:06pm - “Were getting close-i think”
We’re starting to see a number of fans walking along the side of the road, some with umbrellas and ponchos, some completely soaked from head-to-toe, seemingly impervious to the elements. It looks like some of them may have parked in the parking lot of a Best Buy that can be seen in the distance, in order to avoid the line leading into the venue’s lot. Desperate times, indeed. Still, we must be getting close if these people are walking to the venue’s entrance—right?
From: Vijith, 10:33pm - “fingers crossed, still lots od good songs left”
Phil Selway again begins to pound his way back into the spotlight, this time with a kick drum that takes control of “Everything in its Right Place”, as that iconic keyboard riff starts to descend and the stage slowly turns pink. Interpreting Radiohead as an examination of the emotionally isolating aspects of technology is admittedly pretty trite at this point, but it’s hard to banish the thought and come up with something more original given that the dangling lighting spires in front of the projections look like bar codes superimposed over faces. With every flash, the butterfly-shaped lights that have been pulsing above the stage all night are starting to look a little bit more like Space Invaders. It’s fascinating to watch Selway work his way back into a band which has effectively learned to make records without him; perhaps he’s able to play a beefier role here since most of the machines have been left at home. Meeting People Is Easy documented the band’s near-breakdown during the OK Computer tour and internal tensions reportedly ran high during the sessions for Hail To The Thief, but if all along the live performances were turning out like this, it’s not hard to see why they stuck it out.
From: Mehan, 10:37pm - “Dude if were not in by 11 were outta here”
Okay, this is getting ridiculous. We’ve been in the car for more than four hours, three of which have been spent waiting in line. We need a plan of action here—after all, even if we do get into the show at this point, we’ll probably only catch a few minutes of the second encore, get soaked to the bone and then have to get right back in the car and wait another four hours to get out of the parking lot. We notice that a few cars are precariously pulling a U-turn on the narrow road and then jetting off in the opposite direction. We decide that if we’re not in the parking lot by 11pm, we should just cut our losses and turn back.
From: Vijith, 11:05pm - “just finished but im sure theyll do a long encore”
“All I Need” was an imperfect opener that quickly won over my critical ears with its sonic depth, and “Planet Telex” does the same for my eyes when it comes out to close the set proper. While Yorke is yelping on about things being broken, we finally get the first full-spectrum display of the whole night: Both the LEDs and the video projections transition to a shockingly bright color palette, and since the first obscures the second, it’s almost impossible to see anything. There’s a bobbing head here and a flailing drummer’s arm there, but for the first time it feels like the band is hiding behind… well, rainbows.
From: Mehan, 11:06pm - “Were already gone”
Just before 11pm, we finally reach the main entrance of the parking lot. Parking cones blocks off the entire entrance and flares and police are directing cars to turn around and head back toward the interstate. The car in front of us rolls down its window and waves a policeman over. The officer yells to them that they cannot enter the parking lot and must turn around. Having no choice in the matter, we comply and on the way back, we see that police have completely blocked off all roads leading into the venue. We were, apparently, one of the last cars allowed through this roadblock, only to be turned away at the entrance. Yeah, I feel dejected but also a little relieved: We’ve managed to stave off the wet and the cold plus we’ll finally get to eat something, whenever we manage to make it back to civilization. At this point, Brian’s eyes light up as if he’s just experienced some sort of epiphany. “Do you know what I’ve got?” he asks before opening the center console and pulling out two packets of Keebler peanut butter and cheese crackers—you know, those neon orange saltine squares with the processed peanut butter sandwiched between them. “My mom forced me to keep these in here when she gave me this car,” Brian says in between crackers. “She said I should save them for a rainy day.”
From: Vijith, 11:20pm - “st louis is next. road trip?”
I breathe a sigh of relief when the vertical strips go green as the band comes out for the encore—they’re trees, obviously. Although “Fake Plastic Trees” is easily my favorite tune from the days when they could be called a rock band without a footnote, instead of being swept away by the sudden outburst of mass heartbreak, I’m just struck by the conceptual coherence across so many of the songs we’ve seen tonight. Rubber foliage and coming ice ages don’t seem to be too far apart when it comes to panic and general hopelessness, and I realize that on some level, even as far back as 1995, this band knew what they were going to become.
From: Mehan, 12:07am - “Meet us at the tastee dood”
Remarkably, the drive back to D.C. is about as painless as can be. I’d like to think that this was our sole stroke of luck for the night but it’s more likely that no one in their right mind would think to get on the road during this nearly Biblical deluge. While the Keebler crackers have helped us stave off starvation, we find ourselves feeling peckish again upon crossing the District line. Having no other recourse, we promptly head to the Tastee Diner in nearby Bethesda, a greasy spoon that’s been open 24 hours a day since 1935. Tucking into the biggest bacon cheeseburger they’ve got, I suddenly feel a sense of complete fulfillment wash over me. It’s as if this is what I’ve been waiting for all night.
From: Vijith, 12:15am - “radio say sflooding right outside nissan? shit this may take a while”
Back in the parking lot, we’re all screaming and laughing as we tear the sopping wet clothing from our bodies, in most cases straining our muscles just trying to navigate a shirt sleeve or pant leg. We collapse inside, but for the time being the car is just a heat source; since one of the major exits from the venue has been flooded, none of the taillights are moving and the traffic is an even bloodier mess than usual. News tidbits about tornadoes and floods crackle from the car speakers, in some ways an appropriate coda for what we’ve just been through. I practically grew up crowd surfing, but this has been by far the most physically demanding concert I’ve ever attended. Mentally, it’s probably close, but at this point I’m no longer in any state to rationally assess much of anything. How much of that is due to each of the above I can’t really say.