17 May 2008: Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion The Woodlands, TX
As we walked into the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, there were snatches of conversation all around us in the line. Things like “Oh, we drove here from Austin and we’re going to see them in Dallas tomorrow night, too!” and “What? You came all the way from Arkansas to see the show?” Clearly, people are willing to travel long distances to see Radiohead play, and they now seem to be developing the kind of rabid fanbase that very few artists outside of the jam band community enjoy. Besides Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam, I can’t think of any other acts that attract the enormous throngs of traveling fans as Radiohead. Maybe Springsteen still carries that kind weight, although I doubt many of his boomer-generation fans have the time or schedule availability to just pick up and follow him around the country. Like Pearl Jam, Springsteen, and every jam band ever, though, Radiohead has developed a reputation as a great live act, and a big part of that is their willingness to change up the setlist every night. This current tour has found the band changing roughly 50% of the set from show to show.
Most of the aforementioned groups have built or at least retained their audiences through relentless touring, but Radiohead tours sparingly. Their current U.S. leg is a perfect example, with a mere eight stops across the southern part of the country. Maybe this makes Radiohead shows less of a familial gathering of the sort you used to see at Grateful Dead and Phish concerts, and more of a religious pilgrimage for the hardcore fans. It certainly seemed that way for more than a few of the folks around us under the pavilion. “Religious experience” would be taking things a little far for me, but I have to admit that the band puts on quite a performance.
The stage set was filled with long tubes. The ones on the outside went floor-to-ceiling, while the tubes closer to the middle hung down to about 10-12 feet above the band. Once the band started playing, these tubes lit up in a huge variety of colors and patterns and served as the light show for the night. It was a unique setup that gave the concert an appropriately spacey, slightly off-kilter feel. There was also a video screen at the back of the stage that showed various band members throughout the night, but it was difficult to see from my vantage point at far stage right. Radiohead came onstage unassumingly—so unassumingly that guitarist Jonny Greenwood spent the first two songs in a red hoodie with the hood pulled up and over his face. Those first two songs were “15 Step” and “Bodysnatchers” from In Rainbows. They went on to play every song from that album throughout the course of the night.
Besides the In Rainbows tunes, the show featured mostly material from Kid A and beyond. “Pyramid Song” in all its slow-moving, ethereal glory, was greatly aided by the watery, deep blue lighting. It was somewhere during this song that a drunken lady next to us shouted “How can you not dance to this?!” There were some danceable moments during the night, but this was definitely not one of them. On the other hand, “The National Anthem”, coming a few songs later with its deep-groove bassline, was possibly the most body-moving song of the show. “The Gloaming”, not really one of the standout tracks from Hail to the Thief, was made more impressive live by its eerie green light show, while “Reckoner”, with its extra percussion and warm guitar, didn’t need much enhancement.
An army of roadies were on hand throughout the show to quickly change instruments for the band and to move the piano or electic piano in front and out of the way for Thom Yorke to play. Whenever he had a chance, Yorke did the odd head-shaking and spastic dancing he has become known for, although as usual he didn’t address the crowd very much. In keeping with the whole religious experience angle, the audience reacted wildly whenever he did acknowledge us, even if it was merely a simple “thank you”. The main set closed with a trio of mid-tempo heavyweights, the exciting “Everything in Its Right Place”, the emotional “All I Need”, and a surprisingly forceful live rendition of “There There”, complete with Jonny and Ed O’Brien playing timbales instead of guitars.
The band stuck with the pattern of the rest of the tour, playing two encores. The first encore ended with the evening’s only songs from The Bends, “Planet Telex” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. “Telex” utilized the tube lighting for nearly-blinding rainbow effects and was easily the hardest-rocking song of the night, while “Street Spirit” was a beautiful closer. The cheering after the first encore reached deafening levels, until the band reappeared onstage for the final two songs, when it actually got louder. The second encore found Thom sitting at the piano and belting out the sleepy “You and Whose Army?”, to a rapturous reception. They finished out the night with the show’s other truly danceable moment, “Idioteque”.
The drawback of the band playing different sets every night on top of not touring that much is that it’s easy to miss out on songs you want to hear. I had never seen modern-day Radiohead (a 30-minute opening gig for R.E.M. in ‘95 before I actually owned The Bends doesn’t quite count), so there were a handful of songs from OK Computer and The Bends I was really hoping to hear. Sure, I didn’t really expect to hear them all, but I was certainly hoping to get more than “Street Spirit”. As impressive as the show was, and it was excellent, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed personally at not getting any of the band’s great older songs. They’ve certainly earned the right to play whatever they want, though, and it’s not worth the effort to complain too much. At least I had the chance to see them without having to travel hundreds of miles.