If ever a band lived and died by what it hates the most, it is Radiohead. They eschew attention, yet they’re media darlings. Reactions to their recent recordings are anything but lukewarm, yet they refuse to explain themselves. They transform studio-centric creations into live songs that are both towering and incandescent, yet they tour infrequently. In essence, they’re the more cynical soulmates of Chance the Gardener in the book and film Being There: the more ambiguous and ambivalent they act, the more adored they become.
Most of these perceptions revolve around lead singer Thom Yorke, whose disconcerting expressionlessness begs for misinterpretation. He is the prototype Mystery Man. You never know what’s going on inside his head, but you wish you did because there always seems to be a fury brewing behind those sleepy eyes. His uncomfortable silence has made him an easy foil for music critics—a profession whose members Yorke largely disdains—and as a result he’s been branded a mad, reclusive, wounded genius.
There are plenty of reasons for thinking he’s not a genius and that Radiohead are hacks who’ve received far too much attention from a cultish following of decoder ring intellectuals who’ve mistakenly sought meaning in songs that are more form than function. Nothing stops the quest for canonization in Radiohead circles, though, where everyone’s out for transcendence: Is this merely a rock band, or is it that rare entertainment commodity that is greater than the sum of its parts? Pick your perception.
Or put them on a stage, give them guitars, amps and all manner of lights, and watch as perception becomes irrelevant. Forget the squabbles over the originality and technical merits of their studio recordings, because in concert Radiohead are as organic and explosive as any band playing today.
In concert is where Yorke’s fury boils over. As the gutteral riffing of “Airbag” quieted only two songs into the set, Yorke stood there shaking uncontrollably, allowing his already slight singing to wander in and out of the microphone’s range. The loss of control led to disjointed vocal that was more annoying than inspired, as if he was messing with the levels for no other reason than to do it.
It was a rare miscue, however, and Yorke calculated his bursts with more thought and personality the remainder of the evening. He was hardly outgoing, but the cold shoulder he turns toward the press, and that the press in turn reports as his universally unpleasant demeanor, was nowhere to be found.
To an audience of intense fans—many drove two hours or more to be at the comparatively isolated Santa Barbara Bowl—these touches of humanity were a revelation.
Even Yorke’s mistakes were greeted with rapture. After flubbing the first verse of “Bulletproof”, Yorke stopped the music and said “I forgot the first verse . . . aw fuck it, I’ll just make it up.” The band had to wait for the applause and shouts to die down before starting again. During the next song, “Talk Show Host”, when Yorke stepped out to the edge of the stage in front of the orchestra pit, a crush of hands stretched out to get just a touch. As seriously as Radiohead fans take their music, they, like most other pop culture devotees, need an icon. Thom Yorke was happy to oblige.
The scene was not only the perfect visual for Radiohead’s greatest strength in concert, but for their greatest strength as a band: Radiohead’s arguable brilliance does not lie in their incomparable originality, it lies in how they excel at displaying their originality. Yorke knows when people will gaze at him as if he’s a rock icon not because he’s trained himself to do so, but because he has a natural suspense about him. Guitarists Ed O’Brien and Johnny Greenwood dropped to the ground to play their distortion pedals by hand during the eerie “Everything in Its Right Place” neither because it made it easier nor because it looked cooler—they simply wanted to show what they were doing.
Intelligence without arrogance is a tough task to pull off. Try too hard and you’re pretentious. Don’t try hard enough and you’re misunderstood. Radiohead show you how smart they are without elaborating, which is good because if they did elaborate, the mystery would be solved and the band wouldn’t be half as interesting.
Besides, concerts are all about elaboration. “Everything in Its Right Place” was given a stronger backbeat as Yorke knobbed and twiddled his voice into oblivion. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box” was transformed from an atmospheric meditation to a jolty dance number with its guitar riffs mangled to sound like a CD skipping, while Yorke plaintively chanted “get off my case” over and over again. The piercing riffs of “I Might Be Wrong” obliterated any polished electronic edges, yet Yorke’s ghostly wail and piano playing right after on “Pyramid Song” couldn’t have been less alike the collision of sounds that preceded it.
At other points the collisions and juxtapositions were purely visual. “Dollars & Cents” was an electric Aurora Borealis as the fluorescent bulbs and Christmas tree lights behind the band and the spotlights above them came in gentle, ethereal waves, while on “Idioteque” they blinked and flashed like a thousand electric signs, as if Radiohead had embraced commercial trash and purged it in the same moment.
After seeing such disparate highs and lows all on the same stage by the same band, you can’t help but wonder if Radiohead thrives on its contradictions. Are they the band that smashes through “Idioteque”, or are they the skinny lead singer who can open the first encore with a solo acoustic track as fragile as “True Love Waits?” Are they the band that can please the crowd with inexplicable sing-alongs like “Karma Police”, or are they the band that can spend the rest of the evening slightly above such standard concert cliches and still give the audience what they want?
Perhaps they are the sum of their contradictions. People may love Radiohead because they’re just misunderstood enough to keep them guessing and just predictable enough to always sound familiar. The familiarity gives Yorke the leeway to get away with shameless segueways like “That song’s for anyone who thinks we’re going to die in a flood, or maybe I’m just paranoid” before “Paranoid Android”. The misunderstanding requires that he introduce a gravelly, inspired cover of “Cinnamon Girl” by saying “This is for Neil Young—and it’s meant as a compliment.”
And the culmination of familiarity and misunderstanding allows Radiohead to close with “Fake Plastic Trees”, an aesthetic masterpiece that after six years can still bring an audience to stone silence before lifting them to climatic crescendo. A more—or less—self-conscious band couldn’t get away with this kind of pandering, but by staying mysterious and letting the music do the explaining in concert, Radiohead can get away with just about anything.