[25 October 2009]
Thom Yorke loves a good bass line. He was 16 when he wrote the riff for “The National Anthem” and played it when recorded for Kid A. On his solo album, The Eraser, the bass propelled songs forward and provided a melodic counterpoint to his vocals. Once shock subsided from Thom’s announced new band, attention immediately turned to the man on the four-string, Michael Balzary. For me, Balzary (a.k.a. Flea) was a surprising but inspired choice. I wondered whether Thom and Flea would have chemistry. Who would out dance whom? Could I still get tickets? After a little luck, I arrived at L.A.’s Orpheum Theater as eager as everyone else to see if Flea could keep his clothes on.
As I take my balcony seat, I see a Spartan stage set before a black curtain. To the left sits a piano, in the middle rests a mike stand before a few speakers, but that is it. When the house lights dim, the black curtain rises to reveal three platforms packed with synths, a drum kit, and assorted beat-makers. The crowd jumps to its feet and erupts into applause. Thom acknowledges the ovation then sits at the piano to strike the opening chords to “The Eraser”.
Across the stage, Flea stares at Thom’s back. He waits patiently until plucking his first note. While playing, he slowly bobs and weaves along the edges of color splashing across the stage but never ventures far into the center. Instead, Flea hovers before the right platform housing percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Mauro Refosco, who, from a distance, bears a resemblance to Wayne Coyne. On the center platform is Beck/R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker, who later hops from behind the kit wearing white pants worthy of an elder Floridian.
Producer extraordinaire Nigel Godrich occupies the left platform and shares his side of the stage with Thom. I was excited to see the prolific producer play but the speakers hanging above Thom’s piano obscure my view. All I can see are black pants and white sneakers shuffling between stands that, I assume, hold synths. During the show, Nigel adds textures and atmospheric sounds to each song. He twice steps from the platform with a guitar to give me a better view but mainly stays hidden, saving the stage for Thom, who rarely sits still through a complete song.
As “The Eraser” spirals to a close, Thom springs from his seat into the center of the stage. The crowd, most still standing, roars but Flea does not stop playing. Instead, he steps toward the center of the stage as his bass line keeps churning. Meanwhile, a stagehand slips a guitar around Thom’s neck. Thom finds his bearings then turns to Flea. They lock in and come together at center stage. Hunched over their guitars, Thom and Flea turn the end of “The Eraser” into an all out sonic assault, quickly silencing my question about their chemistry.
The band proceeds to plow through the rest of The Eraser album with aplomb. Flea’s fingers fly through runs on “Analyse” that I had never heard before. After the show, I give the song a good listen and discover the runs buried deep in the mix. “Black Swan” soars behind the beautiful interplay of Thom’s guitar and Flea’s bass. For me, it is the only song that, with eyes closed, sounds just like Radiohead.
Halfway through the show, most of the audience is still on its feet. Thom thanks the crowd and says, “This is an album you’re supposed to move to,” and he adds with a laugh, “At least in my head.” Later he coaxes the sitters to get up and dance to “Harrowdown Hill”, a song about the suspicious death of a Blair-era biological warfare expert. The performance proves that politics and paranoia can produce a great dance track. Thom’s manic dancing keeps the crowd on its feet and moving, turning the song into the show’s high water mark. After an extended applause, “Cymbal Rush” closes the set. The band slowly builds to an end bursting with beauty and tension. It is a good moment but Radiohead does it better.
For the encore, Thom returns alone. He plays two new songs, “Lotus Flower” and “Moon Upon A Stick” on guitar. Then he shuffles through loose pages on top of the piano, grabs a few, and plunks down to play “Skirting On the Surface”. After, he swaps the pages and proceeds with “Super Collider”. The rest of the band rambles onto stage for “Paperbag Writer”, which Radiohead released as a b-side to “There There”. The song sounds neither like the original nor an inspired interpretation. It just falls flat. Next comes “Judge, Jury and Executioner”, which Thom says the band wrote three weeks prior while rehearsing at a house in a hot, sweaty canyon. It is engaging but overshadowed by the finale.
Thom ends with his most recent release, a two track, 12 inch that frames the ambition of his solo work. “The Hollow Earth” bounces along beautifully between Flea’s bass and Thom’s vocals, which turn eerie as his voice is snipped, snarled, and sent around the theater. It is as much a pop song as The Eraser is a dance album but it works. Then comes the deep drum and bass pulse of “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses”. At home and alone I found the song somewhat cold and repetitive, but live I could have listened all night. Powered by Waronker and Refosco, the rhythm section plays their asses off as Thom flings himself around like a possessed rag doll, definitely winning the dance contest.
In the end, it is an all around memorable night, even if Flea kept his clothes on. Before the last song, Thom mentions how much the band has enjoyed playing together, and that, hopefully, they will do this again next year. Let me speak for L.A. when I say that you are welcome back anytime Thom.