In many ways, Radiohead’s August 17th concert at New Jersey’s Liberty State Park could’ve been one giant outtake from the nauseating, gut-wrenching ode to the postmodern melancholia of their 1998 tour documentary, Meeting People Is Easy. In a huge outdoor venue, Radiohead played under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and the imposing downtown Manhattan skyline, flanked by the Hudson River. In front of more than 15,000 mostly twenty-somethings swaying in a large open field, the band ran through the expected alienation anthems like “Exit Music (for a Film)”, “How to Disappear Completely”, and “Fake Plastic Trees”. Accordingly, all the depressed, aching, awkward Radiohead fans ate it all up. With all the apocalyptic nihilism, it could’ve almost passed for 1997.
But unless you’ve been living on the edge of a neutron star for the last two four years, you know that a lot has changed since then. With the releases Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead have eschewed their mantle as the Prozac poster boys of the late ’90s, challenging their fans and admirers with dense, rich sonic landscapes less focused on cascading guitar riffs than subtle moods and evocations.
While Radiohead still play the old guitar opuses like “Paranoid Android” and “Just”, the real thrills of their sets are the pulsing, grooving rhythms of their new material. With tambourine in hand, singer Thom Yorke led the band through a raucous dance rave up on Amnesiac‘s “I Might Be Wrong” as the deep bass interlocked with Johnny Greenwood’s blistering Neil Young-esque guitar hook. Aided by the scratchy record spinning of their opening DJ Kid Koala, Radiohead tore through Kid A‘s “National Anthem” with reckless abandon as Yorke swung a guitar wildly around his body. “Packt like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”, the tinny, ambient opener of Amnesiac, takes on new life played live — a positively deafening fuzz bass line complements heavy drum pounding and feedback as Yorke repeats in a vicious deadpan baritone, “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case, get off my case”. On this go ’round of the States, Radiohead have replaced the triumphant chorus with the cool, sexy, meticulously crafted groove.
The real change in Radiohead, however, is in their demeanor. They no longer exude the air of whiny, depressed, petulant art-rockers. While critics have accused them of being willfully difficult and perverse with the change of style affected on Kid A and Amnesiac, in concert they are affable and loquacious, easy going and, dare I say, fun.
The most telling scene in Meeting People Is Easy was the grainy black and white footage of Radiohead performing their monster 1993 hit “Creep” in front of a packed auditorium of adoring fans. Bitter and nasty, Yorke sings the song in a lazy, half-hearted manner, patronizing the crowd for buying such pathetic self-loathing. The scene is incredibly telling of their state of mind at the time — so sick of fame and PR that they could literally vomit all over the fans.
At Liberty State Park, however, things were quite different. Far from acting bitter and disgusted, Yorke was actually . . . silly! During the pulsing electronica fury of “Idioteque”, Yorke flailed around the stage in frightening ecstasy, arms and legs shooting out and contracting, head spinning, eyes bugging. His ritualized dance to the blips and beeps of the music was that of a man completely devoid of self-consciousness or self-doubt — it was the release of a man having fun. During the band’s second encore, Yorke sat the piano for Amnesiac‘s “You and Whose Army?” as a camera placed at the keys gave the crowd a fishbowl view of Yorke’s face on the two giant TV screens flanking the stage. Instead of using this as a platform for self-righteous agony and seriousness, Yorke uproariously thumbed his nose at the whole set-up as he made silly faces and googly eyes into the camera at his fingers. As he sang the song’s wonderfully sardonic lines, “You and whose army? . . . you and your cronies”, Yorke first pointed into the camera in mock-seriousness before pointing back at crowd behind him.
We were the cronies, the army of toughs coming to get him in all his deflated weakness. On the surface this is pure Radiohead pretentious self-pity — ‘You, the ones that love us, are the ones killing us!’ But in his silly expression and over-dramatic accusatory tone, whispering the words in a humorous rasp of mock-anger, it was clear Yorke was parodying the whole Radiohead complex that has grown around him. His intimacy, openness, and humor let the fans in, instead of keeping them out, as does the pose of deliberate isolation the band usually assumes. During the third encore, Yorke flubbed the piano intro to Amnesiac‘s “Like Spinning Plates”, candidly exclaiming “Fuck!” before starting again. No longer Kafka’s hunger artist or Mingus’s clown, destroying himself on stage to all the world’s delight, Yorke reveals himself now to be a real human being. The music is simply music and not some great, self-deprecating crusade — you mess up, you say fuck, and you move on. The mantle of seriousness has been thrown off, and replaced by good, old-fashioned humanity.
As they blasted through their fourth and final encore, “The Bends” from that rocking album recorded oh so many years ago, the mood was loose and improvisational. Yorke gleefully messed up lines while guitar hooks were drowned in the sea of distortion. Having exorcised whatever demons that were tormenting them, this post-Kid A/Amnesiac Radiohead seems ready to be a band again. It was a glorious return to the planet earth for a band that has been languishing on a neutron star of alienation and awkwardness for too long. Reinvented and reformulated both to rock and to groove, 2001’s Radiohead pursue their own path with an exhilarating sense of freedom and honesty. Far from being willfully difficult, if the critics could’ve seen Yorke’s self-parody on “You and Whose Army?”, they would surely conclude that he was in fact willfully silly, which is nice to see.