Radiohead: 17 May 2008 - The Woodlands, TX

Chris Conaton

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.



City: The Woodlands, TX
Venue: Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
Date: 2008-05-17

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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