Rhapsody In August
Radiohead at The Tweeter Center, August 13
Review by Jonathan Keane
Recently, The Boston Globe devoted a full section to the band Radiohead, tapping three writers to offer three very different takes on the group's music.. One writer observed that one way to look at the band that Radiohead has become is as a group of experimenters, a rather academic analogy that makes for a nice fit. But Radiohead doesn't really experiment in the play-whatever-feels-right-and-forget-the-naysayers garage rock sense; instead, they experiment with distinct purpose, tinkering with context, beautifully juxtaposing rhythms and textures that don't necessarily go with one another on paper. Radiohead takes their sonic chances wisely, and in doing so creates the kind of challenging music that rewards listening in pensive solitude, when the band's subtlety can really pop out.
Which is why an arena like the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, MA, seemed a dubious choice of venue. As if the necessity of jacking up the volume to treat the stadium-sized crowd and thus blurring crucial nuance isn't enough, an overabundance of folks blurred by alcohol and hungry for hits isn't exactly ideal company when you're looking to really soak in a show. And while the band hasn't completely abandoned their crunchy guitar-driven numbers-they ended up playing both "Paranoid Android" and "Creep" at the Mansfield show -- precious few of the songs they write and perform these days are of the arena rock ilk. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that not only could Radiohead tame a crowd fueled on beer and dance-happy ditziness, but that they could do so with polished sound production and a performance faithful to the albums.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks worked out well in the opening slot, spinning ethereal, spring-scented pop that was largely (and mercifully) devoid of the sort of chintzy, cutesy irony that made people think Malkmus was a really clever guy when he was with Pavement. Guitarist Mike Clark added tasteful contrast by grounding the airy material with straight blues leads, then letting loose with enough lively twists and turns to send the songs back into the stratosphere.
Radiohead opened with back-to-back songs from their latest album, Hail To the Thief, "2+2=5" and "Sit Down, Stand Up," setting the tone for an evening that would dip heavily into the off-kilter electronic malaise that the band has been mining since OK Computer. Drummer Phil Selway, possibly the MVP of the evening, churned out and sustained beats with such precision that at times it seemed as though his patterns were being generated by digital samples (for all of the fresh invention that he brings to the fore, he's a tremendously underrated musician.)
As the band crashed the choruses of "Paranoid Android," the spectacle of arena rock began to take shape, with stark blasts of colored light adding visual oomph. There was fog too, and the stage was flanked by video screens that projected blurred footage of each band member, helping to foster a sense of the surreal. Perhaps the most compelling spectacle of all, however, was the scrambling of the stage hands between nearly every song as the band switch instruments, a technique that served to underscore each musician's versatility.
One of the night's surprises was "Creep," which Radiohead tends to shy away from in live performances, be it because they wish to spite the hit paraders or just out of sheer boredom. At any rate, Thom Yorke sounded bored on this song, muttering the vocals as dispassionately as someone groggily half-asleep. Disappointing, because "Creep" is a genuinely great song; if Radiohead is somehow trying to distance themselves from the band they were when they wrote it, why bother playing it at all?
Otherwise, Yorke was pitch-perfect throughout the rest of the night's performance, pogoing around the stage with an energy that sustained through two encores. He proved that he is a capable instrumentalist, leading the band with gloomy piano themes and lending another voice to their multi-pronged guitar attack. Though "The National Anthem" lacked its clattering horn climax, Yorke helped to offset the omission, tossing shardy chords over Colin Greenwood's distorted, punchy bassline.
The real star of the show, though, was unquestionably Johnny Greenwood, who packed a whopping arsenal of sound-generating tools and toys, among them a gizmo that resembled a boombox and a hulking computer console bursting with knobs and dials that looked like it came from the Cold War era. It was almost funny, watching this guy meticulously twiddle switches and pull cords, mostly because you wondered how he-or anyone, for that matter-could possibly produce sounds in an intentional musical sequence on the arcane equipment. But that's exactly what he did, replicating the otherworldly madness that he captured on record, scattering wisps of shrill static, plump blips, and ominous pitch shifts far into the night sky.
For all the mad scientist activity, however, Greenwood evoked the most impassioned audience response with his frenzied guitar leads. Dressed in jeans and vintage Honda T-shirt, his lanky frame hunched over his instrument, he bashed away at the strings as though his very life depended on it, sending the crowd into a tizzy as he coaxed rattles, squeals, and scrapes from his axe.
... come to think of it, maybe there is something to that garage rock thing