Following two nights at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and a handful of festival dates, Radiohead brought their tour through Los Angeles to perform the first of two shows at The Shrine Auditorium, the only theater-sized venue they’re playing in North America this year and the smallest show they’ve performed West of the Rocky Mountains in over ten years. The venue hosted the Academy Awards for a number of years and it’s where James Cameron famously proclaimed himself king of the world. But once the lights went down, the stage belonged to The King of Limbs
Setlists haven’t varied that much this tour and the one thing you can count on is every show starting out with the first five tunes off their most recent release, A Moon Shaped Pool. Recently they tried sticking to just three of the tunes to start the show but that didn’t last more than a few tour dates. The new material is incredibly versatile and demonstrates its influences from all of their work that came before it. Radiohead’s ability to build on existing accomplishments while continuing to push the boundaries they’ve worked within is why their every single move, tweet and website update are analyzed and speculated upon obsessively.
The album was written and recorded while frontman Thom Yorke was separating from his partner of over twenty years and during “Daydreaming,” you could practically hear Yorke coming to terms with the loss of that relationship. Later on in the evening, they performed “True Loves Waits,” a song they’ first performed well over ten years ago but was finally released as the closing track of A Moon Shaped Pool. Rather than reflect upon what once was, you could tell the song finally found its place on a record because it was a space for Yorke to look towards the future of his hearts desires, rather than reflect on love lost.
The first tune that deviated from the song order of A Moon Shaped Pool was “The National Anthem” and it was the only part of the show where the group really missed a step. Not only did Yorke accidentally skip the first verse but when he pow-wowed with bassist Colin Greenwood to get the train back on the tracks there were a few bars where the time signature of that iconic bass line was way off. The group then went into the intro of “Hunting Bears,” that abruptly ended before the lyrics started.
The highlight of the night was a bit of a surprise. “Idioteque” and “Everything In Its Right Place” are both popular enough songs that they’re among the only older tracks that get performed every single night. However, the single best part of the night was “Myxomatosis,” followed by “There, There,” both songs off 2003’s Hail To The Thief. “Myxomatosis” leads with a fuzzy bass rift that forcefully pulls listeners in every direction and has a spastic energy that allowed a guitarless Yorke to go off the deep end and dance around the stage with his signature tweaked-out Hare Krishna dance moves. “There, There” sends both guitarists Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood rocking their own pair of tom toms which results in four percussionists playing alongside Yorke on guitar and Jonny’s brother, Colin, on bass. The beat of the intro is enough to get anyones heart pounding against the inside of their chest but when Jonny switched over to his Fender to join Yorke in a climax of six-string fireworks, the group successfully executed the single most exciting moment of the entire night.
If Radiohead fans have anything in common with fans of the New England Patriots, it’s that they’re both so spoiled by such a consistently exceptional product, their hardships are hard to feel bad about. At this point in Radiohead’s career, their discography is so long that they’re averaging about three songs a night from every other album besides A Moon Shaped Pool and that means that on any given night, there is going to be a whole grocery list of songs you didn’t get to hear.
They closed out the second encore with “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” which was the only song performed off The Bends and if you’re a fan of Amnesiac, that “Hunting Bears,” tease was all you got. That said, future tours are likely to utilize a more diverse cross section of their back catalogue. At The Shrine Auditorium they performed nine of the eleven tracks on the new album which didn’t leave a ton of room for deep cuts.
Fans may have been disappointed by the absence of “Paranoid Android,” “Bodysnatchers,” “Pyramid Song,” or dozens of other songs but the fact of the mater is, newer material is more emotionally relevant to Yorke and his cohorts. As a result, the new songs are played with the most interest and passion.” “Everything In Its Right Place,” is a song Radiohead has performed at almost every single concert for the past 15 years and while it wouldn’t be fair to say it was phoned in, it certainly wasn’t as exciting for them to play as “Burn The Witch.” The more recent the material, the more likely Radiohead is to transcend beyond the on-stage limits of pretty much every other rock band. The conflict over artists performing what they want versus what fans want to hear isn’t going to resolve itself any time soon, but if their performance at The Shrine taught us anything, it’s that as much as you like to hear the classics, Radiohead is at their best playing whatever they want, and if those aren’t your favorite songs, your expectations should be adjusted accordingly.
It’s hard to say if Radiohead is better or worse now than on their last tour because the way they’re curating their performances around the structure of a studio product. It’s an unprecedented approach for them and therein lies the magic. Radiohead wasn’t better or worse than they were the last time they came through town, but they were certainly different and their dedication to experimentation and disciplined professionalism made for a performance beyond quantification. Seeing them in an intimate setting was a unique experience anyone who attended can and will brag about for years to come. With a headlining performance at San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music Festival one day away, the compare-and-contrast between what we saw last night verses how they do it for 80,000 people in Golden Gate Park is going to give us an awful lot to analyze and more analysis is definitely coming. Stay tuned…