Radiohead, Benefit for Oxfam Haiti Relief, Henry Fonda Theater, January 24, 2010

Radiohead, Benefit for Oxfam Haiti Relief, Henry Fonda Theater, January 24, 2010

PHOTO by Sung. Check out his full photo set for Pitchfork here.

Throwing up a “bat signal” to fans and donors for an imminent benefit show—if ever an event could be announced, placed on sale, sold out and performed all in the space of four short days can be so highly anticipated, this was it—Radiohead performed a rare small club show at the Henry Fonda Theater this past Sunday. Again taking advantage of the Internet’s strengths by quickly getting word on their website and then auctioning tickets online to the highest bidders, the show raised an impressive $572 thousand and change for Haiti relief efforts by Oxfam.

Coming into the Fonda, right away one picked up on a definite heightened energy in the air. Die-hard fans, some of whom queued up as early as 12 noon 7 a.m. and paid a minimum of $475 for their ticket, are already pressed up against the stage barricade. Celebs mingle easily with ordinary folk. It’s one of those rare occasions where everyone feels like a VIP just for the privilege of being in the room. Everyone knows they are about to witness a special event and the collective level anticipation gives off some electricity.

It feels slightly ridiculous to review the performance itself at a benefit show, where the quality of the show is not really the point of the evening, especially one arranged on such short notice, in the midst of recording new material. Suffice to say, I’d be surprised if anyone who left this show disappointed.

On an undecorated stage beneath basic house lighting and armed only with standard rock instrumentation—guitars, bass, drums, keys—nary a laptop or sampler in sight—they worked through a thoroughly satisfying set of two dozen tunes. Opening with Thom and Jonny on dualing acoustics for Faust Arp, the intimate scale is established right from the outset. Popular hits such as Fake Plastic Trees, The Bends, Karma Police, Paranoid Android, The Bends, retain their power, a decade plus later. More recent tunes, such as Nude, Arpeggi and Reckoner, from the In Rainbows era are aging nicely and securing their places in the canon. The National Anthem and Bodysnatchers are thrashed out pleasingly with just the right crunchy bite.

Clad in his usual casual cowboy shirt and stubbly beard, Thom is in good spirits, grinning and bantering between tunes, joking about forgetting lyrics for being out of practice. He takes the mic in hand to belt out the rap of Wolf at The Door and dances a dance that can only be his dance. Late in the set, he proudly reads out the gross take for Oxfam and thanks the highest ticket donor by name.

What comes across at this rare close range, at moderate club level volume, minus all the usual video and lighting accompaniment, is how the dynamics and arrangements make these songs and that, even with presumably rented instruments without their full array of effects and gear, they retain their power; they scale down nicely. There’s no denying the range of these songs that move fluidly from full band, electric rock to stripped down acoustic to piano ballad, everything from Everything In It’s Right Place, performed in a rare upright piano solo version (the crowd providing the beat) to the organic, unprocessed live version of Kid A, to a solo Thom electric guitar performance of Lotus Flower (the one new song aired, to much excitement) really is impressive.

While many bands have displayed allegiance to various charitable causes to varying degrees—Coldplay and Pearl Jam come immediately to mind—in some ways perhaps only Radiohead and their particular fan base that tend to have a nice mix of both rabid fandom and social conscientiousness (and perhaps a bit of spare pocket change), could have pulled off this kind of benefit on short notice. While the night was memorable, here’s to hoping for some kind of sustained effort on the Haiti cause as well as other worthwhile causes.

Set list:

Faust Arp
Fake Plastic Trees
Arpeggi/Weird Fishes
The National Anthem
Karma Police
Kid A
Morning Bell
How to Disappear Completely
A Wolf at the Door
The Bends
Dollars & Cents
Exit Music

Everything in Its Right Place
You and Whose Army?
Pyramid Song
All I Need

Lotus Flower
Paranoid Android
Street Spirit (fade out)