Live Review: Radiohead @ Shrine Auditorium, August 8, 2016

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Radiohead brought down the curtain in grand fashion on their California jaunt of their brief A Moon Shaped Pool tour–a headlining set up north at Outside Lands festival, bracketed by a pair of relatively intimate shows here at the Shrine Auditorium, the second of which took place this past Monday evening. 

The beloved iconic English act have always had a special relationship with L.A., dating back to their early days on Capitol Records, going on to record music here, play epic Hollywood Bowl shows (and one famous tiny charity concert), frontman Thom Yorke basing his Atoms for Peace project here and occasionally spotted at one of the hipper electronic music nights around town.  Add to this the fact that tickets to the shows for this modest sized venue (capacity just over 6,000, compared to about three times that for the NYC shows at MSG two weeks ago) were incredibly difficult to come by, the jammed on-sale back in March causing a minor ripple of outrage across online channels (Yorke himself expressing frustration at the time) and it was all but expected that the band would bring a little something extra to the this pair of shows.

Once past a mostly efficient “ticketless” entry process aimed to foil the ticket touts, past a scene out front of actually ticketless diehards milling around, hoping for miracles (more upbeat than desperate, clearly aware of the absurdity of the situation, one young lady’s shirt reading “I need tickets! I have cash!”) the Shrine buzzed with that rare sense of special event. Entering the main room, deep bass and clacking drums from Shabazz Palaces’ opening set amped up the energy all the more (more on their knockout two-man show later). 

Led to the stage by drummers Phil Selway and sixth man Clive Deamer, on loan from Portishead, they went with the usual opening sequence for the brief AMSP tour – the slow burn electric version of comeback single “Burn The Witch” as the opener, segueing through the next four songs from the new album, in order.  The partisan crowd not only indulged the airing of new songs, but clearly savored them. It’s no small measure of where this band resides in people’s hearts that the newest ones are completely embraced so quickly.  “Decks Dark,” live tonight is a slinky tight groove held down on bass by Colin Greenwood (long the bands not so secret weapon) is fast earning a place as new live favorite, the crowd anticipating Jonny Greenwood’s guitar stabs in the end section. Jonny will own much of the night as tunes that spotlight some of his freakier guitar work are on tap. Eventually, a driving “Ful Stop” closes the AMSP opening chapter, and the crowd is eager to see what unique stamp the rest of the show will take. 

Following “My Iron Lung” (sneering and rowdy as ever) and “Morning Mr. Magpie” (really awakened live from the King of Limbs version), the show would get its unique signature with a sequence of “Lucky,” “Pyramid Song” and “Like Spinning Plates,” the latter of which is rare on this tour, with Thom delivering a particularly special vocal and piano performance.
The rest of the two hours plus show flies by, 24 tunes in all, nearly every one received rapturously. “Bodysnatchers” and “2+2=5,” both absent from the first Shrine show, crank up the electric guitars in fiery renditions. The other unique songs from the first Shrine set list are “Feral” (a cracking heavy version) and a gasp-inducing “Airbag,” whose memorable E-string riff launches the landmark OK Computer. “True Love Waits,” once the rarest of rare live-only unrecorded tracks, now seemingly is a setlist mainstay having found its final home on AMSP in a piano arrangement, begins the encore. There are audible sniffles scattered throughout the crowd, couples clenching each other, clearly a song that means much to many.

Lyrically, Radiohead has always been a curious bird, shunning obvious top-down narratives for cut and paste associations, hypnotic repetitions, idiomatic phrases repurposed to take on sinister tinges, and more recently laying bare emotions. Snippets of some of the older more biting lyrics take on added resonance in light of the toxic politics today–“While you make pretty speeches, I’m being cut to shreds…” (“Like Spinning Plates”); or “Bring down the government, they don’t speak for us…” (“No Surprises,” played Night 1 at the Shrine) or even still, “When I am king, you will be the first against the wall…” (“Paranoid Android”) (Will make sense when Trump is appointed king.)  What might have been dismissed as paranoia around the turn of the millennium, in 2016 looks eerily prescient and today is basically documentary.

Thom is in fine live form, silly smirking throughout, kinetically prancing during ones where he’s not anchored to his guitar or keyboard.  “Idioteque” is particularly frenetic.  More and more though, we see the seams of his performance, his own awareness of our awareness that he is putting on a show, and as such perhaps is having a bit of a laugh at us, pushing it over the top at times, for wooing him on.  Between songs, he throws out just a few words here and there in a sort of an American accent.  (Outside Lands got even more of that treatment.) The first full sentence comes in the final encore when he finally thanks us and lest we find his gratitude too earnest, he adds, “And thank you for squeezey cheese in a can.”   

The visual element is always key to the Radiohead stage show and this time the stage display design has a bit of a nod to a beloved (slowly dying) analog medium with the digital LED screens used on this oriented as six rectangular screens separated by square blocks that resemble film strip sprocket holes.  (The video for “Daydreaming” by Paul Thomas Anderson was given to select theaters on 35mm film just prior to the release of AMSP.)  Over the course of the show, the “film strip” holes squares rotate and alternate colors and patterns in sync to the beat, a nice transformation of the old into something new.

So then, where is Radiohead, these days in the larger scheme of things, careerwise? Jonny has already alluded to a next record on NPR, so any worries of a wind down that might have been sensed in the current record and limited tour can be shelved. A Moon Shaped Pool is their most straightforward statement sonically and lyrically, arrangement, production, poetry, artwork even, largely simplified and laid bare in comparison to prior albums. Maybe there’s a bit of a clue as to where their heads are these days in their current show intro audio–an interview clip from Nina Simone (“What is freedom? It’s just a feeling. I’ll tell you what freedom means to me: no fear.  I mean, really: no fear.”)–their most direct intro, far removed from the intros of recent tours of ghostly vocal loops or ping-ponging electronic beats. There’s a welcome clarity unusual for them here, no obfuscation in Simone’s words: freedom is a feeling, a feeling of no fear.  This is a band that perhaps has finished its earlier phases of warning us about the demons lurking about. There’s no more fear, thus comes the freedom. We’ll be looking forward to them operating in this newfound mode for a while to come.

The A Moon Shaped Pool resumes for Austin City Limits Festival and a pair of sold-out shows in Mexico City, October 3 & 4.

Photo by Sung. Full set here.

Set list

Burn the Witch
Decks Dark
Desert Island Disk
Ful Stop
My Iron Lung
Morning Mr. Magpie
Pyramid Song
Like Spinning Plates
The Numbers
Everything in Its Right Place
True Love Waits
Present Tense
2 + 2 = 5
Lotus Flower
Paranoid Android

Past Radiohead Coverage

2012 Coachella Festival, Weekend 1
2012 Coachella Festival, Weekend 2
Benefit for Oxfan Haiti Relief, January 10, 2010
Live in Santa Barbara, August 28, 2008