It’s hard not to be that person at a Radiohead show. You know, that person with their phone out, constantly taking pictures or video or Snapchat stories of the spectacle on stage. It’s enough that the band has written dozens of soul-glowing hits to score the lives of their fans for over two decades, but the epileptic psychedelia of their stage presence begs to be broadcast to your friend feed. Thom Yorke may indeed be paranoid, but by now, he truly knows the entire world is watching.
Radiohead devotees harbor a radiant fervor mostly reserved for pop stars like Justin Bieber and Drake. As they kicked off their new tour for their latest album, last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, there were fans at Miami’s American Airlines Arena who’d seen the band five or six times, as well as fans catching their first performance. The band’s spell is maddening, and in the heat of live performance, it catches fire, bewitching people to come back again and again.
There were no big explosions or guitar flexing at the start of this performance, only blue and purple mood lighting and the haunting whine of icons “just happy to serve” as they began with “Daydreaming,” off the new LP. They moved into another new tune, “Desert Island Disk,” holding back on the crunching guitar and pulse-racing pace until “Ful Stop” spurred the manic light explosion. Live-feed images of the band were cast onto a kidney-shaped screen in squares so even the nose bleeds could catch the twisted faces of men at work.
The work is hard and devoted. You can see Radiohead’s passion for the music even while it rejects all pretension for its position on an arena stage. There are no grandstanding statements between songs, no pathetic jock-strap posturing, no emotional heartfelt bullshit about how great it’s been. The closest to bragging they ever came was Yorke’s introductory “We are called Radiohead, and I think you know since you came to see us.”
There is, however, a mind-numbing series of instrument exchanges. Not a song goes by without a complete switch up of the sextet’s arrangement. The band still employs a second drummer: Portishead’s Clive Deamer who joined them for the complex percussive elements on their King of Limbs performances. Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Yorke move back and forth between different electric and acoustic guitars, tambourins, maracas, pianos, keyboards, modular synthesizers, and keytars.
Nobody speaks to the beautiful loneliness of modern monotony like these guys. My favorite Radiohead is the one that can’t stop hearing the tick of the second hand on the wall. I got that vibe heavy on “Morning Bell” and “Videotape,” but we also got the misty-eyed romance of “All I Need” and “Nude.” We got the raw alternative power of ’90s jams “Airbag,” the techno shaman weirdness of “Lotus Flower,” and the post-apocalyptic ambiance of “Idioteque.” All the while, I was transfixed by Yorke’s bizarre, sometimes watery and sometimes jackhammer movements – not to mention the eye-numbing whiplash of primary colors and roving spotlights.
The real magic, though, is in the communal nature of the whole experience. Radiohead’s catalog is so beloved, it belongs to the people singing in the crowd as much as it does to the geniuses on stage. For all the bright brilliance of the light show, the coolest moment came at the silence before the first encore when the arena decided all at once to turn its phone lights on, transforming the crowd into an electric Milky Way. Again, when the band returned to perform “No Surprises,” it was our strength that sent shivers up my spine as we roared in unison after the words “bring down the government / they don’t speak for us.” And because we all imbue “Fake Plastic Trees” with such meaning, it was a hallowed experience.
After a second encore that ended with In Rainbows favorite “Bodysnatchers,” the magic spell was finally lifted, but it could never be broken. How can you break that which is the hope of the broken? It’s that indestructible spirit that gives Radiohead its most enduring power.
Desert Island Disk
Climbing Up The Walls
All I Need
I Might Be Wrong
How to Disappear
Burn The Witch
Fake Plastic Trees
You And Whose Army?