Extreme circumstances can yield extreme results. Indeed, were it not for a global pandemic, we might have never seen or heard the Smile at all. As multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood recently told Uncut about how the group formed, “there was just lots of frustration at not getting a chance to write or play with anyone, coupled with having many pent-up ideas. It was a glorious release, suddenly playing with Thom and Tom.”
A glorious release for sure, and highly unusual even though Greenwood has been playing with Thom Yorke in Radiohead for more than three decades. That band’s massive success and resultantly complicated infrastructure made it an unlikely delivery method for the new songs both men were working on together during lockdown. Instead, they simply — and somewhat audaciously — formed another band in tandem with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, with whom Greenwood had previously collaborated on his soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master.
This is a move without comparability in modern rock music — imagine Noel and Liam Gallagher forming a new band outside of Oasis while Oasis was still putting out relevant, chart-topping music. But extreme circumstances, not to mention the rise of a women’s movement, Black Lives Matter, and Brexit protests, provided Yorke with sufficient inspiration to write songs quickly, kicking back against the right-wing fear-mongering and the scary and disorienting periods of social isolation that have since affected every other human on Earth.
History be damned, then: here is the Smile, taking the stage for its North American tour finale at Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium. For more than two hours, the band played all but one of the 13 tracks from its debut album A Light for Attracting Attention, a consensus choice for record of the year on both sides of the Atlantic. “Please! We are all the same!,” Yorke pleaded as album opener “The Same” kicked off the set, with thin rows of red lights bathing the band from behind. “Thin Thing” followed as Skinner moved behind the drum kit, showcasing the full power and dynamic range of the trio. Greenwood dripped gorgeous layers of guitar countermelodies all over “The Opposite” and on “Speech Bubbles,” simultaneously played piano with his left hand while plucking a harp with his right. Pre-recorded synths introduced “Waving a White Flag,” every section of which slapped noticeably harder than on record.
With 60 performances now under its belt, the Smile has become a ferocious and confident live band. Clearly inspired by the results, Yorke, Greenwood, and Skinner have continued writing new material and workshopping it on the road before recording begins again in the new year, presumably for the band’s follow-up LP. Five new songs were played tonight, the first of which, “Colors Fly,” featured opener Robert Stillman layering saxophone squalls underneath a nervy eastern-sounding modal scale from Greenwood and pulsing bass from Yorke. “Under Our Pillows” was a shimmering dark lullaby of beautiful chord changes and chiming guitar patterns throughout. “Teleharmonic” began sparsely, with Yorke’s staccato vocals gliding across ringing chords, before Greenwood conjured a driving bass groove to push the song towards a swirling climax.
Album highlight (and one-time Radiohead song) “Skrting on the Surface” brought the auditorium to its feet, before Stillman returned for a run of singles (“Pana-vision,” “The Smoke,” and “You Will Never Work in Television Again”) that closed the main set with three of the finest songs Yorke and Greenwood have written in years. The funny thing is that they don’t sound like Radiohead. They sound like the Smile.
By the time the encore began with “Open the Floodgates,” the trio’s virtuosic knack for dazzling, interlocking arrangements and effortless instrument swapping was beyond abundantly apparent. The slow build of new song “Bending Hectic” erupted into a heavy extended jam culminating in “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses,” a standout solo Yorke A-side from 2009.
It is difficult to ignore what the future of Radiohead will be given how satisfying a performance Yorke and Greenwood are capable of delivering with Skinner. Without question, this show was defined by their remarkable presence on stage, not by an absence of any kind. If the pandemic was the necessity that mothered the invention of these songs, perhaps it has all been worth it.