The Last Hurrah Or The New Normal? Radiohead Live

Joe Banks went to see Radiohead live on Thursday night and witnessed a band who were fitter, happier and altogether more relaxed than they have been for years. Gallery of live pictures courtesy of Valerio Berdini

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool is quite how ‘accessible’ and easy on the ear it is. It comes after a decade and a half of trying to out-run the legacy of The Bends and OK Computer, both of which regularly top Greatest Albums Of All Time lists. Yet their latest record flies in the face of the musical cussedness they’ve been accused of ever since. Even on previous album The King Of Limbs, there was a pervasive feeling of uneasiness, its opaque surfaces resisting interpretation, but A Moon Shaped Pool’s lead single ‘Burn The Witch’ is by far the most strident and abrasive thing on it, with the great majority of the other tracks operating in subtler and more melodic territory.

Maybe this re-engagement with more traditional song structures shows a band who are finally relaxed in their own skin, with Thom Yorke now content to exercise his more experimental tendencies in his solo projects. But frankly, Radiohead are in a position today where they can do what the hell they like. Set lists from the initial shows of their current tour show them playing tracks from their entire back catalogue, with even ‘Creep’ getting an airing. Again, it seems unlikely that they’re kowtowing to any external pressure to do this – instead, it suggests a band that’s now much happier to simply give the fans what they want.

Is A Moon Shaped Pool the last hurrah from a band that’s said all it’s going to say, or is it the new normal for them, a canny synthesis of their various musical preoccupations into songs that stealthily install themselves in the listener’s sub-conscious rather than batter them over the head with Stuff They Should Know? Ultimately, this is all a moot point – given the ridiculously high levels of expectation and intrigue that continue to surround any new release, Radiohead clearly still connect with a significant proportion of the alt rock audience (whatever that might be these days), because they express something that feels culturally meaningful to these people’s lives in the early 21st century.

Not for the last time tonight (and excuse me if this is a terrible cliché when writing about Radiohead), but standing in the crowd waiting for the show to begin, Pink Floyd spring to mind, specifically the words “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” There’s no pre-emptory crowd-surfing or Mexican waves here, just a polite buzz of anticipation that mirrors the slightly anxious throb and flute loop emanating from the darkened stage.

And when Radiohead do hit the stage, there’s plenty of cheers but no mass exultation. Which might seem strange, given the now familiar narrative of gigs selling out in minutes and tickets offered online for ludicrous sums of money, but you sense a very specific contract that exists between Radiohead and their fans – as one of the few Bands That Still Matter (as far as the critical establishment are concerned), there’s a respectful gratitude that they’re still out there playing their particular brand of emotional dystopian post-rock while the world goes slowly to pot.

So similarly, there’s no great explosion of energy from Radiohead at the start – rather, there’s a commitment to showcase A Moon Shaped Pool upfront, with the first five songs from the album played in sequence. ‘Burn The Witch’ feels a little subdued minus those knuckle-whitening strings, though Jonny Greenwood tries his best to compensate by sawing away at his guitar with a bow. More striking is the backdrop of blood-red film frames delivering close-ups of the players, and the fact that Phil Selway appears to have cloned himself (it’s actually Portishead drummer Clive Deamer). ‘Daydreaming’ however is an early highlight, Yorke and Greenwood quietly communing around the piano (cue outbreak of loud shushing in the audience). ‘Full Stop’ gets feet moving and heads nodding for the first time, faithfully replicating the album’s motorik-heard-from-inside-a-dream vibe, while Yorke looks very pleased with the little wireless keyboard he’s playing.

“An old one?” someone to my right says hopefully to his companion. It is, but perhaps not what they had in mind. The jerky disco of ‘Lotus Flower’ adds a bit of grit to proceedings, and there’s some shadow-boxing stagecraft from Yorke in the breakdown, even if the maracas do bring to mind an angst-ridden Bez. They finally deliver a couple of ‘proper’ oldies in ‘Talk Show Host’ and ‘My Iron Lung’. The former still pivots around a simple spacey hook and an almost baggy beat, but the extended chukka chukka guitar jam over the outro is a pleasant surprise. The latter prompts the first serious singalong, and a reminder that Radiohead were once the band that were too rocking for Britpop, but too arch for grunge.

The reception given to the older tracks is an interesting barometer of how tastes have shifted and changed among the fanbase. The Magic FM suicide note of ‘Exit Music’ is greeted with due reverence and a lot of spontaneous swaying, but it feels like it’s trapped in the amber of another era (though Father Ted has destroyed my critical faculties as regards this song). On the other hand, there’s gleeful excitement in both audience and band when the pummelling electroshock of ‘Myxomatosis’ is given an airing, and even more so for ‘Idioteque’, which was received at the time of Kid A as some outré flirtation with drum & bass, but now gets a rapturous response from the crowd.

Yet what Radiohead are increasingly producing on album, and what we get plenty of tonight, is a slyly augmented strain of pastoral head music. The ghostly, deconstructed Afrobeat of ‘Identikit’, perhaps the best of the new tracks here, is suffused with fourth world mysticism, while ‘The Numbers’ sounds an awful lot like Traffic or early 70s Floyd pre-Dark Side Of The Moon. That also applies to the weightless vibe of ‘Reckoner’, which misses the percussive oomph of its recorded version (despite the dual drummer line-up), but creates a spiritual reverie among certain members of the audience, with many over-ambitious attempts to mimic Yorke’s effortless falsetto.

If the evening so far has tended more towards the mellow and cerebral, the encores get the blood pumping a bit harder. Both the frenetic ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ and the belting ‘2+2=5’ come alive in a way they didn’t on their parent albums, while ‘Planet Telex’ swaggers belligerently, still spoiling for a fight over 20 years on. But it’s the tribal skronk of ‘There, There’ that really hits the mark, its gnarly riff driving ever upwards, the slow motion football chant of “We are accidents waiting to happen” resounding around the hall, some furtive air guitaring spotted. They take it down again with the curious cough syrup lullaby of ‘You And Whose Army?’, but then finish with ‘Paranoid Android’, which still lurches from avant-prog heaviosity to persecutory fantasy, the rubbish computer rain graphics that trickle down the backscreens during this section confirming that Radiohead do indeed have a sense of humour.

But for all the stadium-sized sturm und drang of the encores, their decision to play the smaller environs of the Roundhouse makes sense in terms of the more intimate direction that Radiohead appear to be going in. In fact, do some time travelling back to when this venue used to regularly host the type of gigs where throw cushions and joss sticks were de rigueur, and perhaps that decision makes even more sense.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today