Review: Everything right with Radiohead

Posted: August 13, 2008

The title of the final song Radiohead played to finish off its dazzlingly dynamic show at the sold-out Susquehanna Bank Center on Tuesday spoke to the exactitude of the performance that preceded it: "Everything In Its Right Place."

Two hours earlier, Thom Yorke, the lead singer of the Oxford, England quintet, started off by singing, over a rubbery guitar line in "15 Step," from last year's In Rainbows, "How come I end up where I started? How come I end up where I went wrong?"

Throughout the show, Yorke used his otherworldly voice to circle back on those themes of frustration and disconnection, and sometimes, out and out disaffection, as in "No Surprises," when he sang "Bring down the government/They don't speak for us," and was met with a rousing cheer. But as the 25-song set, which included all of In Rainbows, progressed, very little, if anything, went wrong.

Fifteen years into a boldly adventurous career, Radiohead stand alone as the most significant - or important, or whatever other pretentious rock-critic word you like - band of their generation. That's partly because Yorke, along with his multi-instrumentalist collaborator Jonny Greenwood, plus bass player Colin Greenwood, guitarist Ed O'Brien and drummer Phil Selway, has succeeded in conveying his various discontents to a massive audience, despite consistently placing artistic compulsion over commercial considerations.

And it's partly because the band is so good at what they do. As they demonstrated on Tuesday, that entails everything from the triumphal post-grunge guitar-rock with which they made their name in the mid-1990s, which showed up on songs like "The Bends" and "Street Spirit," to the glitchy, ambient pop and electronic avant-rock they've been excelling at since Kid A in 2000.

There are reasons to quibble with Radiohead - to wish the band didn't rely so heavily on swoony, mid-tempo songs, or that Yorke, who danced like a spastic marionette during "Idioteque," would demonstrate that he has a sense of humor now and again. (Though "I woke up this morning sucking a lemon," from "Everything" is an amusingly self-lacerating line from a famous sour puss, if indeed it's meant as a joke.)

But there's no denying the command that the band displays on stage. Framed by a curtain made of what looked like giant strands of uncooked spaghetti that shifted from moody blues to muted greens to fiery reds, the band members were shown in shifting close-ups on an LED screen behind them. It was a rare case of a rock show that was as creative in its look as its sound.

And it sounded great. A typical Radiohead song is built on a hypnotic guitar figure, a steady rhythmic pulse, and Yorke's often-unintelligible but almost-always-attractive vocal floating over the top. It's a dependable, emotionally rewarding model that was expanded upon, and exploded, time and time again.

O'Brien added rumbling drums to "There There." Jonny Greenwood played tympani on "No Surprises," emphasized the paranoia of "Where I End And You Begin" with synthesized helicopter sounds, and, at one point, pressed down piano keys with the neck of the guitar he was playing. (Now that's multi-tasking.) And between Selway's precise drum patterns and the pre-programmed parts triggered by Greenwood, the songs were rife with rhythmic energy.

Sorry to say, this reviewer missed Grizzly Bear, the indie band from Brooklyn who meld layered vocals with electronic textures and whose performance was reportedly divine. Blame falls on a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam that began at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge and coughed up enough carbon monoxide to choke an eco-warrior like Yorke, who's a spokesman for Friends of the Earth's campaign against greenhouse gases.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.

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