At this stage in their careers, watching Radiohead live is like playing Russian roulette. Such is the size, scope and beauty of their back catalogue, it’s almost impossible to come away from a gig and not be disappointed because they didn’t play one of your favourites. Maybe this sounds strange. But then again, the last time I saw them – in Leeds – the following night, at the Reading festival return gig, they opened with Creep. Just for kicks, like. The song they never play.
Still, a band that shuffles their set-lists as wilfully as a croupier does a deck of cards, offers up the possibility of hearing hidden gems (already on this tour they’ve played Meeting In The Aisle, from their Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP) just as it can mean missing out on some classics which, just for the hell of it, they’ve decided to drop for the night. The first of two nights at London’s 02 Arena was a case in point. Nothing from The Bends, and just two from their mammoth, career-making OK Computer – the admittedly anthemic Karma Police and a relatively rare airing for Climbing Up The Walls.
At one point, Thom Yorke noted, almost apologetically, ‘I don’t know how much you know our stuff generally’ before playing a spirited version of These Are My Twisted Words. It almost sounded disingenuous – in front of 23,000 Radiohead nerds. And this was a gig that dared to show just how challenging this Oxford quintet can be. No playing to the crowds. Just a band at the height of their powers, with sublime, seamless, note-perfect renditions of songs that ably demonstrate just how musically layered and complex they’ve become.
Perhaps because this tour was to coincide with 2011’s album The King Of Limbs, a rather pastoral adventure in soundscapes, this was the arguably the most sedate Radiohead gig I’ve ever been to. With no Paranoid Android or Just on the bill, audiences were soothed into an almost Zen-like state with new songs like Lotus Flower and Give Up The Ghost and positively Heaven-sent versions of Pyramid Song and Like Spinning Plates. Everywhere you looked, young and old, faces were becalmed by what they were hearing.
Dancing around like a manic little pixie, with his hair in a ponytail, Yorke still had his moments – particularly on Feral – though it’s often when he sits at the piano, as he does on The Daily Mail, a brooding track that escalates in power, where you get to appreciate his talents. If the two-part encore shunned any of their early material, it’s just further indication of how confident Radiohead are. To borrow from their closing track of the night, everything was indeed in its right place.
Of course, the following night, they played Planet Telex and Street Spirit from The Bends. It was Creep and Reading all over again. ‘Feel a bit miffed’ said one fan on Twitter. That’s putting it mildly. But, in the end, it’s churlish to complain, for this was the sort of musical experience that doesn’t come along so often. An elevation into the clouds.
Radiohead played on Monday 8 and Tuesday 9 October at:
Their world tour continues.
Image by wonker courtesy of Flickr