Monday, June 11, 2012

Radiohead Excels at Being Radiohead, Which is (Mostly) a Good Thing -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre
Tinley Park, IL
June 10, 2012

When it comes to Radiohead, I must cop to a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.

Especially amidst an age of artifice, I very much admire, respect and applaud the British band for staying true to themselves. Which, since the year 2000, has meant a preponderance of their recorded material--and concert setlists--has been infused with electronic textures and minimalist beats, rather than more conventional guitar and lyric driven songs.

This music, which is more disparate than my brief description conveys, is often brilliant and invariably amplified on stage by powerful instrumentation and dazzling lighting displays. Over the years--often quite beyond the initial release of each new album--I've come to appreciate the beauty, and even melodicism, of what at first can sound avant garde, jarring and/or droning.

But while Radiohead is great because they excel without making easily-digestible ear candy, before the new millennium came about their music--while still quite innovative--was a good bit more stylistically traditional. 1995's The Bends and 1997's OK Computer remain my favorite Radiohead albums; I just enjoy them more than last year's The King of Limbs or other 21st century releases, excellent as several of them are.

So without wanting to sound like a philistine, I wish they would play a little bit more of the old stuff.

Much to their credit, Radiohead's experimental, arguably anti-populist musical proclivities have not hurt their popularity. After headlining the Bonnaroo Festival on Friday night, the band drew what looked like a full-house (perhaps 28,000 or so) to the inconveniently-located First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Chicago's south suburbs.

Having seen Radiohead on seven previous occasions and routinely checking their live setlists (you can see Sunday's on, I was well aware before I bought my tickets that their shows are always heavy on their latest material, with perhaps just 2 or 3 more traditional, theoretically crowd-pleasing '90s songs sprinkled in.

Led by lead singer Thom Yorke, Radiohead is still fantastic at what they do, as they amply demonstrated again in Tinley Park at a venue I've long abhorred (fortunately, I had pavilion seats rather than the often acoustically-challenged lawn). My friend who had never seen the band and knew very little of their music was tremendously, and a bit surprisingly, impressed with the concert.

While I anticipated nothing less, the six musicians onstage made wonderful noise over 130 minutes that--despite "Karma Police" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" being the only sing-along "oldies"--never dragged.

Every song played was well-presented and several were pretty astonishing, including a few that go back to early in the '00s: "Myxomatosis," "Idioteque"  and "Everything in Its Right Place."

In sum, Radiohead delivered the show I was expecting and as my @@@@ rating should suggest, I liked it far more than I didn't.

But where my dissonance comes in is that I really think their concerts would be more satisfying--at least for me, but probably not just--if the band weren't so stingy in exploring their exceptional back catalog.

"Creep" (which I've never heard live) and pretty much everything off The Bends and OK Computer are among the best, most intelligent rock songs written in the past 20 years. I understand the band's--and especially Yorke's--desire to move in different directions when they head into the studio, but I can't help but want to hear more of their great older material. And given the money, time and effort invested getting to any show--but particularly this one--I don't think it's unjust to want to hear what I want to hear.

I respect their right to play what they please, especially if the adoring crowds keep turning out, and wouldn't really want them to compromise themselves by putting on a pandering, greatest hits performance. But I can't deny that Sunday's concert wasn't as fun, or as enjoyable, as it would have been if Radiohead played 3-4 more well-placed early gems.

Given how the crowd sang along lustily with "Karma Police" and cheered the show closing "Spirit Street," I don't think anyone would've minded if the band decided to give us "Fake Plastic Trees" or "No Surprises." Even setlist stalwart "Paranoid Android" was MIA.

Certainly, an imagined retort of "Don't complain about it; just don't go. You know what you're getting." isn't entirely unreasonable. But to reiterate, it's not that I didn't like Radiohead last night; I very much did. And I would not hesitate to see them deliver a similar performance again.

But that doesn't mean I can't wish they liked their old stuff as much as I do.

In Sunday's encore, Radiohead debuted a new song called "Full Stop," in the vein of their recent material. This is a clip I found on YouTube:

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