Monday, August 18th, 2008
Photo by Frank Yang
The one enduring memory I have of Radiohead’s show at the SkyDome in October 2003 is of Thom Yorke’s face on the Jumbotron. He’s seated at the keyboard, to which they’ve attached a little webcam/fisheye thing and he’s leaning into it and making faces whilst playing and his visage – equal parts comical and grotesque – is there in front of me, 110 feet high. Yes, it made an impression.
But that show was most memorable to me not for the performance but for marking what was, essentially, the end of an almost ten-year relationship with the band. History has shown that the Oxford quintet have so far had two very clearly marked phases in their career: their ascension from one-hit grunge contemporaries to arguably the most innovative and important rock band in the world – we’ll call those the ’90s – and their subsequent deconstruction of all that and reinvention as an electronic-rock hybrid.
Being very much from the old school, I found the recent years increasingly difficult to follow and though it seems that others had no problem making the shift with the band and I’ve met many who only began to find the band interesting from Kid A on, I basically gave up on my once-favourite band in the world after Hail To The Thief, which even managed to make their much-ballyhooed return to guitars sound cold and inorganic. They’d been so successful in trading in themes of alienation and paranoia that they’d succeeded in alienating me and that last show was the perfect example. From my vantage point, the band were tiny figures on a stage and what I could see up on the screen offered no sort of connection with the band.
And so it was that post-Thief and post-Skydome show, I went on with life post-Radiohead fandom. It certainly wasn’t difficult – this blog and the new musical discoveries that came with it began to get into full swing thereabouts as well so it’s not like there wasn’t plenty to fill the Yorke-shaped hole in my life. Of course, it was easy enough to not pay attention when they didn’t release a new record in the interim (save for Yorke’s solo record) and I think I only had to not worry about getting tickets to one local show. But then came that whole In Rainbows stunt/event and like pretty much everyone else, I figured that a couple quid or whatever I ended up deciding to pay wasn’t much of an investment to see if THIS “return to roots” claim had any legs.
And amazingly, it did. As I said in my review, it sounded like the band had stopped being so self-conscious about being a rock band and that sense of ease allowed them to make their most natural and, for my money, best record in a decade. I wasn’t going to dust off the fan club membership card or anything – no I never had one – but the idea that there might be a second act for my relationship with the band was genuinely exciting to me.
Which, after a lengthy but sort of necessary-for-context preamble, brings us to Friday night at the Molson Amphitheatre. Five years less a day on from their show scheduled at that same venue, the band were wrapping up the eastern leg of a mammoth North American tour that mixed festivals and headlining shows. And while there was nothing as catastrophic as the blackout that forced the 2003 show to be postponed for two months, it wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing as a steady downpour drenched those on the lawns – but it also conjured up at least two rainbows.
This was commented on by openers Grizzly Bear, who were playing the last date of their stint as support for Radiohead. Though I’d seen them a few times before and was pretty familiar with their last full-length Yellow House, I’ve never been as enthralled with them as some I know. It’s curious, then, that in this setting – a big half-empty venue where no one is there to see you is about as unsympathetic as you can probably find – they made the most favourable impression on me yet. Perhaps the cavernous acoustics worked to their advantage, adding even more reverb to their sound and emphasizing the hazy, dreamlike qualities of their folk-rock. And perhaps their new songs, of which they played a few, are just pretty great. “Two Weeks”, which was premiered on Letterman a little while back, sounded more immediate and hooky than anything I’ve heard from them and, if it’s indicative of where they’re going on their next record – slated for a Spring 2009 release – then it may be that I’m just an album behind the curve with these guys than everyone else.
As for Radiohead, well as pretty much every report from this tour – or their career – and despite a few technical hiccups, they put on an amazing show. Under a stage setup of long, hanging LED pillars that looked like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (circa Superman II), they were superbly tight yet not mechanical about it – I found the sight of Ed O’Brien grinningly shaking a tambourine to be a charming sight. They kicked off with “15 Step” and plowed through a set that ultimately included all of In Rainbows and drew heavily on their recent records. The 20th century wasn’t even acknowledged until a dozen songs in with “No Surprises” and only once more in the main set (“Climbing Up The Walls”), which finished after a surprisingly brief hour fifteen. But at shows like this, you know they’re playing till curfew and when they returned for a five-song encore, it reached further back with an “Airbag” that suffered for having Jonny Greenwood’s guitar too low in the mix, a surprise appearance of fan-fave b-side “Talk Show Host” and a glorious “Street Spirit”. Still not done, they returned for a second encore which got Bends-y with “Planet Telex” and concluded with “Everything In It’s Right Place”.
As you can probably tell from the above stated highlights, it was still the older material that got my juices flowing and as such, they didn’t get flowing until a good deal later in the set. With much of the more recent material necessarily reconfigured from their studio versions for live performance, I didn’t even recognize some of the Thief material at first – that’s just how much and how recently I’ve listened to that record. And while the second half of the show did redeem the whole for me, I confess I found myself getting a bit agitated earlier on as they seemed be working working from a set list designed to disappoint me. I think I’d gotten the idea that they were going to be drawing much more heavily on the past (and to be fair, some of the other set lists from the tour that I’ve seen seemed to go that way) and, by extension, I think I was hoping that they’d get me as excited about them as I was, oh, ten years ago. I wanted them to make me feel young again and that, obviously, is stupid.
Regardless of how much I like (or dislike) their recent output, the fact is Radiohead are far, far, far away from being a band who need to put together a “greatest hits”-type set and just because I was ready to feel nostalgic in getting back on board with what is still one of the most important bands in my life was no reason to think that they were going to be interested in soundtracking that particular trip. Net result, thanks to my own unrealistic expectations I didn’t enjoy the show as much as most everyone else there and I probably could/should have and that’s not a mistake I’ll be making again (I would hope). I’ve been spending more time with Hail To The Thief and Amnesiac in the past few days than I have in the past few years, trying to revisit them with fresh ears, and parts of them – not all – are coming into sharper focus to me than before. I don’t know that I’ll ever like them, but a better appreciation wouldn’t hurt. Next time Radiohead are back, I’ll be ready for them.
There’s a full set list and fan reaction over at At Ease while The National Post, The Globe & Mail, AOL Music Canada, eye, Chart and The Toronto Sun have reviews. eye also does their bit by celebrity spotting Thom Yorke in Parkdale the night before the show. Elsewhere, Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste has been blogging their tour with Radiohead for Rolling Stone.
And a final question – did the bonus material that came in the deluxe edition of In Rainbows ever make itself available anywhere else? Is there anything especially worthy in those eight songs?
Photos: Radiohead, Grizzly Bear @ The Molson Amphitheatre – August 15, 2008
MP3: Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks” (live on Letterman)
MP3: Grizzly Bear – “While You Wait For The Others” (live at KCRW)
MP3: Grizzly Bear – “On A Neck, On A Spit”
MP3: Grizzly Bear – “Knife”
Video: Radiohead – “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”
Video: Radiohead – “Nude”
Video: Radiohead – “House Of Cards”
Video: Grizzly Bear – “Knife”
MySpace: Grizzly Bear