Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Everyone Around... Here. Everyone Is So... Clear

Pictures here.

Last weekend I finally got a chance to see Radiohead in concert. Shorter version: it was awesome. Longer version follows.

Radiohead is big enough to be in a "we do what we feel like" phase, much like REM has been in since their Monster tour. That means that, while they do occasionally tour, it tends to be just a few major cities over a shorter period of time. I was sorely tempted to go to each of their two Chicago-area shows on their last two tours; the first one (under a big tent near Lake Michigan) has been described by some as the best concert ever, and the second (actually held in Wisconsin) also sounded wonderful. Both times the logistics of getting there from Missouri, to say nothing of somehow finding a ticket, thwarted my dreams.

Let me back up a bit: I really, really like Radiohead. I don't like picking favorites, but they're probably my second-favorite active band, just a bit behind REM and a bit ahead of Massive Attack (if we treat MA as still being active). The story of how I first got into Radiohead is actually kind of random. I didn't listen to the radio much so I never heard "Creep" or any of their early singles. Starting my junior year of high school, I worked in the Periodicals Department at Wheaton Public Library. In addition to magazines we also handled audiobooks and music CDs, and I took advantage of my privileges as an employee to check out a wide variety of music at no charge. (During the time I was working there, it cost twenty-five cents to check out a CD.) This led to a huge development in my musical tastes, as well as the start of an impressive mp3 collection.

Someone might have recommended Radiohead to me, but if so I don't remember. I just remember that the OK Computer CD got circulated a lot, so I spent a lot of time looking at the jacket while cleaning the CD. I was fascinated by the design of the cover and the song titles, including "Paranoid Android," which made me immediately think of Marvin from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. At some point I checked it out, and I was just mesmerized. I listened to it over and over again, just blown away by the incredible sound. It was filled with delightfully weird, bizarre sounds and compositions, while still sounding incredibly good and accessible. It was one of those albums where I would listen to it five times, then a sixth on headphones, and be amazed at all the stuff I had missed before. (For example, it wasn't until a month or so later that I really caught the second vocal track that plays under Paranoid Android.)

After arriving at college, I picked up exactly two music posters to decorate my dorm. One was REM's "Monster" tour poster (my least favorite album of theirs, but an excellent poster); the second was a sublime Radiohead poster containing the entire lyrics to "Fitter Happier," which, as odd as it sounds, seems to me like the anchor of the album.

While in college, Radiohead released Kid A, their long-awaited follow-up album. After my very first listen, I concluded that I no longer could call OK Computer "Strange"; it now seemed positively traditional compared to the revolutionary electronic, distorted sounds of Kid A. Once again, though, they managed to push the envelope without being alienating; or, perhaps, they invite you to join in their alienation. As an example, The National Anthem sounded unlike anything else I had ever heard, but at the same time its incredible bass line also made it one of the catchiest songs ever.

Radiohead is one of those bands that makes me feel briefly optimistic about the world. Despite producing such challenging and hard-to-categorize music, they have been remarkably popular. Kid A opened at #1 on the US charts, even though they didn't initially release any singles for it. All their stuff sells well, and their concerts are extremely popular; they could fill stadiums if they wanted to. Anyways, it's good to see my fellow citizens enthusiastically embracing a good band.

Their later releases have also been great. Amnesiac wasn't the promised return to "the guitar sound," but it was a delightfully chilling and remote album. Hail to the Thief bumped the paranoia up to a whole new level, exulting in its exuberantly creepy sound. I have also dug around to find their non-album songs, most of which (True Love Waits, The Amazing Sounds of Orgy, Talk Show Host) are definitely good enough to have made the cut. At the same time, a parallel industry has sprung up to analyze and engage Radiohead. I've written before here about Christopher O'Reilly's work, which seems to be in the vanguard of the classical music world's endorsement of Radiohead's music.

So, yeah, I really like the band. I was delighted to read that their current US tour would include two nights in Berkeley. The venue sounded really good too: The Greek Amphitheater, which is on the university campus, is a bowl-shaped design that seemed fairly intimate with good sight lines. Tickets were also very reasonable at under $50 a head, but I knew I would need to act quickly: an act this big in a venue this small was begging to be sold out.

I asked around at work to see who else was interested, and got a lot of tentative replies. I eventually said, "Well, it's all general admission, so let's have everyone who wants to go get their own tickets."

It turned out that when the tickets went on sale at 10AM on a Sunday, which was when I would be flying over the Rocky Mountains on my way back from a family wedding. Fortunately, my brother Pat rode in to the rescue, and secured two tickets for me - amazingly enough, he even picked the right day, which I had forgotten to tell him. Thanks, Pat!

I later learned that nobody else had managed to get tickets, which were sold out a few minutes after going on sale. Tom, who was one of the guys who interviewed me way back last year, was the first person to bring it up, so I offered him the extra ticket. Tom digs Radiohead, but was especially interested in the opening act, a local band named Deerhoof. I'd checked some of their music before hand and enjoyed it. Their lead vocalist is a Japanese woman, and they have a really interesting sound.

Tom lives in San Francisco, so we had to figure out the best way to handle transit. I was originally planning on driving to Fremont and then taking BART to Berkeley; he ended up driving up to the station with me and we rode in the rest of the way together. We made pretty good time, but had trouble finding parking after we got to the campus. We finally found an open garage and trekked up a long hill to the Greek.

We could hear music when we approached, and I realized we were missing the opening act, which frankly amazed me. I've never been to a concert that has started on time, and judging from when they finished, they probably started exactly at 7:30. As it was, we just had time to grab some food and find a seat (on the lawn - the bowl was packt like sardines in a crushd tin box) right before their set finished. The audience responded warmly.

It's always interesting to listen to the recorded music that plays before a band takes the stage. Obviously, they want something that will occupy people while roadies are wrangling their equipment. It would be crass to play your own stuff; at the same time, you don't want to freak people out by getting too far outside your own sound, like playing bluegrass music at a heavy metal concert. With a band as hard to classify as Radiohead, though, I had wondered what they would choose. It turns out that they felt like they were an electronic band now, because almost all of the songs that played were of that genre. All of it sounded really good, but I only recognized one song, which was in Lost in Translation. The song right after that, though, was a mystery to me. In a good way. It started off with a recorded interview between two pundits discussing Hillary Clinton's political career. "Is she liked by the public, and is she a viable candidate?" "Well, she is liked, but she's not viable." Then it started splicing up the conversation, garbling the words as they were twisted into a new dialog, then the curtain fell down revealing several oddly-shaped screens and the members of Radiohead walked onto the stage to thunderous applause and jumped right into "You and Whose Army."

Despite being quite far from the stage, I enjoyed a good view for most of the night; even when sitting down I could usually make out Yorke and the rest of the crew, thanks to the steep incline on the slope. I kept thinking of "Sit Down, Stand Up," which they never played... the lawn had a very varied structure, where in some spots people in front would stand up and everyone behind them would stand as well, while in other areas nobody would stand at all. The people in front of us stood for the first few songs, forcing us to stand to see, then later sat down, which we did as well out of respect for those behind us. There was one guy in particular in front of us who I was a little worried about. Most of the people there were excited about the show, but he seemed particularly twitchy and unbalanced. At one point he left and came back with two glasses of beer. "Oh," I thought. "He came here with a friend." Nope. He two-fisted both of them down. A couple of times I saw him taking hits off a pipe; I'm not sure what was in it, but judging from his behavior, I doubt it was a depressant.

Back to the music! The acoustics were excellent, even this far from the stage, and I didn't get any of the annoying layered sound that I'm used to in larger venues. Their playing was just superb. For me, it's almost a definition of a good band that they can play something differently and have it sound just as good as what's on the album. They did this not by radically re-engineering the favorites, but by tinkering with them. Where a song once had a string of random electronic sounds, it would now have a string of different electronic sounds, generated live by Yorke or someone else. The instrumental parts were largely intact but they would occasionally embellish a guitar line or something. No new verses, but a different sound anyways.

Probably the biggest surprise for me was the quantity of new material in here; I'd guess that probably one out of every three songs was totally new to me. Radiohead's great strength is its resilience and the rewards it gives for repeated listening, so I can't claim to fully "get" the new songs after just one listen, but they generally sounded good, nothing sounding like it needed a lot more work. I'm guessing some of these will appear on their new album, whenever that might come out, and look forward to hearing them again.

Those oddly-shaped screens were put to interesting use. For most of the concert, each would show a live image of a focused part of the act: a closeup of Johnny Greenwood's hand strumming the guitar, or a top-down shot of Selway's drum kit, or Yorke's face. The images were muted, perhaps black and white, more impressionist than vivid. I thought this was a really interesting departure from the large-venue practice of having giant video screens that show and blow up the action on the stage so people standing much farther back can see it. That practice has always kind of bothered me, incidentally. When you start watching the screen instead of the stage, you're essentially watching a video, which makes you start to wonder why instead of paying $12 for a DVD you're paying $50 for a ticket that gives you the privilege of buying really expensive hot dogs and watching a movie outside. Anyways: the giant screens weren't really necessary here, and the shattered screens they used felt more like a commentary on the stage action than a substitute for it.

One thing I usually enjoy in concerts is hearing the band chatter. Some are good, some are bad, some just bizarre. Thom Yorke definitely tended towards the silent, only speaking a handful of times. After the first few songs he said, "Berkeley, California!", notably omitting any verbs and, much better, using the proper, English pronunciation ("Barklee.") Later on he said "This fog is strange," and indeed it was: one of the coolest parts of the evening was the way the fog would occasionally roll in, be illuminated in crazy ways by the stage lights, then dissipate. His other words of wisdom included, "It's cold out!" and something like "Here's some more new songs, as if you didn't already have enough." While he didn't speak a lot, he was a very visible presence on the stage. I just love, love, love watching Thom dance. It's a curiously spastic yet purposeful movement that, like his music, is unlike anything else.

They played for nearly ninety minutes, closing out the set with a phenomenal version of Idioteque. Incidentally, Kid A and Amnesiac seemed to be the best represented in this show; I don't think they played any Pablo Honey (frankly fine by me), and just a smattering from their other three albums. This show demonstrated the blessing and the curse of having such a solid catalog. On the one hand, there were a lot of songs I would have loved to hear that they didn't do, including Airbag, Fake Plastic Trees, and Talk Show Host. Still, I can't point to any of the songs that they did play and say, "Oh, they should have left that one out." Even Morning Bell, which in all honesty is my least favorite track on both Kid A and Amnesiac, got a performance here that was much more interesting and dark than what I was expecting. I suppose the best solution would have been to buy tickets for both nights; I just now went online and found that Saturday's setlist was almost completely different.

The crowd was aggressively enthusiastic after Radiohead left the stage, and they eventually returned for two encore sets, including still more new material. I had been terrified that they wouldn't get around to playing Everything In Its Right Place, but they ended up closing the night with it, in an unforgettably talented and trippy performance. I'd heard before about how they do it live but it was still amazing to watch: Selway, Yorke and O'Brien perform as usual while the Greenwood brothers take samples from their live feeds in little boxes, which they then mix, loop, and replay. The whole time they were playing, thicker and thicker fog fell over the theater, which the lights ghostily penetrated as the music turned more and more otherworldly. One by one the members walked off the stage (guided by a green flashlight probably brought out to assist with the fog), while their looped samples continued to whirl behind them. Gradually the sound and the lights grew dimmer, until all that was left behind were the screens which were endlessly cycling the letters "EVERAND" - as in, "ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and..." It was a beautiful ending.

Tom and I walked through the center of campus, then split up, him to his car and me to BART. This was my first time ever in Berkeley but I just followed the crowd and they led me right to it. (I've been reading a lot about the decline of Berkeley, particularly around Telegraph Avenue, but the little bit I saw near the campus looked pretty good. I keep meaning to visit my cousin Paul who lives in Berkeley.) I'd forgotten that Friday had been declared a Spare the Air day in the Bay Area, which meant that ridership was free for the day on all public transit, including BART.

The platform was crowded with other concertgoers, but we all managed to squeeze on to the next train, a six-car train to Fremont. It's the first time I've ever been crowded on a BART train; I'm guessing that's much more common during commuting hours into the city than the nights and weekends when I ride it. Still, everyone was good-natured and squeezed in to make room. A few stops later was a transfer station for the San Francisco lines, where most of the train emptied and I took a seat. The rest of my ride back felt dreamy, the music not pounding in my head but flowing through it, suffusing even the darkened outline of the Diablo range with hints of a greater reality.

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