Though I've been to the
Auditorium Theatre dozens of times, I've never been prompted to notice the
slogan above the regal proscenium until Monday, the first of a sold-out
two-night stand by Radiohead.
"The utterance of life is a
song," the scroll reads, "the symphony of nature."
It was ironic, because
there is absolutely nothing natural about Radiohead's music. This is the
sound of digital overload and a high-tech nervous breakdown -- a system
crash of harrowing proportions. But like a flower springing up from the
concrete, "the utterance of life" nevertheless seeps through, generally via
the haunting melodies of Thom Yorke, whose voice is, admittedly, an acquired
taste; it has taken me years to be won over by the charms of its spastic
Taking a cue from one of
its inspirations, the Pink Floyd of the mid-'70s, the British art-rock
quintet is using this tour to road test and tweak its new material in the
midst of recording its seventh album, expected in 2007. The disc doesn't as
yet have a name or a home; one of the biggest rock bands in the world is
currently without a major-label record deal, and it's seriously considering
whether it even needs one. Of the 23 songs in its almost two-hour set, nine
were new numbers, complete with plenty of kinks still to be worked out, and
unfamiliar to the majority of its fans. Yet the audience embraced these
challenging sounds as if they were already chart-topping hits.
This is another trait
that Radiohead shares with Pink Floyd circa "Wish You Were Here" and
"Animals": Despite the avant-garde nature of much of its music, it has
become a platinum-selling superstar act, somehow fashioning arena rock out
of the most difficult sonic experiments.
This is a feat that is
best appreciated onstage, where the interaction between Yorke, the sonic
alchemist tag team of guitarists, keyboardists and noisemakers Jonny
Greenwood and Ed O'Brien, and the fluid yet mechanically precise rhythms of
bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway pack a visceral punch that
can be obscured by the layers of electronics or the intentional fragility of
the band's recordings.
Radiohead has not
appeared on an album since "Hail to the Thief" in 2003. Yorke is preparing
to release his first solo effort, "The Eraser," next month; the musicians
now have a total of 11 children among them, and rumors have been floating in
the English press that the always drama-prone combo was considering
disbanding. Yet the five played with an elastic empathy that was as strong
as it has ever been, taking songs new and old on exciting and seemingly
Fresh from performing at
the Bonnaroo Festival, this was a truly modern jam band without any of the
flatulent tendencies most often associated with that genre. And its members
not only seemed grateful to bask in the love of their fans, they appeared to
be genuinely excited about playing together again, as evidenced by Yorke's
gleeful dancing, which brought to mind a hunchbacked gnome suffering an
Yorke had good reason to
jerk and twirl. Much of the new material puts the emphasis on the rhythm.
During the hypnotic groove of "Bangers 'n' Bash," the bandleader augmented
Selway on a second drum set; the musicians all clapped out a hybrid bossa
nova/hip-hop beat on "15 Steps," and on a rollicking instrumental called
"Spooks," they evoked surf legends the Ventures jamming with the Aphex Twin.
The burgeoning dance consciousness even seeped into ballads such as
"Videotape" and the piano-driven "4 Minute Warning," which featured heavy
underpinnings of dub reggae.
The Radiohead faithful
know that these and other new tunes are likely to move through several
evolutions before appearing in final form on an album, so it was a privilege
to hear the works in progress, especially in such a grand setting as the
Auditorium, and on a night that very nearly equaled the magic of the group's
now-legendary performance in Grant Park in 2001.