Radiohead dances, tinkers -- fans love it


June 21, 2006


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 hiccups.

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 spontaneous detours.

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 epileptic seizure.

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.