Radiohead owes a debt to Pink Floyd


August 25, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

'We're really hippies at heart," Thom Yorke said on Saturday during the last song in the first of two encores before a massive crowd at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre.

In donning an acoustic guitar and setting up an ethereal performance of "Street Spirit" from "The Bends," the leader of today's reigning art-rock band seemed to confirm something I've long contended: Radiohead is the Pink Floyd of Generation Y.

Whenever I make this observation, I invariably hear from Radiohead fans who vehemently disagree. But Saturday's show convinced me that it's because they don't really know the Floyd's canon.

True, there were no flying pigs or other elaborate visual gimmicks at Alpine. The British quintet performed on a spartan stage devoid of all advertising (in keeping with its anti-corporate political stance) and adorned only with two moderately sized video screens and a simple light show--the better to keep the focus on the players.

For years before "The Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wall," Pink Floyd did much the same. Witness the 1972 concert film "Live at Pompeii." As the members of Radiohead used a vast array of old analog equipment to create their futuristic outer-space symphonies and sinisterly themed mood music, I couldn't help but think of David Gilmour, Roger Waters and company playing the songs from "Meddle" amid the Roman ruins two decades earlier.

Like a great bebop group, Radiohead is better experienced live (where the members' virtuosity can be fully appreciated) than on record (where the impressive visceral kick of bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway is often sacrificed to electronic beats and burbles, and the listener is deprived of watching Jonny Greenwood's sonic ingenuity as he attacks his heavily effected guitar, modular Moog synthesizer, wireless handheld sampler and small orchestra's worth of other instruments).

Yorke's love-it-or-hate-it voice and melodramatic, operatic flourishes also are easier to accept in concert, where the twisted gnome underscores his sarcasm by mugging at the camera with arched eyebrows (as he did during a funny reading of "You and Whose Army?") or dancing wildly with a sort of spastic glee whenever he isn't tethered to a guitar or his black upright piano (an instrument that's been shamelessly appropriated by Coldplay's Chris Martin, though he employs it to much more conventional effect).

Radiohead faced a challenge in trying to top its last local performance at Grant Park's Hutchinson Field in 2001, and it didn't quite succeed. Chicago residents spent three times longer driving to and from East Troy, Wis., than they did watching Radiohead, which performed for a little under two hours. And while Alpine's crystalline sound and lush green setting were superior to the Tweeter Center's muddy mix and sterile facade, nothing could beat the sight of the group performing before the incredible backdrop of the Chicago skyline.

But as the band offered a satisfying sampling of material from its recent album "Hail to the Thief"--from the rollicking show opener "2+2=5" through "There There" ("A song about peace, love, whatever"), which closed the set proper--as well as a healthy dose of its older material (including "Paranoid Android," "Kid A" and "Karma Police"), it proved once again why it has earned a sizable mainstream following, as well as the enduring respect of the rock underground.

No other band today has the power to transport a crowd of more than 30,000 to foreboding alien landscapes and the shadowy places of their nightmares in quite the same way. In concert more than on album, Radiohead remains a trip that is well worth taking for any adventurous listener interested in exploring rock's hippie horizons.