Radiohead At Madison Square Garden, Friday, July 13th, 2018, Reviewed
With Radiohead’s 2018 US Tour they complete the transition from art rock public school brats to U2 for a different age, and U2 a little better, and where U2 were in 2000 (the years aren’t exact but U2 released Boy in 1980, Radiohead released Pablo Honey in 1993), Radiohead have now become today, a similar heritage band. Like U2, they are attempting to remain relevant to the fans while remaining populist for the more casual ones. On Friday night Radiohead performed 25 songs spanning their entire career but catch this: of the 25 songs they performed 20% were off OK Computer, since they have released nine complete albums, surely 10% should be the magic number, and if you take into account they are pushing the product, 2016’s fine A Moon Shaped Pool, who should have gotten six songs and only got three, the hard push on OK Computer is even more of crowd pleaser. Over the four night residency (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday), 100 songs were performed and among them:
A Moon Shaped Pool: 18 songs
OK Computer: 17 songs
and (here it comes…)
Kid A: 19 songs
As it happens, Kid A is my favorite Radiohead album, released three years after OK Computer it turned me from an observer to a fan. But, of course, that isn’t the point at all, the point is that the harder I look for a common thread in the song selection, the more it feels as though there was none but the one I suggested earlier, this one for the daytrippers, that one for the obsessives who got General Admission tickets and sat outside MSG from 4am for a 630pm door.
Both of us got what we wanted. Despite a strangely subdued, and commonality (three nights owned the same three songs “Daydreaming,” “Desert Island Disk,” and “Ful Stop”) start, the set did what Radiohead do, it squeezed out tension in song after song after song, so that by the time they were ready for release, on the eighth song of the evening, a ridiculous thrilling “Let Down,” it was not unlike edging in sex, the audience exploded.
Conceptually, Coldplay are the pretenders to U2’s throne: they both imply a form of logical positivism via music. Radiohead not so much, their skill is in an alienation that dare not speak its name. In 1997 it was postmodern paranoia for collegiate middle-class Orwellians, in 2018 it is a firmly grasped reality for millennials waking every day to their terrifying otherness. When people go to U2, if U2 are doing what they should be, the band is pointing to the light at the end of the tunnel. Radiohead see no light but they take you on a trip and at the end of the trip there is a cathartic release of pure, hard earned, energy. It isn’t really hope but it is, in a very real way, the intenseness of a moment, a moment in which there is a coming together to stop wallowing and move forward.
The set Friday night is the best I’ve ever seen Radiohead, and the first time I saw em they were opening for Debbie Harry at the Beacon and “Creep” was just breaking. The relationship between band and fans on Friday was transactional, and Radiohead were doing their part. They were teasing you on, electronic, twitchy, bottled up anger (read here) , Thom Yorke, completely unlike his Atoms For Peace snake dancing subparticles, moved from piano (somewhat) to guitar (too much) tethering himself to the stage, barely talking to us. Meanwhile, The Edge, I mean Jonny Greenwood, only occasionally caught the eye. These guys aren’t young anymore, Thom is 51, and they don’t have the energy they had in the late 1990s. But Jonny had enough energy to perform with two bands. The lead guitarist has another career as Paul Thomas Anderson’s go to movie composer. Anderson is a great director, and he is also the second law of thermodynamics in actions as he pales in comparison to Robert Altman. I mention this because Jonny’s band Junun, who met on an Anderson documentary of the same name, opened the evening with half an hour of industrial strength world music. Junun is Greenwood along with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and the Indian ensemble the Rajasthan Express. A knee jerk reaction is Raga goes EDM, but that is to underestimate the intense pleasure of each and every song, a sound so wide open it flips through categories and it was excellent.
Radiohead came on stage to a heroes welcome at an excellently early 835pm and performed two hours plus of extreme sound modulars breaking into rhythm with a two drummer attack (one was Phil Selway of course) and though I found the breaks between songs a little too long at first, by a third of the way through the set everything was in the right place. It was so good, so professional and yet so other at the same time they completely enraptured, us and the sense of time and place completely correct as the President terrified Europe the way a homeless man, cursing and wandering and speaking in tongues, terrifies the passengers in a subway car: Radiohead became what they were, and what they have become, the U2 of the post-freedom age where they arrived first and look back to now, in a nostalgia from hell.