Radiohead At Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, July 26th, 2016, Reviewed
“I will sing of the Lord’s mercy forever”. That is the motto of the all-boys preparatory where the future members of Radiohead first met, “Abingdon School” in Oxforshire. The epitome of a doorway drug to the ruling classes, the school was formed in (wait for it) 1100, and has proven a breeding ground for the David Camerons of the world, only more so. It is what the Cameron’s aspire to.
Ten years after punk changed the world about as much as the hippies did, Thom Yorke and the Greenwood brothers, plus Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien, played Tom Brown’s School Days to the Sex Pistols Oliver Twist street urchins. Suburban vs urban, rich vs poor, powerful vs weak, conservative vs labor. Not to belabor the point, it was the return of prog rock. But like I said, they are liberals, rich liberals, with less patience for the polemics than, say, a true working class hero like Bono. But they wear their angst on their shoulders, and in the Sartre like nothingness on the edge of their peripheral vision, they have sidestepped their cultural imperialism through a pitch black future shock.
Fast forward 30 years, and Madison Square Garden was packed out for the band’s first live performance in the US since 2012, a disappointing set I saw at Prudential Center and wrote “Radiohead, a sorta hi-tech Coldplay, are lead by Thom Yorke, who sounds like my car siren, dances like a dwarf with the runs, play the most self-satisfied music known to man.” Well, that was then, and Radiohead last night were much , much better. It took a little while for the set to gel, but by the sixth set, they had become what they wanted to be: a taught, disciplined, rock and roll unit. They didn’t speak much to the audience but Thom is so commanding a figure, it felt communicative and the setlist was so wide ranging that, except for an oddly downbeat double encore, the band and the audience were as one.
To some degree, Thom is getting his better living through science habit worked out on his solo projects, so the Radiohead live show 2016 is as close to rock and roll aesthetic that they’ve gotten since The Bends. It is rock and roll has S&M disciplinarian right groove sounds. There is no jamming, there is no, in any precise sense, kowtowing to the audiences but on the other hand, “My Iron Lung”, “No Surprises”, “Everything In Its Right Place”, hey, a terrific “Planet Telex” –not all the hits but enough. It is a little like the way they handle streaming on Spotify, first you see it and then you don’t, but it is there.
If there was an internal logic to the set, I didn’t quite grasp it. Word is it is a sort of reflection of the Presidential Campaign but really, if there had been a Tsunami or a terrorist attack , the set would have been hitting the same soundscape beautiful perpetual twitchiness. Whether hammer hard hitting art rockers like “2+2 = 5” or nightmare dreamscapes like the new “Daydreaming” or surprise rarities like first encore “Let Down” –the first time we’ve heard it live in a decade, the band maintained its regimented perplexity,. It goes back to that school uniformer, knickbockers, thank you sir may I have another, essence of the band: there is a strictness to their looseness, and the set itself got better as it went along, shaking itself out till Thom performed his Jim Morrison as tech nerd dance.
On stage, Thom leads the band, and quite strictly, he moves about the stage in an officious manner, like a Prefect, or Head Boy, or something. If you’ve ever seen Thom with Atoms For peace, he really goes crazy, but with this band, he is under control. The entire band were under control, 24 songs, two hurs and done to a turn. “Thank you, you’ve been very kind to us”. No alarms and no surprises.
“Burn the Witch”
“Desert Island Disk”
“The National Anthem”
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”
“2 + 2 = 5”
“Everything in Its Right Place”
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”