Radiohead @ The Verizon Center – Washington, DC – June 3rd, 2012

About two-thirds of the way through “Feral,” the fifteenth song Radiohead played at Washington, DC’s Verizon Center on Sunday, June 3rd, something odd happened: Colin Greenwood dropped the bass, in the dubstep sense of the term. This doesn’t happen often at rock shows, yet it did here. It was unexpected, chest rattling, and, in hindsight, completely logical. Economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote that twentieth century capitalism and its processes prepared souls for socialism. In 2012, Radiohead prepares indie rock fans for dubstep. While Skrillex can go from emo never-will-be to superstar DJ, Radiohead has attempted, at least on record, to do the opposite; a group of people so alienated and detached from place and time, from what’s around them, that they go beyond getting lost in the machine, ultimately becoming it.

The band has been heading down this path for some time now, since at least In Rainbows, and possibly since some of the earlier b-sides (“Kinetic” and “Worrywort,” on Amnesiac’s “Knives Out” import singles come to mind). Radiohead’s live shows used to be events in and of themselves. Now the concerts exist to help album listeners make sense of Radiohead’s minimalist streak: haunting vocals, slight melodies, sub-bass, and metallic, tinny drums that blur the lines between man and machine.

In 2003, a Radiohead concert would trigger lines down the block. In 2012, a function of the economy, the most recent two albums, or perhaps a combination thereof, one could walk up to a scalper and purchase tickets ten minutes before showtime for well under the face value of $70 plus fees. The floor section of the arena was two-thirds full, with a scattering of empty seats on every level.

The band opened with “Bloom,” the lead track from The King of Limbs. It was louder and more visceral than the synthy repetition expressed on that album. A second drummer, Clive Deamer, added for this tour helped create a breakbeat that wound through much of the new material, so much so that one could divide the In Rainbows and TKOL material into two kinds of songs: those that featured synthesizers as the melody or those that used jagged guitars from Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien as the melody. The constant was the breakbeat. “Staircase,” “Identikit,” and “Supercollider,” new songs, fell into the former category as well.

A sizeable portion of the crowd got what they were looking for when Johnny Greenwood launched into “Airbag” next, but given how much of the new material was translated for a large venue, even songs from the two most recent albums became arena-rock crowd pleasers. The band employed multiple guitars on most songs, pausing the dubstep-as-rock show vibe for “Meeting in the Aisle,” an obscure, beat-driven (in the Chemical Brothers-do-trip hop sense), instrumental b-side from 1998 that now sounds prescient, a forerunner of where Radiohead has spent much of the twenty-first century.

Monitors that doubled as sound panels hung above the band, ominously changing positions and functions with each song, sometimes acting as a shield or border, other times broadcasting the band members’ stage movements to the crowd, still others flashing colors, keeping time with the rhythm section.

The band ended its first encore with the noisiest, rudest version of “Paranoid Android,” I’ve heard, then returned for a second culminating in “The Reckoner” off TKOL, which has become an unofficial closer. All in all, Radiohead played for just under two hours, with only two songs off OK Computer, and nothing off their first two albums. Given Radiohead’s most recent DC concert experiences (one rainout, one traffic fiasco that ended in partial refunds), many in the crowd, myself included, were hoping for a bit more, but all in all the show was excellent. Now it’s time to revisit recent recorded material to see if the concert would help me make sense of it, and of Radiohead’s new unsurprising-yet-surprising direction. Colin, drop the bass!


01 Bloom
02 Airbag
03 Kid A
04 Bodysnatchers
05 Staircase
06 Codex
07 Meeting In The Aisle
08 The National Anthem
09 Nude
10 Morning Mr Magpie
11 Identikit
12 Lotus Flower
13 Go To Sleep
14 The Gloaming
15 Feral
16 There There
17 You And Whose Army?
18 15 Step
19 Supercollider
20 Paranoid Android
21 Give Up The Ghost
22 Separator
23 Reckoner

Radiohead – Albums 4-6 Reissued (Capitol Records)

In Act One of the Radiohead story the group arrived onto the scene in 1993 as a forgettable Brit-pop band with a huge hit song (“Creep”), only to rise to the top of the rock ranks with their second album (The Bends) and then make one of the greatest musical achievements of the 20th century (OK Computer).

Act Two:

There was a three year gap between OK Computer and Kid A during which the band toured endlessly and tried to find a new approach to their sound. The result was Kid A, an album less about guitar anthems and more about electronica, jazz, and minimal krautrock rhythms. Almost a decade later these songs sound familiar, but it’s hard to describe the initial shock of hearing the album for the first time – especially the opening trio of “Everything In Its Right Place”, the title track (with Thom Yorke’s robotized vocals), and “National Anthem”, which was at least a rock song, but also featured a repetitive Krautrock groove and free-jazz skronking. Strange as the songs initially seemed, the band’s willingness to experiment paid off with an album whose challenges were infinitely rewarding. Kid A had no singles (both literally and figuratively) or videos, so the bonus disc and DVD are made up of radio and television performances. Many of these songs took on more open-ended possibilities live – like “The National Anthem” where Johnny Greenwood samples live television and “Everything In Its Right Place” where Johnny samples and plays back Thom Yorke’s live vocals – so these performances are a welcome companion to the album. The only song that makes no sense here is “True Love Waits” from the I Might Be Wrong live EP. Why include one song from an officially released album?

2001’s Amnesiac was recorded during the same sessions as Kid A (and is often derisively referred to as Kid B) but it stands up well as its own piece of work. The album continues down the same experimental path as Kid A on the Tricky-esque “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, and “Like Spinning Plates”, where Thom Yorke learned to sing the song backwards and then played the backwards vocals backwards, making the vocals sound slurred and slightly off. With those numbers came a group of more “traditional” Radiohead songs like “I Might Be Wrong”, “Dollars And Cents” and “Knives Out” which sharply contrasted the more experimental fare. The group also indulged in woozy jazz ballads on “You and Whose Army”, “Pyramid Song” and the New Orleans-styled “Life In A Glass House” to tremendous effect. The bonus-disc features eight b-sides (“Worry Wort”, “Fog” and “Cuttooth” are essential), six studio sessions and, yet again, a single song from the I Might Be Wrong live EP. The DVD has five excellent videos from the album and six TV performances.

Hail To The Thief, from 2003, has been getting a bum rap from reviewers of late, which makes no sense at all. Perhaps detractors are down on it because the group don’t seem to be pushing themselves into new territory. However, you could say the album takes the best parts of Kid A and Amnesiac and removes the extraneous experiments for the band’s most consistent set of the decade. There’s great singles (“There There”, “Go To Sleep” and “2+2=5”), creepy electronica (“Backdrifts”, “The Gloaming”), beautiful ballads (“Sail To The Moon”, and “I Will”) and not a duff number among the album’s 14 tracks. The bonus-disc has 10 B-sides ranging from fair to terrible (Christian Vogel’s remix of “Myxomatosis” and Four Tet’s remix of “Scatterbrain” are both pretty unlistenable) and three live tracks. The DVD includes five videos (including a rather brilliant one for “Sit Down, Stand Up”) and a four song performance on the Jools Holland Show.

Radiohead – First Three Albums Reissued (Capitol Records)

Record labels are often called short-sighted, money-hungry vultures who care solely about commerce and don’t value art. A harsh claim, but fully deserved when confronted with perplexing releases like these Radiohead reissues. Obviously, the music isn’t the problem – it’s the way Capitol squanders an opportunity to present it in the best light possible. Musically, it begins with the group peddling a British take on post-Nirvana alt-rock on 1993’s Pablo Honey. The album got them a huge hit with “Creep”, but there’s little indication that there was anything special about the Oxford five-piece. The Bends is a tremendous leap forward, with the songwriting, vocals and music all rapidly maturing. “Fake Plastic Trees” and “High and Dry” were big hits, but the band is best on the louder tracks “Just”, the title track and “My Iron Lung”. “My Iron Lung” is particularly interesting since it’s about”Creep” and the band’s desire to be more than one-hit wonders. On OK Computer they made sure they’d be remembered. The album is a staggering success on every level possible, perfectly capturing the confusing and terrifying state of the world in the pre-millennial computer age. It’s also a rare album that, although lacking a storyline, works as a cohesive whole, rather than just a group of songs. With genius songs like “Airbag”, “Let Down” and “Paranoid Android” leading the way, it’s no wonder it usually lands near the top of most All-Time album lists.

Capitol did one thing right with this reissue campaign – adding a second disc of B-sides, EPs and BBC Sessions to each album. Anyone unfamiliar with these songs should pick these discs up immediately just to bask in the brilliance of “Talk Show Host”, “Polyethylene”, “Killer Cars” and at least a dozen others that would be the crowning achievement in almost any other band’s career. While these versions of the albums are great for Radiohead newbies, older fans get the shaft here – the ones who collected all the import singles, bootlegs, and EPs these songs originally appeared on. Would it have been so hard for Capitol Records to gives us a few previously unheard songs? I’m sure there’s some completed studio out-takes. I guess the band (who don’t approve of these releases) are contractually entitled to approve usage of previously unreleased material and wouldn’t do so. Even if that’s the case, why not at least throw us a bone and remaster the sound? Old fans would gladly shell out the money for a sonic upgrade – especially on the first two albums. The songs from those albums that appeared on last year’s two-disc Best Of were remastered, so why not the whole albums? Anyone hoping these releases would be”the final word” on these three albums will be severely disappointed.