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!
03 Kid A
07 Meeting In The Aisle
08 The National Anthem
10 Morning Mr Magpie
12 Lotus Flower
13 Go To Sleep
14 The Gloaming
16 There There
17 You And Whose Army?
18 15 Step
20 Paranoid Android
21 Give Up The Ghost