6th October 2012
If you think about live music from the coldest, most emotionless viewpoint possible – that is, the financial one – there are only a handful of rock bands who fit into the highest echelon of commercial viability, who can travel to almost any dark corner of the world – from Manchester to Manila, from Bristol to Buenos Aires – and sell out a massive show. Some of them have drifted from being legitimately creative to churning out embarrassing dad-rock, like Muse or the Chili Peppers. The likes of Foo Fighters, U2 and Coldplay, meanwhile, were never very interesting to begin with. And sitting alongside them, jarringly incongruously, are Radiohead; tonight’s show at the Arena, which sold out to 21,000 capacity in minutes, is relatively intimate by their standards. They are the only band in the world whose enormous commercial stature has been vindicated by the enduring brilliance of their recorded output.
“Hi, I’m Lady Gaga.” mutters Thom Yorke early on, with a grin that’s equal parts endearing and unsettling. This passing reference to the pop superstar, though, is about as close as tonight’s show comes to typical arena fare – the band don’t air an album single until fifty minutes into the set, Amnesiac‘s ‘Pyramid Song’. There‘s plenty of tracks in the band’s back catalogue that would present the opportunity for a mass singalong – ‘Just’, ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Creep’ all spring to mind – but none of them make the cut tonight. The set is dominated, instead, by the electronic side of Radiohead – the side they’ve been cultivating ever since the radical departure that was Kid A – and the seamless translation of these songs to such a massive setting is a genuinely remarkable feat. ‘Myxomatosis’ and ‘The Gloaming’, challenging and erratic on record, sound enormous; more composed, understated cuts from In Rainbows, such as ‘Nude’ and ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’, perhaps more impressive still; in front of tens of thousands, there’s no mitigation of the sense of hypnotic intimacy present on the studio versions.
The biggest triumph, though, is the transformation of material from last year’s The King of Limbs. A reflection of Yorke’s appreciation of the more modern electronic likes of Four Tet and tonight’s openers, Caribou, that album contained a number of tracks that felt, judged against the incredibly high watermark that the band have set themselves, a little underwhelming, but their live counterparts are revelatory; the yearning ‘Bloom’, the recorded version of which was flat and repetitive, sounds so much more forceful, and a stripped-back rendition of ‘Give Up the Ghost’ challenges the more-revered ‘How to Disappear Completely’ for the title of the evening’s most hauntingly beautiful moment.
There’s still room for Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien to ply their original, guitar-based trade though; ‘Airbag’s crunching riffery arrives early in the set, and The Bends‘ blistering opener, ‘Planet Telex’, is given a rare live outing. There’s time, too, for the occasional misstep; ‘Staircase’ was likely included for its novelty rather than through any perception of it matching the rest of the setlist’s high standards, and it’s high time the band gave up on the tepid ‘These Are My Twisted Words’. Irrespective, tonight remained an exercise in the reappropriation of what constitutes an ‘arena show’. Tremendous musicianship, visionary songwriting and a light show that struck the difficult balance between subtlety and flamboyance are enough to render huge choruses and extravagant stage sets obsolete; accusations of self-indulgence and grumbles over ticket prices seem a little gauche when entertainment of this level is on offer. Radiohead are a national treasure. Cherish them.