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29th March 2024

The Smile live at BBC Radio 6 Music Festival: Contagious follow-up project impresses Manchester

Fans gather to see the much-anticipated Radiohead follow-up project The Smile headlining the Radio 6 Music festival in Manchester’s O2 Victoria Warehouse
The Smile live at BBC Radio 6 Music Festival: Contagious follow-up project impresses Manchester
Credit: Marc Ducrest @ Press

Of all the facial expressions Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood, and Tom Skinner could’ve named his new band after, The Smile is surely the least expected. The Snarl or The Frown? Yes. The Smile? No. And yet there were plenty of smiles from the eagerly awaiting crowd as they launched their highly anticipated show at the BBC Radio 6 Music Festival 2024.  

The band headlined the final night of the festival, returning to Manchester after last year’s event which featured the likes of Loyle Carner and Arlo Parks. Comprising of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, plus Tom Skinner from Sons Of Kemet, the trio showcased much of their debut 2022 debut LP A Light For Attracting Attention, released in May 2022. The album garnered much critical acclaim but, judging from the audience reaction in O2 Victoria Warehouse, their new music will take them to an even wider audience. 

The admirable thing about this trio is they know exactly what baggage they are carrying. In fact, Jonny Greenwood came right out and said it: “I know how traditionally middle-aged musicians get into having weird vanity projects.” No one here thought they were weird, or maybe more accurately, they revelled in it. The demographic was almost exclusively ‘Radio 6 Dads’, and there is no question that everyone in that warehouse was a pre-existing Radiohead fan.

That’s not to diminish the power of The Smile. The new music stands up on its own merits, and actually, they’re not vain either. The London Orchestra elevated the whole performance, providing an intense yet intricate backdrop to many songs, especially the eight-minute epic ‘Bending Hectic’. This has quickly become a fan-favourite, reminiscent as it is of Radiohead’s ‘There, There’.

Songs from their first album such as ‘The Smoke’ and ‘Skirting Across the Surface’ stood out, showcasing the artists’ masterful lyricism and bold musicality. The two members of Radiohead once again show themselves as world-weary masters on the fretboard.

The Smile’s performance was a testament to their evolution, juggling their familiar, iconic sound with innovation, ensuring a promising future beyond their esteemed legacy. In the past, Yorke has channelled his seemingly endless musical creativity into other side projects like Atoms for Peace, and The Smile is no exception.

Johnny Greenwood had a real chance to shine. All evening he worked his magic. A musical polymath, to say the least, Greenwood morphed into an octopus on stage, one hand on the keyboard, one on the harp. He even used a violin bow to ‘strum’ the guitar in ‘Speech Bubbles’. Greenwood looked like the youngest in the building by a few decades, sporting a string of pearls and emitting a broody, emo energy, flicking his dark mop of hair over his chiselled face. Neither Radiohead nor The Smile are the kind of bands who deal in pin-ups, but Greenwood is getting dangerously close to being one

All this makes for a potent musical brew. ‘Bending Hectic’ ’s discordant, unsettling crescendo had the audience in raptures, echoing The Beatles‘ ‘A Day In the Life’. The crowd were there to appreciate the music, as we were aggressively shushed by the woman behind us for whispering in between songs. Albeit a bit over the top, it’s a testament to the deep appreciation for their music that people even want to relish in the anticipation.

Despite a lack of engagement, The Smile didn’t need to schmooze in between songs. I soon got used to the idea of watching these uncommunicative geniuses from afar. It wouldn’t be true to The Smile for them to offer to pay my university tuition or sing my granny happy birthday like Taylor Swift might. For them, it’s all in the music. It was actually refreshing for the band to not feel obliged to fill the gap between songs with niceties. 

However, there was a little bit of inter-song banter, albeit of the very minimal Thom Yorke variety. The band played two unreleased singles, ‘Instant Psalm’ and ‘Tiptoe’. In classic Yorke style he listened patiently to the audience cheers that greeted them before saying:  “Yeah, you don’t know it.”  But I bet it won’t be long before everyone does. 

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