Having nailed the musical equivalent of a grand slam in 1997 -- making near-unanimous appearances in critics' top ten lists and even taking home a Grammy for Best Alternative Performance -- Radiohead have embarked on what could be called their "victory lap" tour, which takes them skirting across North America for the next three weeks.
Unlike in sports, where the victory lap amounts to little more than aquarter-throttle wave-fest, Radiohead took the opportunity to debut a cache of new songs and prove once again what a sprawling-yet-tight live machine they are.
Thursday night at the sold-out 7,000-capacity Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco (the tour's third show) the band established that dynamic mood early, opening with an incendiary version of "Airbag" from last year's OK Computer with nary a word hello. The crowd on the floor, packed shoulder to shoulder, could only motion its approval in lolling tectonic shifts. Lead singer Thom Yorke's head had no such problem, however, appearing as if it were attached to his body by means of a tightly wound spring like one of those spastic dashboard toys.
The band chose to ignore virtually all cuts from Pablo Honey, their 1993 debut album, opting instead to concentrate on OK Computer, 1995's The Bends, assorted B-sides and two new numbers.
Throughout the show, Yorke and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood physically embodied the roiling emotions that course just beneath the surface of most Radiohead songs. This became startlingly clear in the third song of the evening, "Planet Telex," from The Bends. The song's explosive changes and the frenzied onstage activity brought the largely sedate crowd to life, and began a near continual pulling of sandwiched audience members from the floor to safety by the security staff.
The same confidence that inspired Yorke and Greenwood's onstage theatrics also emboldened them to expand on songs already pushing the eight-minute mark, stretching such hits as "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android" to vista-like proportions.
While Yorke plays the damaged artiste role for the band, it's Greenwood who provides most of the trademark sonic textures live. Switching between guitar, keyboard, xylophone and theremin, Greenwood evoked Jimmy Page circa 1971: gaunt and obviously at the top of his creative craft. One moment found him injecting the songs with raging guitar squalls, gentle keyboard swaths the next.
Like Nirvana, Radiohead's strength lies in its dynamics, a point their performance Thursday showed almost to a fault. With songs such as "The Trickster," Loose String," and "No Surprises" all following a pattern of slow, descending chord progressions followed by an explosive chorus and a cacophonous bridge, the concert played less like a bunch of rock songs than an aural treatise on insecurity and redemption. This sameness was exacerbated by Yorke's near-complete lack of stage banter between songs (save for when he railed against the local radio station promoter for not allowing Greenwood to play Public Enemy during a studio visit that afternoon).
But an hour and a half of Radiohead "sameness" is like an hour and a half of tantric sex: you might not reach a pinnacle, but it's still a hell of a ride. And after a whirlwind run through of "Fake Plastic Trees," "Bones" and "My Iron Lung," Radiohead ended their cocksure parade exactly ninety minutes after they started it.
The crowd, which had been mesmerized into blank stares through most of the show, snapped to and brought the band back for two encores, the first a Procol Harum-esque new song Yorke introduced as "Untitled" that found both Yorke and Greenwood behind keyboards. The band then offered up Computer's "Let Down" and The Bends' "Street Spirit [Fade Out]" as denouement,before returning to the stage one last time to end the show with another untitled, surprisingly up-tempo new song.
Radiohead knew they had nothing to prove coming into the show, butnonetheless seized the opportunity to showcase once again why they are one of the best bands around today. If nothing more, the night -- and most likely, the tour -- will provide the band with a shot of confidence to carry with them into the studio for the daunting task of following up OK Computer.