When Monday night's benefit for grassroots environmental network Friends of the Earth was announced weeks ago, it sold out instantly, with tickets for the evening at London's Koko club soon being snapped up on eBay for outrageous prices. It was clear why: Although the stripped-down acoustic bill included sets from indie talents Kate Rusby and Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, the evening was all about Radiohead.
Rusby's sterling set, including a beautiful cover of the Richard and Linda Thompson classic "Withered and Died," was all but ignored by the audience, as was Rhys's endearingly shambolic performance. But when Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood finally appeared onstage, the noise from the crowd was almost deafening. Seemingly embarrassed by the naked display of fan worship, the pair launched straight into "Karma Police." Perched at a curious angle on a small wooden chair, Yorke strummed the opening chords intently as Greenwood played the upright piano. Instantly recognizing the 1997 classic, the audience began to sing along. Radiohead were back.
As the song ended, one particularly enthusiastic fan cried out, "Thom Yorke for Prime Minister!" -- a suggestion met by whoops of approval from most of the crowd. David Cameron, self-confessed Radiohead fan and recently elected Leader of the Opposition, stood in the VIP enclosure smiling rather nervously as he sized up the competition.
Yorke followed with "There There," off 2003's Hail To The Thief, as Greenwood hovered at his side, electric guitar in hand. At the song's climax, Greenwood sprang into action, unleashing some ferocious string-slashing over Yorke's acoustic rhythm and reminding the audience why he's regularly described as one of the most exciting guitar players in the world.
The outburst subsided as abruptly as it began, however, and the pair slipped into the first new song of the evening, "Arpeggi." A delicately fingerpicked lament, the song sounded like a distant cousin of The Bends-era "Street Spirit" as Yorke sang softly, "Everybody leaves if they get the chance/And this is my chance." Hearing it for the first time, the song seemed to confirm what separates Radiohead from their peers by an interstellar mile: Where bands such as Coldplay whine blandly about the woes of the world, Radiohead's pains seem personal -- and all the more resonant. And unlike so many emo outfits now, Yorke's voice is full of compassion rather than some brand of adolescent self-absorption.
"Fake Plastic Trees" followed swiftly, providing a moment of light relief when Greenwood's ear-bending guitar became too much even for Yorke, who broke off laughing as he tried to sing "It wears me out" to what sounded like an angry goose clearing its throat.
"Bodysnatchers," the second new song of the evening, was driven by an insistent acoustic riff. Yorke's searingly intense vocals kept returning despairingly to the phrase "in the twenty-first century." If it was a comment on the state of the world, it was distinctly at odds with the positive message Yorke issued between songs as he talked about climate change, saying, "It's not too late."
The 2001 Amnesiac single "Pyramid Song" and "How to Disappear Completely," off 2000's Kid A, came next, both of which are peppered with suicidal imagery. But time and again, the commitment and emotion of the performances triumphed over bleak lyrics, turning agony into something closer to joy.
The last new song of the evening, "Cymbal Rush," provided a rare display of nerves: Yorke set up a Laurie Anderson-like vocal loop only to find, as he sat at the piano, that he'd set it too fast. Problem rectified, he started the tune again, revealing another lament which seemed to twist the intro chords of Neil Young's "After the Goldrush" (a song Yorke is fond of performing) into a distinctly twenty-first-century lullaby. Greenwood added some of his now trademark Star Trek Ondes Martenot to haunting effect.
The show was rounded off by a performance of their OK Computer single, "Paranoid Android," which lost none of its power for being reduced to a two-man rendition. "Why don't you remember my name?" Yorke sang, as if he were afraid of being forgotten. The stunning set was more than enough to jar our memories.
Radiohead set list:
"Fake Plastic Trees"
"How to Disappear Completely"
"I Might Be Wrong"
"Street Spirit (Fade Out)"