Radiohead’s summer U.S. tour seems designed to prove a few self-evident truths. For one thing, In Rainbows remains their hands-down best album, though all votes for Kid A will be counted and “There There” is their peak song. For another thing: They’ve remembered how much fun it is to be the World’s Greatest Rock Band, to the point where their live show is a mad career-capping rush of exuberant energy. Their four-night run at New York’s Madison Square Garden last week was one for the ages. “We’d like to thank everybody who’s come this week to all the shows,” Thom Yorke said at the Saturday finale. “A celebration of what has happened in all these crazy fucking years we’ve had together.” That’s how the whole week felt—and it’s what makes this tour so powerful.
I’ve seen so many great Radiohead shows over the years, but never at this kind of cathartic intensity. I’ve stood with hundreds of thousands of fellow fans singing along with “we hope that you choke” or “they don’t speak for us” or “I feel my luck could change” or even just “keep breathing.” I’ve been singing along with Thom’s “bring down the government” for six or seven governments now. But the songs resonate more than ever—you can hear all the fury in the room, and it’s a beautiful noise. Radiohead didn’t even need to itemize why they’re pissed these days, though Thom gave a brief rant on Friday night, ripping into “your glorious leader” and his disastrous U.K. visit: “Your glorious leader met our glorious leader…Made a fool of himself. Made a fool of the Queen. Made a fool of our country. Fuck him!” Jesus, you know things are crazy when Thom Yorke can feel pangs of empathy for the House of Windsor.
But for all the rage, Radiohead are cutting footloose—Yorke so slinky in his hip-shaking and moon-walking, Jonny Greenwood so effusive in embracing the guitar-hero moves of “Bodysnatchers,” “Airbag,” and the through-the-ceiling climax of “Fake Plastic Trees.” That playful spirit is evident in the musical details, right down to the boyish way they rush from song to song, racing to pack in more music before curfew. One of the pleasures of the nosebleed seats: seeing Jonny literally run up the ramp to the stage when it’s time for one more encore. (Even though he’s pulling double duty in the opening band Junun, which means three hours of playing.)
That spirit’s also there in the way Thom leads the crowd in sing-along moments like “now we are one” or “you can scream and you can shout.” During the final night’s “2 + 2 = 5,” there wasn’t enough screaming and shouting to suit him; he waved his hands to demand more and got it. This tour they’re out for blood. As he quipped on Wednesday night, “We’re your mad uncles.”
This tour couldn’t be more different from the tense gigs Radiohead played in 2012, after the underwhelming King of Limbs—at the time, fans feared it might be the end, and it sure felt like it. There was a Newark show where Thom was singing “Idioteque” out of sync with the one the rest of the band was playing; you felt guilty having to choose which faction to sing along with. But now these mad uncles are on a roll. Ed O’Brien faces off with Jonny in their eyeball-to-eyeball guitar mind-meld during “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi.” Colin Greenwood hops up and down in his happy place between the two drummers, Phil Selway and Clive Deamer. It’s not always 100 percent clear what the second drummer is doing, but whether it’s his maracas-shaking skills or just his vibe, he adds to the chemistry. (One bald drummer is a concept; two bald drummers is a lifestyle.)
They’ve been starting these U.S. shows with “Daydreaming,” a mournful hymn from 2016’s excellent A Moon-Shaped Pool—but then rampaging all over their history. The previous week in Chicago, they did “Blow Out” from Pablo Honey, a deep cut they hadn’t touched in a decade. In New York, they shook up the set list with surprises like the rejected 2015 James Bond theme “Spectre,” a piano ballad that’s their purest Martin Gore tribute. They did “Kid A” all four nights; other unexpected highlights included “Like Spinning Plates,” “The Bends,” “Let Down” and “Separator.” Friday night was the peak, but Wednesday wasn’t far behind. The In Rainbows tunes just keep expanding over the years, especially the Al Green-meets-Gary Numan sex grooves of “Nude,” “All I Need” and “House of Cards.” “Everything In Its Right Place” blew up into a DFA-worthy cowbell jam, with Ed and Jonny kneeling devoutly on the floor at their mixers; they squared off on the toms for their drum duel in “There There.”
At one point on Night 2, Thom said, “This was written in 1998. Me and Jonny were traveling through the desert somewhere—remember? But it seems much more relevant now than it did then.” The song turned out to be “Optimistic”—yet he could have been describing most of the show. Indeed, it would be a challenge to assemble a setlist of Radiohead songs that don’t sound eerily relevant now. (“Creep,” maybe?) “Idioteque,” the one they do every night, feels all too timely in its ice-age-gasmic rage—no band has ever had a long-running love/hate affair with a verb like Radiohead’s twisted romance with “happen.” Yet they make the “waiting for something to happen” of “The Bends” and the “we are accidents waiting to happen” of “There There” sound like part of the same “Idioteque” story.
Fun crowd, too—the kind of hardcore audience that can tell they’re in the middle of a this-is-really-happening moment. On Saturday night, I was between a Staten Island dude with Nine Inch Nails tattoos and a woman from Paris who last saw Radiohead in Geneva in 1993, opening for the band James. Bonus points to the morose non-fan sitting in front of me on Friday; she spent “Fake Plastic Trees” scrolling through Instagram liking other peoples’ beach photos—a touch Thom Yorke could have scripted personally. (As if on cue, she got up and fled during the next song, which was “How to Disappear Completely.” Chef’s kiss!)
Radiohead are embracing the U2-ish aspects of what they do—anthemic, uplifting, self-consciously gargantuan—exactly the kind of thing U2 decided not to do in their current tour. (It’s almost like the two bands have a timeshare agreement to take turns standing under a blood red sky.) Yorke visited another one of his rock idols during his week in New York, stopping by Michael Stipe’s art exhibit in Brooklyn, where both reckoners posed for an “American Gothic”-style hand-holding photo that gave any R.E.M. fan a feeling or two.
But only Radiohead could hit such a communal tone in hushed moments like “Exit Music (For a Film)”: Thom at the lip of the stage with his acoustic guitar, crooning, “Sing us a song / A song to keep us warm.” Back when this song came out in the Nineties, people worried about things like the Y2K computer crash, The Jerry Springer Show or the prospect of Al Gore’s presidency not being progressive enough. None of these turned out to be the right disaster to fret about. Radiohead’s sense of doom and dread could sometimes sound out of step with the Nineties. But on this tour, they’re recombining their past into a story about right now—songs to keep people warm in the current ice age. On the final night, right before the farewell “Karma Police,” Thom’s last spoken words were “See you again.” That was a resonant message in itself.