One of the big payoffs in a Radiohead show is the moment in “No Surprises” when the audience joins Thom Yorke in singing, “Bring down the government/They don’t, they don’t speak for us.” But after everything we’ve witnessed in the past week (month? year?), it sounded more cathartic than ever. Radiohead turned dread into exhilaration at their Tuesday-night gig at New York’s Madison Square Garden – the first American stop of their 2016 tour, and their first show on U.S. soil in four years. They leaned heavily on their splendid new A Moon Shaped Pool, yet darted all over their songbook with an absolutely insane set list, full of surprises like “15 Step” (its first appearance of the tour) and “Let Down,” which they played for the first time in a decade. The music was saturated with punk rage (“Bodysnatchers”! “2 + 2 = 5”!) and terror (“Planet Telex”!). But with a revitalized Radiohead feeding off the energy of a rabid arena crowd, it was also a euphoric triumph of a show.
This fakakta election year seemed like a presence much as the Beijing Olympics were a presence on their 2008 tour, where Radiohead discreetly draped a Tibetan flag over an amp every night – never spoken out loud, but still tangible. Especially in a moment full of so many thieves to hail, when all the ice-age-coming dread of the music feels totally justifiable. It couldn’t have been an accident that when Johnny Greenwood fiddled with the radio dials for “The National Anthem,” picking up snippets of found-sound spoken-word chatter to weave into the mix, he tuned in to a broadcast from the Democratic National Convention. It ended with a female pundit saying, “I mean, she was a partner of Bill Clinton’s when he was governor of Arkansas.” (Whose voice was that? Anyone recognize it?) But with Yorke wailing “Everyone has got the fear” over the churning tumult of guitar fuzz and synth hiss, the song felt absolutely massive.
Radiohead were looser, cheerier, far more in sync with each other and more into the audience than they were on their last tour in 2012. No doubt it’s partly because the new material is so much stronger than The King of Limbs and they know it – with tunes like these to play, who wouldn’t be eager to show off? The set began with a snippet of Nina Simone’s voice, from a 1968 interview: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: No fear. I mean, really – no fear.” The band then played the de facto Side One of A Moon Shaped Pool – the first five songs in sequence, from Johnny Greenwood bowing his guitar in “Burn the Witch” to Yorke strumming the chunky acoustic licks in “Desert Island Disk” like Neil Young circa Zuma. The new songs hit even harder live, especially “The Numbers,” with its “Stairway to Heaven” guitar hook and Greenwood’s honky-tonk piano, and “Decks Dark” where Greenwood, hunched over his piano, abruptly leaped to the front of the stage, guitar in hand, to blast out a Duane Eddy-via-Pete Cosey twang eruption.
The crowd’s enthusiasm for the new shit seemed to rub off on the band. When they started opening up the back catalog, it was with a boyish sense of restless come-on-let’s-plaaaay energy – Ed O’Brien so dapper and pensive on guitar, Phil Selway holding down the beat in back with bassist Colin Greenwood and second drummer Clive Deamer, Johnny Greenwood dressed for kindergarten in a “1986” T-shirt and alarmingly high-waisted pants. That spirit was there in the way Johnny dashed from piano to guitar to xylophone, or the way he and O’Brien knelt on the floor to fiddle with their mixers at the end of “Everything in Its Right Place” (which was how they finished up the last time they played on this stage, in 2003).
Yorke, with his hair in a fetching Thom-bun, got twitchier hips as the night went on, dancing all over the stage to “15 Step,” side-stepping and shadow-boxing invisible enemies. His voice grew more expansive, stretching out the rapt high notes in “Let Down” and “Nude.” So did his gruff sense of humor, especially after a gratifyingly ragged electric-piano performance in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief.” After flubbing the ending, Yorke announced the professionals would begin “once the amateur band leaves the stage. None of you noticed those bum notes, right?”
That fear Nina Simone talked about – it was an undeniable presence all night, from the elegiac new ballad “Daydreaming” (“it’s too late, the damage is done”) to the closing sing-along version of “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” But the communal bustle of the music was downright inspiring – especially when they returned for the encore with “Let Down,” a moment that took everyone by surprise, probably including Radiohead themselves, who threw themselves into the song more intently as it heated up. This magnificent ballad always sounded like it should have been the grand finale of OK Computer, except it was merely the fifth song. (Has any classic album ever had a less fifth-song-sounding fifth song?) With Yorke, Greenwood and O’Brien all chiming away on guitar, and Phil Selway riding those tricky “Ticket to Ride” mallet beats, it was a rapturously received surprise, yet also loaded with that feeling of being so-so-disappointed. Like the rest of the show, it seemed totally suited for a present as tense as this one.
“Burn the Witch”
“Desert Island Disk”
“The National Anthem”
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”
“2 + 2 = 5”
“Everything in Its Right Place”
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”