The best live band in rock played its greatest concert ever on June 17th, 2006 at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. “The performances are brilliant,” says Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood, “because they are so relaxed.” At Bonnaroo, Greenwood, singer Thom Yorke, drummer Phil Selway, and guitarist Ed O’Brien and Colin’s brother Jonny covered every extreme in their studio catalog, from the violent double-guitar clang of 1995’s The Bends to the haunted electronics of 2000’s Kid A. But it was in the fresh, unfinished songs, later cut for 2007’s In Rainbows, that Radiohead peaked that night. “In ‘House of Cards,'” Colin says, “50,000 people threw their glow sticks in the air to this kick-drum beat and Thom’s keening voice. In the film [of the concert], it looks like Thom walked into a party where he feels instantly at home.” Some new songs sounded flat at that show, Colin admits. “But isn’t that what people want to see – the next part of the story? They don’t want some prepackaged supper-club band.”
When Radiohead first came to the U.S. in 1993, the band’s performances – especially Yorke’s – borrowed from the live, raw dynamics of the Pixies. “There were a lot of Johnny Rotten comparisons,” Colin says. When the band became big-room headliners with 1997’s OK Computer, Colin says, “those songs worked well projected in large spaces.” It was during Radiohead’s 2001 shows, in the wake of Kid A, that Yorke finally settled into his eerie, distinctive body language: his head bobbing from side to side, as if he is singing from inside a trance.
“He loves that thing where he changes from a lead singer into another instrument onstage,” says Colin, “in the high notes and repeated chanting he does.”
Radiohead have rehearsed up to seventy songs for their next tour, which launches in May. The set lists, as always, will change nightly. And there will be new songs as well, ready or otherwise. “It’s not very professional,” Colin admits. “Sometimes it doesn’t work. But every time is unique. It marks the occasion. I love that.”
This story is from the May 1st, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.