Even Radiohead can be surprised by the difference a rock band can make. On Sunday, the forward-looking Oxford quintet took a break from recording sessions for its next album to perform at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood and raise desperately needed funds for Haiti earthquake relief. “This is how much money we made,” singer-guitarist Thom Yorke announced late in the two-hour concert, as he was handed a card with a final tally. “Gross: Fuck me! $572,774!”
Tickets for the night’s “Radiohead for Haiti” concert were sold over the weekend via online auction, with a top price paid by one fan at $4,000 for a single pair. “What did you do to get a ticket?” Yorke joked with the crowd. “Get money from your dad? Or blackmail your boss?” The all-star audience included Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, Flea, Drew Barrymore, Paul Thomas Anderson and Anna Paquin.
For hardcore fans crowding the old theater, it was a bargain, with an epic, emotional set that stretched from career-defining work from the mid-’90s to debut of a new song, the brooding “Lotus Flower,” which Yorke had previously performed without Radiohead. The night began quietly with Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood alone onstage, each plucking the spectral acoustic melody from 2007’s “Faust Arp,” as Yorke sang in the hushed tones of Elliott Smith: “I’m tingling tingling tingling/It’s what you feel, not what you ought to.”
The band was at their stripped down essence, with none of the bright lights and visual effects of Radiohead’s 2008 performance at the nearby Hollywood Bowl. The 1,300-capacity room’s much smaller setting revealed the subtleties within band’s layered sound, though Yorke kept insisting they were in recording mode (and still working on a new album in Los Angeles) and a little rough onstage. “Feel free, man, to sing along,” he said. “Chances are, we’ll forget the words.”
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Radiohead performed without attempting to say anything profound about the ongoing tragedy in the Caribbean nation, allowing the emotion and power of their songs to speak for them. Ticket proceeds were to be directed to Oxfam International, and more was raised from the sale of a limited edition show poster at $25 each, plus spare cash dropped into green buckets wielded by volunteers.
The band’s depth of feeling was heard within the sad, hopeful “Fake Plastic Trees” (from 1995), which soon erupted with the slashing guitars of Greenwood and Ed O’Brien before Yorke’s closing pleas of heartbreak: “If I could be who you wanted/All the time, all the time,” as fans swayed and sang softly along.
From there, Radiohead moved to material Yorke called “more up to date,” as the singer bounced anxiously behind the microphone to the grooves, his falsetto colliding with explosive beats and guitars and electronics, unshaven and casual in a blue-and-white plaid shirt. During “National Anthem,” Greenwood plugged into some random local radio signals, while his brother Colin rolled into a heavy bass groove of static and beauty. As the mournful “Dollars & Cents” came to a close with some aggressive, chiming guitar blasts from O’Brien, he and Yorke shared a laugh.
For “Lotus Flower,” Yorke stood alone onstage with an acoustic guitar, finding a bluesy, melancholy pattern as he sang a mournful, “I will slip myself into your pocket / Now I set you free, I set you free.”
The first of two encores began with Yorke alone at an upright piano, his back to the crowd, singing “Everything In Its Right Place” (from 2000’s Kid A — RS’ best album of the decade), pounding the stirring chord riff. He was soon joined again by the full band for “You and Whose Army?” as he cupped his hands around the microphone to sing, glancing and glaring playfully at fans over his shoulder between lyrics.
The crowd kept shouting more song titles. “Yes, we’ll get to that,” Yorke told the front rows. “You’re not in a hurry are you?”
“Fake Plastic Trees”
“The National Anthem”
“How To Disappear Completely”
“A Wolf at the Door”
“Dollars & Cents”
“Everything In Its Right Place”
“You And Whose Army?”
“All I Need”
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”
For more of Rolling Stone‘s ongoing coverage of the music industry’s response to the crisis in Haiti, check out the following stories:
• Hope for Haiti Now: Rolling Stone Live Blogs the All-Star Telethon
• Inside the Recording of Bono and Jay-Z’s Haiti Single “Stranded”
• Dave Matthews Band, Lady Gaga and More Stars Rock to Aid Haiti
• Radiohead Announce Haiti Benefit Show in Los Angeles
• Rihanna Covers Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” for Haiti Relief