Radiohead began the opening night of their first U.S. tour in four years – at Miami’s American Airlines Arena on February 27th – with a perfect description of their new state of rhythmic and creative elation: “Bloom,” from 2011’s The King of Limbs. “Open your mouth wide,” Thom Yorke sang, with languid glassy pleasure, across the tandem gallop of drummers Phil Selway and Clive Deamer, the extra jazzy accent of Jonny Greenwood‘s marching pattern on a snare and the murky ring of Ed O’Brien‘s guitar. What felt like suggestion on that album – a fine rain of cryptic detail; densely layered programming and hovering vocal grace – rolled off the stage like fact, a silvery rushing momentum and exultation that set the pace and forward temper of virtually everything that followed. The next song, “Daily Mail,” started with the stately gait of Yorke’s funeral-service chords on an upright piano but soon gave way to a hard climbing rage in Yorke’s singing, pressed by Selway and Deamer. And Yorke was a bundle of nervous anticipation, dancing in place to the countoff, before the rest of the band jumped into the twin-engine surge and staccato-guitar jolt of “Morning Mr. Magpie.” Three songs into this gig, the famously tour-aphobic Yorke was already – and visibly – having a grand time.
The Miami show was, in one sense, the end of a reinvention: the culmination of a year that Radiohead first spent in a cul de sac – with a provocative studio recording they were certain could not be played live – then in an exciting new partnership with Deamer, a veteran jazz and trip-hop drummer who came to Radiohead from the British group Portishead. Radiohead’s two shows with Deamer at New York’s Roseland last September featured muscular reconceptions of The King of Limbs‘ hermetic dynamics. But he has since been integrated into a deeper body of songs, and the effect, in Miami, was renewing. The robotic suspense of “Kid A” now has legs; in “There There,” from Hail to the Thief, the drummers, which included Jonny on his own set of tom-toms and O’Brien on his own kit, easily outnumbered the guitars.
The Shock of the New
Radiohead thoroughly covered their recent history; nearly half of the 24 songs in the show came from The King of Limbs and 2007’s In Rainbows. The oldest hits, saved for the encores, were from OK Computer: “Airbag” and “Karma Police.” The group debuted two new songs in Miami, a taste of the writing and recording Radiohead did with Deamer during tour rehearsals this winter. “Identikit” featured O’Brien singing in a spectral counter-prayer against Yorke’s voice, over Colin Greenwood‘s iron-straight bass pulse and the slinking funk of Selway and Deamer. “Cut a Hole,” one of several encores, was a work apparently still in progress: slow, with a curt, clanging guitar part by Jonny, sung by Yorke in a chant-like daze. There was excavation too: “Meeting in the Aisle,” an OK Computer-era instrumental featured in the tour documentary Meeting People is Easy, got an impressively solid round of applause when Yorke introduced it.
Expect more of both – the fresh and the rare – over the next year. The day before the Miami show, backstage before a final production rehearsal, Yorke revealed that Radiohead have worked up more than 75 songs for this tour, including additional new songs and deep-track B-sides. The group has also returned to arenas in America with a production worthy of the space without diminishing the players. The lighting rig includes a field of vertical bars about 35 feet high and an extraordinary moving-image wall comprised of 14,400 recycled, plastic water bottles, packed horizontally into grids and outfitted with LED’s on the drinking rims. And as Yorke sang “You and Whose Army” from 2001’s Amnesiac, tight-focus footage of his staring, contorted features were chopped up and recombined, like a mutant’s portrait, across a dozen square screens suspended above the stage. It was massive, creepy and mesmerizing.
There was one first-night seizure. Yorke and Jonny had to stop one of the encores, the circular breath of “Give Up the Ghost,” then start again after Jonny had trouble triggering the singer’s cumulative whooping loops. But it was done and dealt with in embarrassed good humor, an unexpected way into the mood that sealed the evening. Earlier, Radiohead whipped the crowd into a final dancefloor paroxysm with the fat drum-army sensation of Kid A‘s “Idioteque.” But the more fitting climax was the second-encore trio of “Give Up the Ghost,” “Reckoner,” and “Karma Police,” a sustained demonstration of grace through anguish, trial and suspicion. Yorke finally sent the audience home with a sing-along on the plaintive chorus line in “Karma Police” – “I lost myself” – and grinned contentedly as he walked off. Radiohead are one of the greatest touring bands of the modern rock era. They have also been one of the most reluctant. But in Miami, everything in their drive, shine and delight said they were glad to be back.
“Morning Mr. Magpie”
“Meeting in the Aisle”
“You and Whose Army?”
“Cut a Hole”
“Give Up the Ghost”