Radiohead did the damn near impossible Wednesday at New York's Roseland Ballroom, their first live U.S. performance in over two years: they transformed the challenging, impenetrable Kid A into rock songs. "Songs" is a relative term when you're dealing with this band, of course, as there's not much on Kid A resembling traditional song-stuff (hooks, choruses, riffs, bridges). But for all the talk about Radiohead saving rock (from itself?), or Kid A being post-rock, or even anti-rock, Radiohead did what only Radiohead could do, and simultaneously destroyed and redeemed the genre.
Yes, it's a contradiction. But to make the transition clear between The Bends and OK Computer to Kid A, Radiohead had to find some middle ground. Which meant making Kid A songs more like OK Computer, and OK Computer songs more like Kid A, save for the dynamics. Which makes sense, in a way, because the disoriented despair that drips off both tastes pretty much the same. Radiohead songs (and their nonlinear ambient mood pieces that masquerade as songs) are on the edge of madness, fierce and fragile, intense and gentle, sweeping and subtle, all at once. It was the blurred lines between old and new, between brilliance and psychosis, that were most apparent during tonight's nearly two-hour set, which featured no less than eight selections from Kid A.
With the aid of an seven-piece brass section, Radiohead burst into the free jazz freakout of "The National Anthem," which, though monochordal as it could have been, came alive via a dizzying array of found sound on guitarist Jonny Greenwood's transistor radio and frontman Thom Yorke's growls and snarls. As the band continued to grind away, Yorke twitched and convulsed, as if he were about to seizure. Seeming to feel the songs on a completely different level, his spasms would increase as Radiohead moved into their more chaotic and dynamic numbers, from "Talk Show Host" to "Paranoid Android," but would suddenly cease when the band mellowed out with softer fare. See-sawing back and forth between subdued, sophisticated melodies and aggressive, bombastic noise, Radiohead took on multiple personalities eagerly, with Yorke introducing most numbers quietly and simply ("This is a rock song," he mumbled before "The Bends"). Though the somewhat formless "In Limbo" is one of the few songs from Kid A to feature electric guitar riffs, that didn't prevent a little re-arrangement to allow for more guitar on the non-rock songs.
Yorke's vocals practically bled out from his throat, sometimes seeming ripped out of sheer pain, other times flowing with no regard to meaning in a literal sense. Words were chosen phonetically, for the pure sound of them, as if that in a way meant more than any dictionary definition could dictate. Wailing through "Optimistic" (which is anything but), soaring through the unreleased "Dollars and Cents," Yorke at points could have carried the whole show on his voice, which, for some songs, he sang along to in a neat effect, as his distorted vocals were sampled and broken into backwards shards. Yorke lightened his plaintive wail in "How to Disappear Completely," allowing the song to drift along with his strummed acoustic guitar, letting notes just hang gently and fade away. Even in the beat-driven "Idioteque," Yorke's melody-melting vocal was gorgeous, vaulting into falsettos at the top of his register -- the beat wasn't even necessary.
Whatever Radiohead set out to prove with Kid A -- that rock is art, that rock is dead, that rock is very much alive, that rock has evolved into a new, nameless form that we may not yet recognize -- it was done and undone. As it should be.