Rockers of the Seelie Court

How little I knew about Radiohead didn’t occur to me until I saw the band members filtering onto the stage at the Merriweather Post Pavilion last night. I’m not talking about their music. I’ve listened to all their albums more times than I can count; they’re a shoo-in for my Top Five Bands of All Time. But as for the members of the band, or the buzz around them, or even what most people thought of their newest album — in all these things, I was in the dark. It’s as if I decided unconsciously at some point that for this band, unlike the rest of my favorites, I’d eschew the normal web-site-browsing, interview-reading behavior, and concentrate solely on the Music Itself.

With Radiohead, there’s plenty in the music to keep you busy. They’ve wended a long and wacky way from the Brit-grunge of Pablo Honey to the experimentation of Kid A and Amnesiac. I can’t decide if it’s the straight-up guitar adrenaline or the artsy whistles and bells that keep me interested; probably it’s the synthesis of the two. Whatever the case, Hail to the Thief, their newest album, has it in droves. Seeing them live was only an option thanks to the eBay artistry and incredible generosity of Bryan — friend, loyal reader, and frequent Polytropos Commenter.

They took the stage amid ravenous applause. First thought: “Wow. Thom Yorke is short and skinny.” Second thought: “I don’t even know the names of the other guys.” They were all still dressed like the guitar bums who got “Creep” played to death on the radio back in the day. Judging from the way the bass player bobbed around, he still thought he was in that band. The other chap of note was Tool Guy, whose actual name is Jonny Greenwood. He lurked on stage left with a bunch of very strange device that he plugged, massaged, and unplugged in order to coax out strange sounds and bizarre loops. He was also the guy who played all the really hard guitar parts.

I’m not going to gush, so let me just get it out of the way and say that this was the best concert I’ve been to in recent memory. I can’t even think of what the competition would be. But, with a couple exceptions, it wasn’t one of those jump up and down, wave-your-arms-around sort of concerts. If you were watching the audience and not paying attention to the music, it would seem very strange. Everyone in the pavilion was on their feet, and most were swaying or grooving, but nobody was dancing outright. You’d be tempted to think that people weren’t into it, but then the song would end and the roaring and applause would come crashing forth like a tidal wave. Then you’d realize that the audience had been utterly transfixed and enchanted the whole time. And it happened like that for song after song after song. The last time I was so tripped out to music was also with Radiohead, but that was listening to OK Computer while pumped full of painkillers after getting my wisdom teeth yanked out. This time, it was just the music.

Thom Yorke was not what I expected. He was like Puck, especially as drawn by Charles Vess. (Here’s an inadequate picture, the only one I could find online.) He was clearly good at doing all sorts of things, and made it look easy, but all the while behaved as if it was a terribly funny joke to him. He pranced and cavorted around the stage, beckoning for the audience to cheer when the whim took him. Even when his voice had you mesmerized, he’d be smiling mischieviously. It bled a little into the other members of the band, and lent the whole concert a strange aspect of Faerie — it was as if they were just up there having a blast, and the fact that it was transporting the audience into a quasi-mystical rapture was just a side effect of their little game.

If you’re even the remotest fan of the band, and if they’re still coming to your town, village, or hamlet, catch them on this tour. For the fans, here’s a setlist with a few comments:

  1. The Gloaming
  2. 2+2 = 5
  3. Sit Down, Stand Up
  4. Where I End and You Begin
  5. Airbag
  6. Pyramid Song (mind-blowing)
  7. Paranoid Android (whatever is one step up from mind-blowing)
  8. A Wolf at the Door
  9. Sail to the Moon
  10. You and Whose Army? (There was a camera up by the piano, projecting on the screens on either side of the stage. Yorke would stare into it as he sang, which is the point that cemented the Puck analogy for me.)
  11. There There (This is the one that sounds pretty good on the album but completely takes you by surprise live. Three of them on drums, and one guitar and one bass. Tres cool.)
  12. Go To Sleep
  13. Dollars & Cents
  14. We Suck Young Blood
  15. Idioteque
  16. Creep (Yorke introduced it by saying “We really like this song,” with no sense of irony. It still holds up. The huge lightboard behind them burned hot white during the chorus, and was pulsing in time with Tool Guy’s guitar.)
  17. The National Anthem

First Encore

  1. I Will
  2. Myxomatosis
  3. Just
  4. How To Disappear Completely

Second Encore

  1. No Surprises (On the line “Bring down the government / they don’t, they don?t speak for us,” the whole audience burst into wild cheers of agreement.)
  2. Everything In Its Right Place (Tool Guy and the other guitar guy sat up in the front, each with a looping machine. After the song was in full swing, the other three members waved to the audience and walked off, one by one, while their parts kept getting looped through again and again. Then it was just Tool Guy, getting his looping machine all set to go. Then he waved and walked off too, but the loops kept on going for another five minutes or so, while on the lightboard, the word FOREVER kept scrolling by, in letters so big only three of them could fit at once. So, not exactly what you’d call a profound moment, but nifty nonetheless.)