San Diego is not the place to see Radiohead. Yes, it is a beautiful city, and the bayside venue — water to one side, city panorama to the other — couldn’t have been more stunning. But stunning in a way befitting Widespread Panic, Rob Thomas, Santana, Bonnie Raitt, or any of the other acts scheduled to perform there this summer.
But this is Radiohead. Glitchy electronics, distorted shape-shifting guitar solos, a guy actually playing a radio. What room for this — this level of experimentation, this almost deliberate readjustment of the conventional structure of rock music — is there in perpetually sunny, aesthetically soothing, intellectually lost Southern California? Where are the concrete walls, when will the rains come? A venue needs its built in symbolism, and this had none.
Radiohead took the stage on June 26 and ran through “There There” and “2+2=5” to overwhelming crowd appreciation. They played a stock version of “National Anthem,” a paranoia-inducing “Gloaming,” a transcendent but predictable “Paranoid Android.” Frontman Thom Yorke shook his head as if it were unhinged from the neck. He stared at the crowd and made indecipherable gestures. He, essentially, was himself. And the crowd loved every bit of it.
And yes, I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I buy the albums the day they come out, and I’ve driven six hours to see the band and cheered from hundreds of yards away during a mid-day sound check. Yet I stood, pen in hand, eyes fixed, waiting for the guys to falter. I may have gone in with the giddy anticipation of a devotee, but I also had the anxiety of a writer waiting for something to write about.
The third song, “15 Step,” was new, and as goes for bands with devoted followers, everyone around me seemed to know it already. I didn’t, though as a testament to the song and the band playing it, it took very little time for me to follow guitarist Ed O’Brien’s lead and begin a syncopated, odd-time pattern of handclaps. I continued, as did those around me — clap clap clap clap clap-pause-clap-pause-clap clap — as O’Brien picked up a radio from amidst his army of pedals and walked across the stage to tune into a frequency that, although unrecognizable, invariably added to the blippy techno beat. Yorke danced in manic circles around the microphone. He would do this several times throughout the night; this is nothing new.
Radiohead ran through twenty-three songs, nine of which were new. Of these, “All I Need,” “Videotape,” “Bangers ‘n’ Mash,” and “House of Cards” stood out as will-be hits. The songs everyone knew — “Morning Bell,” “Just,” “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” — were characteristically perfect, boosted even by Yorke’s lucid alternation from near-mumbled snarl to soaring falsetto, always in the same song, nearly always in the same verse.
But what made this show so remarkable, what finally allowed the music and the venue to complement one another, is the direction the members of Radiohead seemed to be going with their new material. Okay, Jonny Greenwood may have played the piano, the organ, the antiquated organ-piano-Theremin hybrid called the Ondes Martenot, a vocal sampler called a Kaos Pad, and a scaled-down drum set (the last for the weird new song “Down Is the New Up.” Yorke played the piano, the electric piano, an egg shaker, and also took a turn at the mini drum kit. O’Brien played a bigger shaker, the radio, and his effects pedals.
But what they all played, and what became the highlight of the night, was the guitar. “Bangers ‘n’ Mash” came across as a frenzied, almost psychedelic new rock song. Sure, Yorke played the drums, but only at the end, during which the guitar slack was picked up by O’Brien and Greenwood, whose relentless attention to riff and distortion brought me back to The Bends and reminded me why I started listening to the band eleven years ago. “Nude” sounded like an OK Computer outtake: a bluesy riff, a building crescendo and eventual release. “4-Minute Warning” sounded a little like Oasis: big recognizable riffs and lyrics, but without the pretension and overwrought grandiosity. And “House of Cards,” a simple, mellow new song with Yorke strumming the upbeats, was the strongest of the new songs, as enveloping as the cherished songs that preceded it.
Only halfway through the night did I notice that Greenwood was missing an elaborate module — the massive, many-tiered module, like an old telephone switchboard — that he used to bring on tour. And so fourteen songs in, as Yorke’s spastic limbs took the rest of his body across the stage during “Idiotheque,” did everything start to make sense. Even a song as techno-heavy, as computerized and synthetic as this, seemed oddly serene, remarkably human. When, during the next song, Yorke sat down to bang out the end of “Bangers ‘n’ Mash” on the drums, it was clear they were still set on transforming rock music, but they’d decided to sublimate their obscure electronics fetishes for actual instruments, ones we all know the names of, ones some of us can even play.
And as the rest of the night went, each time another guitar was brought out, or another drum kit set up, I realized maybe this was the ideal venue. The synthetic city to my right, all steel and glass, and the bay to my left, still water rippling waves from the docked boats, warm silent water reflecting the moon and palm trees. And all of us in the middle.
Down Is the New Up
All I Need
You and Whose Army
Bangers ‘n’ Mash
How to Disappear Completely
House of Cards
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Everything in It’s Right Place
4 Minute Warning