“I have no idea who I am anymore,” Thom Yorke joked near the end of Radiohead’s set at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre on Sunday night. Plenty of people could say the same thing sincerely about Yorke and his bandmates once the show was over. For incessant Radiohead devotees and casual fans alike, the band’s trajectory since releasing The King of Limbs last year has been anything but normal. They’ve forsaken guitars and more traditional song arrangements for music that’s heavily influenced by the electronica subgenre IDM and kinetic polyrhythms. The response hasn’t exactly been enthusiastic so far, in large part because it’s quite a bit different from some of their most popular work on albums like In Rainbows and OK Computer. The closest cousin to The King of Limbs is Kid A, and even that was more of a subtle art statement than a fidgety dance record. Still, it was the new album with its twists and turns that transformed Radiohead’s live show from a display of superb rock craftsmanship into a morbid dance party. Consummate professionals that they are, the band is in no worse shape because of it.
Things didn’t exactly get off to a mindblowing start though. Opening with “Bloom,” the live rendering of it felt just a little sluggish and mixed with a little too much bass. With most of the crowd utterly distracted because the band was on stage and they needed documented pictures of it immediately, the so-so launch either went unnoticed or was shrugged off as soon as “There There” kicked in. It’s also worth noting that as with any new album, sometimes it takes a band a bit to figure out the right way to perform certain songs. Perhaps “Bloom” is one of those. But from that point onwards, things only got better. “There There” benefited from the dual drummer attack Radiohead is using to supplement their newest material. Portishead’s Clive Deamer does a wonderful job working in tandem with Phil Selway, and in certain situations even Jonny Greenwood or Ed O’Brien would pick up some sticks and add extra fuel to the percussion fire. That was perhaps most noticeable on “Morning Mr. Magpie,” one of a couple tracks from The King of Limbs that managed to exceed the recorded version.
The middle of the main set attempted to calm things down a bit starting with piano ballad “Codex,” but when you’ve got a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands that can get a little tricky. As Yorke’s falsetto moaned into the night and the keys were tapped with measured grace, some overzealous fans felt it necessary to cover the quiet with quite a few “Wooo”‘s and “Yeah”‘s. It stripped away some of the power that moment could (and was intended to) have had, which was unfortunate. Also just a touch unfortunate was the live treatment given to “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy.” Fantastic as it is that Radiohead chose to perform one of their best b-sides because it was a good sonic match with everything else that night, it was the only other song besides “Bloom” that didn’t hit the way it was supposed to. There’s an underlying dread about a political menace woven through the song, as Yorke himself explained when introducing it, but the band dragged while playing it and sucked some of the raw emotional power out as a result. The recorded version on the “Pyramid Song” single gets it all the way right.
The second half of the main set was about as perfect as anybody could ever ask for. The song selection was a fantastic mix of old and new, a pair of huge hits, and a massive dose of energy that sent the crowd into a frenzy. There was the sing-along to “Karma Police,” Yorke sending his voice soaring on “Reckoner,” the dance party on stage and off for “Lotus Flower,” the fuzz and buzz combo of “Myxomatosis” and “Feral,” with a closing capper of “Idioteque.” No doubt those last several tracks fulfilled the vision Radiohead had to shift their direction towards a much more physical live show. If they can find a way to harness that magic for the entire night and not just a majority of it, who knows what that would do to a crowd. Bodies might explode from sheer ecstasy.
In the last week or two, word quickly spread around the internet that Radiohead had a brand new song called “Full Stop” that they were playing around with during soundchecks on tour. A couple people managed to get some shoddy recordings of the band messing around with it, but it had never been performed during a show before. That is, until this show. With bright tye-dyed rainbows of color splashed across every video screen surrounding the band, the excitement in the air was palpable and every hair on my body was standing straight up. Holding true to the more electronica-based material from The King of Limbs, the song starts fast with a hazy keyboard base. Tension and speed quickly build atop one another until the dam fully breaks about three minutes in. Yorke’s voice yo-yos between normal and falsetto near the end so many times he sounds like a skipping record. Call it euphoria from hearing it live for the first time, but I think “Full Stop” is destined to be a hit. “It’ll get better with age,” Yorke said after they’d finished playing it. If it’s this good now, who knows what it’ll sound like five years from now. It’s tough to even fathom.
The first encore wrapped up with a ripped up rendition of “Bodysnatchers,” which was the most rock and roll the band got all night. Then Yorke stepped back behind the piano and teased a little of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” before blending it seamlessly into “Everything In It’s Right Place.” That’s sort of typical Radiohead fare, and they’ve been doing those sorts of things for years now. Relatively new to their encore plot is the stark and stripped down version of “Give Up the Ghost,” which Yorke and Jonny Greenwood played to start the second encore while everyone else remained backstage. Thankfully this time the crowd was much more sedate and respectful relative to the emotion and quiet of the song, and it represented one of the more powerful moments of the evening. “Identikit” is another new song they played that hasn’t yet appeared in studio recorded form, and like “Full Stop” it’s a percussive dance juggernaut worthy of getting excited about. After ignoring almost their entire pre-Kid A catalogue all night, Radiohead finally said goodnight with the show-ending classic “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” “Immerse your soul in love,” Yorke sang as the last lines of the song. With their stellar execution, jaw-dropping stage set-up, quite a bit of dancing and upbeat demeanor, the band gave out plenty of soul-immersing love to the Chicago crowd on Sunday night. I’d like to think we returned that love in full.
Morning Mr. Magpie
The Amazing Sounds of Orgy
Little By Little
Full Stop (FIRST TIME PERFORMED)
The One I Love–>Everything In It’s Right Place
Give Up the Ghost
Street Spirit (Fade Out)