While the members of Radiohead are out and about doing various other things to keep busy in between studio time, band frontman Thom Yorke has decided to play some shows around the U.S. in support of his 2006 solo record “The Eraser”. Yes, it’s been 4 years since that album was released, but given that Yorke never toured around it back then doesn’t mean he can’t tour around it now. He’s also recruited a motley band of musicians to help translate the largely electronic record into something a full band can perform on stage. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea is the second most prominent member of this newly formed band, which is filled out by longtime Radiohead producer and friend Nigel Godrich, drummer Joey Waronker and multi-instrumentalist Mauro Refosco. They settled on the name Atoms for Peace and have been making their way across the country playing a handful of dates before wrapping up at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. The tour reached Chicago for a pair of sold-out shows this past weekend at the Aragon Ballroom.

Opening both shows was electronica artist Flying Lotus, who has a new album “Cosmogramma” coming out in a couple weeks with a track that features Yorke on vocals. Unfortunately Yorke didn’t make an early appearance Saturday night to perform the track, but the set was still excellent anyways. The challenge was mostly trying to get a massive crowd moving while you’re hanging out behind a laptop on a table with a lone spotlight overhead. Girl Talk remains one of the most exciting electronica artists out there today for the wild lengths he goes to get an audience energized and having a good time. Flying Lotus is no Girl Talk. He did keep the tempo largely upbeat for his set though, and for a room full of people all there with the express purpose of seeing Atoms for Peace, that anyone danced at all was an accomplishment. While much of the set sounded like standard club DJ fodder, there were a few elements thrown in here and there such as horns and harps that deviated from expectations and provided some added excitement. Still, it wasn’t nearly as thrilling as your average band playing instruments on stage.

The between-set talk amongst the crowd was all about how Yorke and his bandmates were going to translate the minimalist electro-based sounds of “The Eraser” into something a five guys could play with traditional instruments. As soon as Atoms for Peace took the stage, it was clear that would be a non-issue. Amid intense roars from the crowd, the band gave a quick wave as Yorke quickly sprang across the stage to the piano and began hammering out the first few notes of the album’s opening title track. Flea quickly joined in on bass, bouncing, bobbing and weaving around like there were insects all over his body and he was trying to shake them off. Waronker and Refosco doubled up on percussion duty while Godrich manned keyboards and all sorts of other electronic gizmos. All said and done, the guys took the quiet and mournful tone of the song and cranked it up a couple extra gears. It was a conceptual arrangement that worked out like gangbusters, giving the track a life that you’d never expect it to have.

The rest of the set went similarly, with Yorke bouncing between piano and guitar or just entirely freaking out and dancing across the stage with a microphone in hand. Flea continued to match his energy at every turn, putting on his wild man show less for the attention and more out of his own necessity to play his bass with as much punctuation and personality as possible. For “Skip Divided”, Flea set down his bass and picked up a melodica. That gave the song some Middle Eastern flavor, though the instrument did wreak havoc with the Aragon’s speakers, which squelched painfully every now and then. Refoso’s everyman role had him playing some particularly odd instruments, one of which was the surreal and odd Brazilian bow. Meanwhile Godrich and Waronker both equally held their own in compositional and rhythmic strength, continuing to add propulsion and intensity to songs that had only hinted at it on record. They took these small and personal melodies and turned them into something stadium-sized and crowd-pleasing. The energy in the music also translated to energy on stage, and that in turn resulted in particularly inspired performances towards the end of the set with “Harrowdown Hill” and “Cymbal Rush”. Both songs operated as slow burners on stage, starting out quiet and then building tension until they finally burst into cathartic explosions of energy and sound that thrilled and satisfied. They took the main part of the set out on a particularly high note, and gave the crowd something to really cheer about.

At the start of the encore, Yorke returned alone to play some quieter songs on both the piano and guitar. He started with a brand new song he’s been working on with “his other band” Radiohead, which is currently being called a number of different things, including “Chris Hodge” and “Let Me Take Control”. Either way, with just Yorke and an electric guitar, it was a surprisingly small and intimate moment following a set that was nothing short of huge and bombastic. Yorke also performed an unreleased song from the “Kid A” era known as “The Daily Mail” on the piano before launching into a crowd-pleasing “Everything In Its Right Place”. The full band finally returned for a performance of Radiohead b-side “Paperbag Writer”. The energy and arrangements kicked back into high gear for “Judge. Jury. Executioner”, and the percussion was out of control for “The Hollow Earth” while Yorke flailed around like a man possessed. “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses” brought an official and highly satisfactory end to the fun and occasionally strange evening. Each member of Atoms for Peace set down their instruments one by one and wandered off the stage with a quick wave and the screams of a clearly impressed audience.

Looking at the entire show from a sound perspective, given that the Aragon is notorious for their shoddy acoustics, Atoms for Peace fared relatively well on Saturday night. Whoever was handling the soundboard clearly knew how to get the most out of the band, though there were some small issues early on as Yorke’s vocals were a little low in the mix and being drowned out by the guitars and percussion. There was also the aforementioned squelching that was coming through the speakers during “Skip Divided” while Flea was playing the melodica. Outside of those small sound issues, I had a minor problem with the manner in which the band performed the songs. “The Eraser” album is one of quiet and dark mystery and intimacy, and Atoms for Peace chose to reconstruct the melodies to suit the large venue and keep the crowd satisfied. It’s an understandable decision to make, and it was definitely interesting to hear how each song was changed, but that loss of reflective, personal moments bothered me just enough so that I felt it worth mentioning. Of course with sweaty bodies piled upon sweaty bodies across the floor of the Aragon, one could say that everyone got more than their fair share of intimacy during the show anyways.

Set List:
The Eraser
The Clock
Black Swan
Skip Divided
Atoms for Peace
And It Rained All Night
Harrowdown Hill
Cymbal Rush
New Song (aka Chris Hodge or Let Me Take Control)
The Daily Mail
Everything In Its Right Place
Paperbag Writer
Judge Jury & Executioner
The Hollow Earth
Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses