Concert Review: Ryan Dombal on Radiohead's New York stop. Thom Yorke and his masterful band keep the kids swooning with a mix of new songs and old faves

By Ryan Dombal
Updated June 16, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Radiohead: Jennifer Maler / Retna

Ryan Dombal on Radiohead’s New York stop

June 13, 2006 Madison Square Garden Theater

It’s easy to take Radiohead for granted. Certain concerts or albums may be marginally better than others, but the ambitious British quintet almost never disappoint on a grand scale — a fact made even more stunning considering the brash evolution that’s seen them go from straightforward guitar rock gods to twitchy, computer-beat experimentalists to somewhere in between over the last decade. Though popular enough to sell out several dates at Madison Square Garden, the band played two packed nights at the venue’s considerably smaller adjoining Theater for this current tour, which primarily aims to test new material for their upcoming 2007 album. Along with eight unreleased tracks, the group revisited 15 more faves for a rapturous crowd who hung on singer Thom Yorke’s every dystopian cry.

On record, their appeal is largely indebted to a sense of unswerving pessimism wrapped up in the Orwellian disconnects of a technologized society; angsty fodder sold back to young adults looking for garbage to fill their own teenage wastelands. But even Radiohead’s most downtrodden tracks are reinvigorated live, their woeful existentialism foiled by the communal nature of a one-for-all live concert setting. Even at their most hopeless — as on the feedback-strewn creepfest ”Climbing Up the Walls” or the years-old (yet never recorded) live rarity ”Nude,” with its bleak chorus, ”Don’t get any big ideas/ They’re not gonna happen” — they tapped into such songs’ vibrancy through the intrinsic spontaneity of live performance. Tracks like ”Kid A,” ”The National Anthem,” and ”I Might Be Wrong” noticeably surpassed their recorded counterparts with slight arrangement and tempo shifts — not to mention Yorke’s playful stage presence and spastic ”dancing.” And the new songs, which ranged from hard-hitting, jagged guitar rock to icy balladry to something like soul, showed much positive potential.

The two best newbies, dubbed ”Arpeggi” and ”Videotape,” came back-to-back near the beginning of the set. The former is more or less classic Radiohead with a subtle twist: Though the airy, quicksilver tune seems ready to burst into a vintage solo by multi-instrumentalist/guru Johnny Greenwood at any moment, it never actually does. The same type of restraint was employed on ”Videotape,” which features an immediately striking vocal from Yorke, who played upright piano on the song — its obvious catchiness was subverted beneath jagged guitar stabs and off-kilter syncopation. Such moves could be seen as overcomplicated or self-consciously anti-pop, but on this night the songs served as nuanced counterpoints to older, more on-the-nose classics like ”Fake Plastic Trees” and ”The Bends.” Some of the rougher-tinged new tracks, like ”Bangers ‘N Mash” and ”Bodysnatchers,” seemed to hark back to the guitar-slashing Radiohead of old, though with diminished returns. ”House of Cards,” on the other hand, is probably the closest the group will ever get to Al Green-type soul; quaint and lackadaisical, it floated by effortlessly, mostly relying on the simple magnificence of Yorke’s voice to break through.

The band finished with the foggy, atmospheric ”How to Disappear Completely,” from Kid A. As the song’s sliding guitar accents and Yorke’s melancholic refrain ”I’m not here/ This isn’t happening” shimmered past the audience, fans basked in the afterglow. They’re still here. They’re still happening. And they show no signs of letting up.