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Radiohead concert other worldly

Daniel McSwain | Wednesday, September 3, 2003

With Mars posed threateningly in the night sky, Radiohead emerged in front of a packed Alpine Valley Amphitheatre, a mammoth structure nestled in the Wisconsin fields right between someplace and nowhere. The ominous stage having been set by Mother Nature and Stephen Malkmus (Radiohead’s opener for the evening who, in favor of an early bedtime, went on way before schedule much to the crowd’s dismay) Radiohead went to work. As the band launched into their opening number, “2 + 2 = 5”, their elaborate stage set up whirred to life. A checkerboard of lights in the fourth dimension acted as the sixth member of the band, as its pulsating dance perfectly complemented the musical calculus that unfolded in front of it. As the tempo of the song gained momentum, the focus shifted to the angular onslaught of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien’s guitar work, and the night’s lurid creation began.

The band, displaying their finely tuned clock-like dynamic, began to draw the crowd into their primordial ooze of sound, light, and madness. As Radiohead moved seamlessly into “Sit Down. Stand Up”, the crowd witnessed Thom Yorke, the band’s singer, forge and mold and begin to create. Dressed in oversized shirts (at least three of them), Yorke hammered out the haunting minor-key piano melody from where the rest of the song grew, blossomed, and eventually exploded and just flat melted down. The rest of the band responded in similarly spectacular fashion, as the jungle lilt of Phil Selway’s drums and Colin Greenwood’s bass orchestrated the entropy, hinting at the percussive spectacle in store for the rest of the night.

The band moved from jagged to jocular, smiling and snarling at alternate takes. Older, quieter songs like “No Surprises”, “Lucky”, and “Just” carried live the same timeless feel that makes Radiohead’s early catalog so strong even in the light of their more recent opuses. Their quiet songs are quiet, sure, but they serve as the perfect counterpoint to Radiohead’s alter ego: walls of thunderous cacophony and sweet, sweet chaos.

“Myxomatosis”, which Yorke introduced as a “dirty song for dirty people,” owns a bass-line so disgusting and internally damaging that it should make Flea want to change instruments. While the band had been criticized lately for abandoning guitars for a more tangential interest in electronics and programming, both musical avenues received equal billing, and in spectacular form. Thom Yorke may be one of the guitar world’s unsung heroes, second only to Radiohead’s knob-twiddler/axe-wielder extraordinaire, Jonny Greenwood. Jonny took the feedback laden parts of classics like “Paranoid Android”, as well as newer songs like “The National Anthem” and “Backdrifts” and made them expand with a kind of frightening space time schizophrenia that cannot be expressed anywhere but the live setting.

While the Greenwood brothers, along with O’Brien, continued on their Cerberus meets Hendrix guitar excursions, Yorke filled the stage with, well, dancing. Sort of. It was like someone laced his Ecstasy with ants. And electric current. A lot of it. Whirling Dervishes don’t hold a candle to Yorke’s exercise in epileptic auto-exorcism. The only thing scarier/more entertaining than what Yorke did with his legs was what he forced out of his face. His voice mimicked his head-slapping, facial contortions, running the sonic gamut from sickened spite, to mock-happy, to just plain disgusted.

True love waits, and while the band won’t be accused of prudishly saving themselves at any point during the night, the two encores provided the most moving moments of the evening. In a setlist built to both shock and awe, the band began to close their sensory war with the think-piece of the evening. Perched like a marble gargoyle on his piano stool, Yorke issued his subversive invitation to the crowd (and others not present) during “You and Whose Army?” a “call against arms” that Yorke’s lazy eye and lazier delivery made you feel so guilty all you could do was smile sheepishly and pretend he didn’t know everything.

As the band regrouped for the second encore and began its closing number, “Everything In Its Right Place”, the reality floor began to give way underneath. As Jonny Greenwood took to the ground, coaxing conversations out of a series of small computers and effects pedals strewn about his feet, Yorke’s vocals were manipulated into a haunting polyphony. As the band exited, the manipulated sounds only grew, and they were joined by the word “FOREVER” scrolling in white across the backdrop of lights. All of this life, and not a human to be seen making it. For a moment, to borrow a phrase heard elsewhere, there seemed to be an epileptic at the crank. The whole night lit up in stop motion. When it finally stopped, we found ourselves again in one of those anonymous fields, Mars overhead, not knowing if we should leave.

Contact Daniel McSwain at [email protected]