March 7, 2012
Frank Erwin Center
Austin, TX USA
Review by Justin Press
Photos by Barry Bond
Radiohead - Austin
There are times as a music writer that you have to do social experiments in order to make sure you’re not pushing yourself into a corner. The Radiohead concert at the Frank Irwin Center in Austin certainly proved to be one of those occasions.
To be honest with you, I had abandoned the group when the companion disc to the Kid A album, Amnesiac, was released in 2001. It’s here that Radiohead opted for the electronic music route, choosing to forgo the guitar, once the source of their initial glory. Mind you, Kid A and OK Computer are brilliant A.O.R. testaments, but the ground this group has been covering since then, especially with leader Thom Yorke thinking himself a Cockney-scented Bjork as of late, just isn’t cutting it with me. Regrettably, the singer has coerced the other band members to not only overhaul their overall sound, but also allowed him to take the lead in whatever musical direction he sees fit for this outfit. Case in point is this. Outside of Jonny Greenwood - who would rather be off scoring music - name me anyone outside of Yorke in this ensemble of players who even remotely is adding color to the RH sonic palate? Therein lays the problem. But, not one to pigeonhole myself, I thought I’d give a live performance of Radiohead a shot at turning me around.
Tickets to their Austin gig SOLD OUT rather quickly. In fact, I even considered myself rather fortunate to obtain a pair, as I’m not usually one to jump onto 'hot ticket’ items. However, whatever euphoria I initially was feeling about this show quickly dissipated upon entering the arena. The first thing I noticed was the cross-section of typical Austin types - hipsters, socials, scattered rockers, the general blasé and of course, the 'must purchase every Radiohead merch item’ foot soldier.
I opted to pass over the opening act, Oklahoma’s Other Lives, for beers and conversation. It seemed a wise decision in lieu of the general malaise that seemed to embody the venue between acts. Maybe I’m just used to the charged atmosphere that accompanies larger than life metal and hard rock bands. I’m sure Radiohead fans fancy themselves a tad more scholarly than the aforementioned pedestrian riff raff that suits my fancy. Anyway, this crowd seemed like a wet warm blanket had been laid over the gathering, just waiting for mother (aka Radiohead) to tuck them in. Sleep indeed, would be forthcoming, only sooner than I ever expected.
Radiohead is technically savvy enough to make use of today’s electronic wonders of hi-def. LED screens, along with rotating light tresses, provided the viewer plenty of eye candy. Opening amid a mass of red lights, the band was somewhat lifeless the first few songs. They seemed more than content to lock into their instruments and let the diminutive Yorke dance, spasm, howl and hiss to his heart’s content.
Basing their current material off of a more rhythmic nature than guitar bombast, "Bloom" laid a template for the evening with few deviations. "Little By Little" offered a quick reprise from the dance-o-teria environs, and the mid-set highlights of "Kid A" and 'National Anthem" with their year 2000 thump still had some bite. From that point on, the show went downhill. Yorke’s continuous sonic gyrations leaned more towards 'house music’ without the party hats and cocaine. The screens themselves even started to lose their luster as they focused on a band that faded into mere shadows minus their singer, who kept bouncing about the stage as though he had won the lottery. Maybe he did, considering the fact the group had soaked a sold-out crowd of 15,000 for $65 a head. Do the math and you’d be jumping about with happy feet as well!
Several songs into the show, I started looking at my buddy seated next to me. The two of us are concert veterans, having attended shows together since 1976. As the show plodded along, surprisingly, our conversation before each song started out with, "All right, one more, just to see!" After this dialogue continued for the next four songs, it was decision time. Radiohead’s ambiance still cast a foul mood upon us. Whatever musical trip Yorke & Company was navigating just wasn’t compelling enough to follow. Finally, this 'electronica’ highway the band was forced us to pull of the side of the road. Yep, the two of us were reversing course and getting out of there. Listen, I’ve skipped my fair share of encores, but to walk out of a concert we paid a heavy price to see, especially with stragglers still walking into the arena, believe me, this was a first.
What Radiohead presented on stage simply wasn’t the incarnation I was hoping to see. It was like U2 introducing dance mixes to their Pop album. The group had moved away from the musical direction that at one time made them one of the most cutting edge bands of our time. In other words Radiohead became a WTF moment that left a bitter taste in my mouth. Sadly, the alternative playing field this group had once commanded had caught up to them. Bands like Porcupine Tree and Anathema run circles around Radiohead now that they have ventured into a genre they are at best, sub-standard at.
I’m all for experimentation, don’t get me wrong. Given today’s marketplace however, bands need to realize people are shelling out their hard earned dollars to embrace the past, as well as the present. Again, I have no problems with artists wanting to re-invent themselves by exploring compelling musical directions. It’s their right and I applaud the efforts. But here’s the thing. When you are still able to sell-out arenas two decades later, you need to embrace the part of your past that made the present possible. It didn’t happen here tonight. Making poor bastards wait until two hours in to drop "Paranoid Android" on them, shame on you! I’m not saying revert to playing 'Creep", which is an overwrought song to begin with. But hey, would replacing "Weird Fishes" with "Just" really kill you?
My take on this concert wasn’t coming from a blind point of ignorance in regards to this band’s history. I have followed the musical odyssey of this group from its inception. But to make my point, I found it ironic that I passed another carload of grumbling fans also leaving the venue at the same time. When I asked them point blank what they thought of the show, almost in unison the chorus was, "Fucking horrible!" To this fast and furious few, the show felt like a half-ass rave. Come morning, I had a feeling that washing 'Radiohead Rules’ off their back of the car windshield was not only going to be an exercise in futility, but a bittersweet pill to swallow as well.