So Venus transited across the face of the Sun and Ray Bradbury took his final trip into the gaping cosmic yawp, but those weren’t the only stratospheric things happening to DMV residents this week - if you were lucky enough to hold a golden ticket into Verizon on Sunday, you could also watch Radiohead put on yet another brain-melting, heart-wrenchingly good, though wildly eccentric show. Looking for accessibility, easy anthems, your favorite song from The Bends? Keep moving, pal, because Radiohead is not here to play the hits. They’re here to make art all over your face, with a concert that is as much visual spectacle as it is music - they’ve moved on, evolved, and they want you to do so as well.
Walking quietly onstage in a scene reminiscent of the Devil’s Tower alien landing in Close Encounters, the band opened with “Bloom,” the first track off The King of Limbs, and rather than cheering the crowd fell eerily quiet. As Thom Yorke flailed across the stage, the band behind him delivered layer upon layer of sonic sound, backlit by a huge wall of flickering LED lights resembling rippling water. The crowd remained almost in shock for most of the evening, awestruck by the sheer gorgeousness of what was being delivered on stage. At the mid-point of the main set, Yorke quasi-mocked the sedateness of the crowd, quipping “this is for all of you sitting down - it’s Sunday, and you’ve probably been on your feet all day,” before signaling for the buck-shot snare intro to “Identikit.” It’s likely that Yorke simply can’t grasp how those of us who live outside his head need a bit of stillness to take it all in. Radiohead has always been defined by layers - layers of chromatics, layers of haze and loops, layers upon layers of distortion - and with the current show, they’ve managed to add layers to the visual elements as well as the audial. It’s literally breath-taking, and sometimes you just need to take a seat.
While other bands presented with a venue the size of Verizon produce ginormous HD screens to show everyone in the back what’s happening in the front, to bring you closer to the band and invite you on stage, Radiohead fractures that convention with a parade of smaller, intensely bright screens breaking the stage action into tiny fragments. Across the top of the stage a film-strip of videos runs in a continuously morphing montage. It keeps the audience at a distance while also creating a gob-smackingly beautiful visual. On Sunday, the backing LED and smaller screens transitioned between vibrant, cornea-scorching oranges for “National Anthem,” to aquatic blues for keyboard tracks like “Codex,” and back to simple black and white images. The screens were high resolution, but not hi-def, which created a disconnect between what your eyes took in and what your brain ended up processing. It was like watching a documentary that you were simultaneously starring in.
When Yorke wasn’t huddled over his keyboard, he was spastically waivering around the front of the stage, at once alien, graceful, and uniquely odd. If Thom Yorke and Michael Stipe didn’t arrive here years ago from the same distant planet, one which specializes in tetchy dance moves, then they are at least from the same solar system,. The first encore began with a delicate “You and Whose Army?” - the sole appearance from Amnesiac – and then morphed into a wildly crowd-pleasing “15 Steps,” when the audience finally broke out of its respectful reverie and joined Yorke in some pretty impressive group flailing. The second encore started with a hauntingly quiet “Give Up the Ghost,” and Yorke’s unearthly voice wafted over thousands of mesmerized faces, before Radiohead ended the night with a blistering “Reckoner.”
One thing a Radiohead concert does is make you ravenous for more Radiohead. S0 go ahead and listen to Ok Computer in its entirety, twice, and try to come to terms with the fact that you’ll probably never see anything from The Bends played live again. Radiohead wants us to grow up, and the brilliant show they are touring with now is a convincing step in that direction.
Venus won’t revisit the Sun for another 105 years, and D.C got a good, if cloudy, view of it. Coincidence that Radiohead was here 48 hours before the big event? We think not.