Thom Yorke, Radiohead's lead singer, is sitting behind a piano facing the 30,000 fans at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, Illinois at the end of their first encore. He begins to tenderly sing R.E.M.'s The One I Love, a top-ten hit from 1987. His vocal had a slight ache before he and the other five members of Radiohead initiated the Kid A classic "Everything In Its Right Place". The crowd went into overdrive upon hearing those opening piano chords. The atmospheric and moody piece haunts you like a familial ghost legend on the record, but in concert it transformed into an anthem made for the masses. The crowd clapped in unison as Colin Greenwood's bass laid down an unconquerable wall of defense and the ceaseless kick-drumming pumped blood into the heart of the song. This was a highlight of unimaginable proportions. "Everything In Its Right Place" was a turning point for the band in 2000 as it was the first thing people heard from the band's career defining Kid A record. Used beautifully in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky it set the tone for an icy and mysterious tone to the album and Crowe's film. Watching the nearly sold-out crowd in Tinley Park skip and jump to the songs beat was quite the sight to see. The enigmatic band played to what was possibly the largest crowd this amphitheatre has seen in a few years. Radiohead has always proven itself to be an anomaly. They've never played by the rules and have made a career of challenging not just themselves but their audience, who to my surprise has followed their lead down some of the most divergent valleys ever trekked in popular music.
Radiohead performed twenty-four songs over 130-minutes. During their nearly sold-out performance, they performed a set heavy on their post-2000 records with just a few songs sneaking in from Ok Computer and The Bends. While on paper this may appear to be difficult to comprehend, the show amazingly never went off course. Despite the fact that much of the set consisted of heavily constructed musical pieces the average music listener would have a hard time deciphering, the show was quite engaging. A series of square screens hovered above the stage and at times descended right above them almost enclosing the band like a rehearsal space with a ceiling. Above the stage were six conjoined screens, one for each member of the band. Instead of capturing widescreen shots, they showcased the studied performances each member brought to the show. It needs to be noted that the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park is quite possibly the single worse venue in the entire US to experience live music. Created in 1990 for the sole purpose of having more physical seating than any other amphitheatre, the venue has never been able to shake its corporate feel, lousy viewpoints and often horrendous sound. That being said, the Radiohead performance was so gripping, you often forgot you were in a venue whose best purpose would be a punching bag for a wrecking ball. Their stage consisted of truly colorful and immense screens made for outdoor sheds to accentuate the performance with alluring visuals. Part rock show, part rave, the band seemed comfortable and confident in these settings as they merged these two worlds with ease. The band performed in a tightly knit circle with the two drummers set up opposite of one another with bassist Colin Greenwood in between them towards the back of the stage. The two drummers, Phil Selway and Clive Deamer (joining the band for this tour) for most of the evening were working off one another like jazz musicians, layering and counteracting with the other but on Kid A they found common ground and the concise rhythm that emanated from them proved to be a powerful moment in a fusion of distorted rhythm and howls from a chamber only add to the eeriness of the performance.
On "There There" Thom Yorke, with his long hair pulled back in a ponytail, sung with great infliction while slithered and grooved across the concert stage, often with a guitar around his neck, not to show off but because the music moves him. Reckoner found bassist Colin Greenwood performing with staggering eye-closed intensity as he was sandwiched between the two drummers. Yorke reached the highest regions of his vocal range on this hypnotic In Rainbows cut. Like the Beatles experimental phase and Pink Floyd, Radiohead's music isn't something that stick's immediately like a three-minute pop concoction made for radio. What you hear on the radio is aural candy, whereas Radiohead diligently work on their albums and songs like master chefs in five-star restaurants. This isn't to say that Radiohead is faultless, I personally prefer the more straightforward approach of their first decade, however, it's quite possible that it not for the musical challenges they throw in front of themselves, I wouldn't be writing this piece today. And with an audience of 30,000 in attendance, who is to say what they're doing isn't what people want?
On "Karma Police", the OK Computer cut found Yorke on an acoustic and a sing-a-long ensued. For my own personal tastes, I wish the band had embraced more of The Bends and OK Computer within the set as these albums house more refined songs whose genealogy belongs to rock n' roll, but the flipside to the show was much of the material from The King of Limbs was far more invigorating in concert than it was on record. Like any band worth their weight in platinum, Radiohead's performances compliment their records opening your eyes to songs, sounds and nuances you had previously overlooked or simply didn't invest the time in before. Watching an artist perform on a stage is their greatest test. The truly illustrious acts of our times have found ways to ascend on the stage and Radiohead is no different. The sonic depth of "Lotus Flower was surprising. Drummers Selway and Deamer locked in together while Colin Greenwood underpinned the performance with his inhuman concentration. Greenwood's allegiance to the song and band was impressive because he stood out in a manner that had nothing to do with bombast. His unyielding four-finger strides stole the show. For a band best known for fusing rock, dance and electronic music into an unidentifiable package, the three piece rhythm section is categorically mesmerizing in concert. What may come off as a pre-programmed drum machine on record is a thrilling sensatory experience in the flesh.
What differentiates Radiohead from other fringe acts is the astounding size of their fan base. These are people who know every nook and cranny of their eclectic catalog which allows the band to take chances and veer the show into unforeseen territories. The band played a brand new song that had never been performed before during the encores, Full Stop and performed another new song "Identikit", which has been a consistent part of their set. The reverberating sound of cymbals crashing paired with an electronic echo closed out the main set on "Idioteque" while Yorke uncompromisingly attacked the strings on his guitar on the encore song Bodysnatchers with arena rock force rarely seen throughout the night. On "Give Up the Ghost" Yorke delicately plucking an acoustic guitar in tandem with recurring hushed sonics in one of the evening's more delicate moments. In a vast amphitheatre Radiohead showed that intimacy is still possible in wide and vast spaces.
The evening came to a close with a track from The Bends, "Street Spirit (Fade Out)". The music soared above the 30,000 in attendance in an affecting manner. Despite curfew approaching and a parking lot over packed with cars, no one left their seats or the lawn as they stood there in rapt attention until every last note that emanated off the concert stage. In an evening where their early catalog was largely ignored, this proved to be ethereal and dreamlike as the audience was fully focused pondering not just the moment but some part of their lives. Part of me wishes there were more clear-cut songs from their early catalog sprinkled throughout the show; however, this is a band continually forging new sounds and discovering new lands. In a day and age where music exploration in rock n' roll is almost extinct, we look to Radiohead to show us what the possibilities still are. It's hard to believe that a band like Radiohead who has marched to the beat of their own drummer appeals to as many people as they do. Essentially there's a reason they are one of the most venerated bands of the last two decades; they're simply one of the most ingenious bands working today if for no other reason than they battle the status quo.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter