Times Staff Writer
June 2, 2006
PHILADELPHIA — Few rock acts have worked harder to elude the scrutiny that comes with being a great band than Radiohead, but sometimes you have to face the inevitable. All eyes were back on the English quintet as it opened its U.S. tour at the Tower Theater here on Thursday, but at least this time the focus of curiosity was something even the band members could appreciate: a preview of Radiohead's first new songs in three years.
In the late 1990s, when they were neurotically suspicious of adulation and sensitive to expectations, the attention might have fallen more on their potential for stardom or for breaking up. But the group has managed a remarkable adjustment in recent years, carving a space and establishing a pace that accommodate personal lives and creative freedom.
The musicians got a heroes welcome when they hit the stage, a sign of the strong bond the fans have with Radiohead's music and its example of uncompromising conduct. And the band could count on that loyalty and willingness to go against the grain in playing a set loaded with unfamiliar music.
The process isn't new for Radiohead, which has taken in-progress material for several of its albums on the road before finishing the recordings. But U.S. audiences have rarely been included, so this sold-out, 19-concert tour, following a series of shows in Europe and concluding with stops June 29 and 30 at the Greek Theatre, has an air of special occasion.
The group, which is loosely aiming to complete its album by the end of the year so that singer Thom Yorke can devote some time to his forthcoming solo album, worked nine new songs into the 23-song program, placing them among selections drawn primarily from its most popular album, "OK Computer" (1997), and its experimental successor, "Kid A." Those older tunes felt reinvented and fresh, especially the "Kid A" songs. Once remote and icy, they now seem like an integral element in the Radiohead canon.
On first impression, the varied new songs expand Radiohead's musical range while reconnecting with some of its earlier, guitar-rock values. "15 Step" started with an all-percussion backdrop for Yorke's vocal, which proceeded to adopt a Middle Eastern-sounding intonation. "House of Cards" might have been the biggest stretch, a gentle groove with a vintage soul-music flavor, uncharacteristically caressing (though the lyrics posted on fan websites are more typically sinister) and content to stay in one place musically.
"Bangers 'n' Mash" was a lively rocker, with Yorke having a bash at a drum kit while singing, and "Arpeggi" revived some of the drum-and-bass sound of "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" before breaking into a brisk, guitar-driven section. "Nude," which has been floating and forming for a decade, follows a similar pattern, breaking from the Radiohead pattern by refusing to release its built-up tension.
"Open Pick" and "Bodysnatchers" were guitar-led rockers, while the ballad "4 Minute Warning," played as one of the encores, found Yorke at the piano while his bandmates hovered nearby, casual as a group at the corner pub.
"Thank you for listening to all the new songs tonight," Yorke said, just before concluding the two-hour show with the "OK Computer" favorite, "Karma Police." They aren't much for small talk, but at the end they seemed pleased to be there, returning the audience's ovation with smiles and applause of their own.
Whether these new songs will fit the contours of the times in the same way that made Radiohead's earlier work an essential survival guide in an age of alienation remains to be seen. A lot will depend on the final versions, and the way they're recorded, and, of course, the way the times change.
Radiohead has rarely failed to be on top of it before, but the question the group will have to face this time is whether it can be both comfortable enough to carry on and confrontational enough to matter. When the time comes to reveal the answer, the band had better get ready to have all eyes on it once again.