Radiohead at the Auditorium Theatre

The Radiohead faithful thronged Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre on Monday night, June 19 — including those without tickets, who paraded up and down the crowded sidewalks with cardboard signs.

One fan wore a sandwich board with stenciled letters that reflected the paranoid bent of so many Radiohead lyrics: “THE GOVERNMENT DOESN’T WANT ME TO HAVE A TICKET.” Another fan made the more plausible claim: “WE DROVE 12 HOURS.”

Other fans had come from as far away as California.

Radiohead concerts are events. This British quintet is quite simply one of the world’s best and most exciting rock bands, and anytime Radiohead records new songs or tours, it’s big news in the world of rock music.

The Auditorium Theatre provided an elegant setting for Radiohead’s singular blend of art rock, great guitar riffs, electronica and emotional yet enigmatic vocals.  Following a strong opening set of hard blues rock by the Black Keys, the crowd erupted into thunderous, even ravenous applause as the auditorium fell dark and Radiohead entered.

What followed were 23 songs spanning Radiohead’s career — including nine songs that may end up on the group’s next album, likely to be released in 2007.

The question on every Radiohead fan’s mind: How are the new songs? Most of them seemed good, even very good, but not great. However, first impressions of Radiohead music can be deceiving, so one hesitates to make a definitive pronouncement.

A couple of the new songs actually sounded a little like soul music, a new trend for Radiohead. “15 Step” featured hand claps and a techno-dance beat, while  “House of Cards” was a quieter number with a mellow guitar rhythm and a falsetto by Thom Yorke that wasn’t far off from “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.”

“House of Cards” was one of two new songs that were strong enough to give hope that Radiohead’s next album could be yet another classic. The other impressive new song, “4 Minute Warning,” featured an instantly catchy melody, with Yorke playing the electric piano amid an echo-laden arrangement.

Radiohead still knows how to fashion a straightforward rock song, and some of the new tunes did rock, including “Bangers ’n’ Mash,” which featured Yorke taking a drum solo; “Spooks,” a surprising instrumental with Dick Dale-style surf guitar; and “Open Pick,” which had all three of Radiohead’s guitarists going full-out on their axes.

“Videotape” had Yorke sitting at the piano, with an off-kilter drum pattern entering the song at an unexpected point, eventually making sense as the rest of the band kicked in. Other new songs – “Nude,” “Down is the New Up” and “Like Spinning Plates” – often turned into showcases for Yorke’s tenor, like miniature art-rock arias.

Radiohead is clearly a band in which every member’s contribution is important to the whole.

Bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway are an amazing rhythm section, bringing a strange life even to seemingly mechanical beats. Ed O’Brien plays not just great guitar riffs, but he also contributes Radiohead’s important backup vocals, which are often the hooks that make you want to sing along. And Johnny Greenwood is practically a one-man band, hopping between guitar solos, keyboard, theremin and drums, hiding his face beneath a mop of hair but never concealing his musical passion.

Yorke is, however, the band’s focal point, one of rock music’s most peculiarly appealing figures. His lyrics would make him appear to be an eccentric introverted poet, but on the stage, fed by the adoration and applause of his fans, Yorke becomes strangely extroverted.

During the most rhythmic songs, Yorke danced awkwardly like a marionette operated by a drunken puppetmaster. During “The National Anthem,” Yorke grasped the microphone for a few minutes before he actually began singing – as if in a trance, he squeezed his eyes shut and made hiccupping noises into the mike, before finally spitting out the words.

Radiohead played three songs from its last album, 2003’s “Hail to the Thief,” two from 2001’s “Amnesiac,” four from 2000’s “Kid A,” three from 1997’s “OK Computer” and one from 1995’s “The Bends.”

Early in the concert, as Yorke began strumming a B minor chord on his acoustic guitar, the audience instantly recognized “Exit Music (For a Film),” a classic track from the landmark “OK Computer.” A number of fans made “Wooo!” noises, followed by another contingent making “Shhhh!” sounds, all of which prompted Yorke to give a sly grin.

While the “OK Computer” songs drew some of the most enthusiastic applause all night, Radiohead’s later, more electronic music was also warmly received, showing that the band’s fans have followed it through musical changes, even when skeptics said the group was becoming too “difficult.”

The concert closed with one of those electronic songs that originally baffled some listeners, “Everything in Its Right Place,” prompting the crowd to clap along to the track’s insistent beat. That simple little tune, a Radiohead song reduced to bare bones, sounded magnificent.

As the band left the stage, its patterns continued to repeat through the amplifiers, a crescendo both noisy and beautiful.

“You and Whose Army?”
“The National Anthem”
“15 Step”
“Morning Bell”
“Exit Music (For A Film)”
“Open Pick”
“Knives Out”
“The Gloaming”
“Down Is the New Up”
“Paranoid Android”
“Bangers  ’n’ Mash”
“Like Spinning Plates”
“There There”

First encore:
“A Wolf at the Door”
“4 Minute Warning”

Second encore:
“House of Cards”
“Everything in its Right Place”