It’s hard to figure out exactly what Radiohead is up to these days: Working on a new album? Giving up on the idea of albums altogether? Just doing whatever they bloody well feel like? And what about the most famous member of the band, Thom Yorke? He’s touring now to do what — support a solo record he released four years ago? Or maybe he just felt like getting out onto the road again and playing with a different cast of musicians than usual.
Whatever his motivation, it was fabulous to see Yorke performing live again — and to hear the tunes from his somewhat overlooked solo CD The Eraser transformed into lively, spastic electronic rock by the side-project band Yorke is calling Atoms for Peace.
Atoms for Peace just played two shows at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom. I caught the second night’s performance, on Sunday (April 11). And sorry, I have no photos to post here. Didn’t get a photo pass for this one.
The entire first part of the concert, all the way up until the encore, was a track-by-track performance of The Eraser, beginning with Yorke sitting down at a piano and playing the chords that open the record on the title track. As much as I love the record, it does have a dry sound, feeling very much like something created on a computer. In concert, the music came completely alive, thanks not only to Yorke’s terrific tenor and his twitchy dancing, but also the accompaniment from Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, drummer Joey Waronker, percussionist Mauro Refosco and the second-biggest star on the stage, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.
With his short hair dyed blue-green, Flea spazzed out as he thumped away on the bass, bringing out the funky side of Yorke’s compositions. Even if you aren’t a big fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (and I’m not), you have to admit this guy’s a talented, energetic bassist, and his presence made things even more interesting.
Yorke has danced around a fair amount in the last two Radiohead concerts I’ve seen, but never as much as he did on Sunday night. At moments, I had to laugh at how Yorke resembled the old SCTV character played by Martin Short, Ed Grimley, doing his odd little dance. All Yorke needed was Grimley’s triangle. (I see that the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot compared Yorke’s moves to those of Bez, from the Happy Mondays.) Wherever Yorke gets those strange moves, they’re fun to watch. He looks like someone who never took a dance lesson but who feels the rhythms of the music in every part of his body, moving around like he’s possessed.
The encore began with Yorke playing three songs all alone. The first is a new song apparently titled “Lotus Flower.” Introducing it, Yorke said, “This is one you don’t know. Or maybe you do. I’d be very impressed if you sing along, especially since I don’t know the words myself.”
He followed that with a piano performance of the Radiohead song “Like Spinning Plates,” and then he played a brilliant acoustic-guitar rendition of the classic song “Airbag,” from OK Computer. On record, the song has so many layers of instrumentation that you might wonder how well it would work with just an acoustic guitar and voice, but as Yorke showed in this performance, it’s a strong composition that sounds almost as good when it’s small as when it’s big.
After that, Yorke announced, “Back to the present!” Atoms for Peace returned to the stage, and the band played “Paperbag Writer,” “Judge. Jury. Executioner,” “Hollow Earth” and “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses” — the last two being songs that Yorke released as a single last year. At the end of the night, I wondered what would be next for Yorke, Atoms for Peace and Radiohead. I imagine we’ll be seeing Yorke playing with Radiohead on some future tour. Will the Atoms for Peace experience change what Radiohead does? Who knows? In any case, it was very cool to see Yorke playing live again.
Here are a couple of fan videos of Yorke playing “Airbag” Sunday:
And here are some photos on flickr from the show by “Lost in Print.”