You learn a lot about a band from seeing them play live. After seeing a heated, often searing set by Radiohead headlining the opening night of the Outside Lands Festival at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, I've learned the five piece British art band are indeed the state of art in 21st century creative rock music. They represent the times both sonically in their complex music and emotionally in their poetic, disaffected lyrics.
The band's 22-song set, nearly two-hour performance, including a five-song encore, leaned heavily on their latest record, "In Rainbows," (seven songs) and four from "OK Computer," the most acclaimed record in their distinguished discography. Songs had full muscular rock guitar sound live, and the band's electronica leanings added a pulsing, rhythmic push to much of the material.
Opening with the percussive funky "15 Step" and then "Reckoner" from "In Rainbows" (initially sold over the Internet as a pay-what-you-want offering), the band played seven tunes from their newest record. From "OK Computer" they performed "Airbag," "Paranoid Android," Exit Music (For a Film)," and "Karma Police" with Yorke at an upright acoustic piano wheeled out to center stage. Other tunes included "Pyramid Song" and "You and Whose Army?" from "Amnesiac," and "Idioteque" and "The National Anthem" from"Kid A" and they closed with "Everything In Its Right Place," also from "Kid A."
Throughout, lead vocalist Thom Yorke showed a strong, impassioned voice while guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood blazed through the effects-laden songs. Yorke moved from electric guitar to acoustic guitar and piano during the set, while the animated Greenwood worked fluidly between a keyboard station and lead guitar. Bassist Colin Greenwood (Jonny's brother) solidified the band's bottom, while drummer Phil Selway injected sharp often surprising flourishes. Guitarist Ed O' Brien added dense textural layers to the music's shifting moods.
Bands as eccentric as Radiohead often gain obsessive cult followings, but rarely combine it with equally strong commercial draw. The band builds on inspirations from diverse sources, including enigmatic singer song writer Scott Walker, modern composer and electronic music innovator Olivier Messiaen, and jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus. Though the outsize hype initially blindsided the band in certain ways, they have clearly made peace with their appeal (a capacity crowd of over 60,000 was estimated at Friday night's show), and they brought an intense focused energy and spontaneity to the performance. As Yorke graciously apologized for some early sound problems (the music dropped out completely for long stretches of the third and fourth tunes) the singer said, "We didn't really have much time to set up our gear. But it's ultimately about the music, and we thank you for your patience with us."
They apparently had time to set up an intricate, often stunning lighting and video accompaniment to the show. Huge video screens split into four quadrants projected close-ups and treated images of the performers from both sides of the stage.
Outside Lands continues today and Sunday with headliners like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Jack Johnson still to come.