As a touring band, Radiohead is nearly imperiled by its own reputation.
Fans who have seen the group before expect the same level of bliss they’ve experienced at previous shows. Fans seeing the band for the first time have every reason to walk in with sky-high expectations. Yet, Radiohead continues to satisfy nearly everyone.
Sunday night the British rock band headlined a show at the Sprint Center, which was filled to capacity. And for two hours, Radiohead took 17,000 people on one long, dynamic odyssey.
By most measures, this show passed even the strictest muster. The visuals were stimulating, the sound was clear, the crowd was mesmerized and the set list was — well, that’s certainly open for discussion and probably subject to everyone’s expectations. It was built for the hard-core fans and the insiders or for anyone who just wanted to be there and soak up the transcendence.
It included the obscure “Supercollider,” a Record Store Day single from 2011, and several of the band’s more down-tempo and ambient songs. There was no “Karma Police” or “No Surprises,” no “Fake Plastic Trees,” no “Knives Out.” It included one song from “Amnesiac,” two off the excellent “Hail to the Thief” album but also more than half of “The King of Limbs,” the band’s latest album and one of its least dynamic.
The song choices affected the onstage mood drastically — Sunday’s show was measurably mellower than Friday’s in St. Louis. But that seemed to have little effect on the Sprint Center crowd, which was on its feet all night, watching and swaying, greeting each intro with a roar, singing along to several songs and submitting to the evening’s slow-burning radiance.
No matter the set list, Radiohead delivers some standard goods at every show: a tide of crescendos, climaxes and afterglows; bedlams of riffs and grooves; rabbles of percussion and electronic noise; barrages of shifting rhythms and odd time measures. It’s all topped with warm gusts of melody and Thom Yorke’s supernal voice, which is as elemental to Radiohead’s inimitable sound as any other component — another discrete instrument adding texture and color to the mosaic.
That was all embellished by a splendid light and video show. The stage was backed by an enormous two-panel screen that changed colors and surfaces all night. Twelve large video screens suspended from the ceiling tilted on both axes, broadcasting live images of the band via small remote cameras on stage.
The band began with “Bloom,” the fidgety, enervated track that opens “Limbs,” then the funky and jaunty “15 Step.” The mood turned particularly lambent during the back-to-back renditions of “All I Need” and “Pyramid Song,” two lovely, mournful hymns.
Before “The Daily Mail,” Ed O’Brien made a crack about Rupert Murdoch. Before “Supercollider,” Yorke warned fans they probably weren’t too familiar with it. Before “Identikit,” he said something about it being a “random day,” then the band took a mulligan after somebody muffed his drum part. For part of “There There,” four drummers were on stage: O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood, pounding floor toms, along with drummers Phil Selway and Clive Deamer.
Their two encores comprised seven songs — nearly one-third of the show and its best third. They played the raucous, grimy “Myxomatosis,” the electro-funky “Idioteque” and then the arena-sized anthem “Lucky,” which ignited the most evangelical sing-along of the night. Some people raised both arms as they sang, others reared back their heads and sang heavenward.
It’s easy to get cynical or at least jaded about live music when you see bands mailing in the same songs night after night. Judging people’s reaction to a live show is no science; it’s nothing but inference. But the best live shows reveal the deepest power of music, which arouses in its listeners something spiritual or primal, like the urge to dance and cry out lyrics, in unison, in public.
They closed with something old and familiar, “Paranoid Android,” but the perfect Radiohead closer for me would be “Exit Music (For a Film),” which includes the lyric, “Today we escape, we escape.” Because that’s what I’ve witnessed at all three Radiohead shows I’ve attended: thousands of people expressing the joy in letting a favorite band take them, all at once, to a place that is both visceral and divine.