At Key Arena, Seattle, Washington: Besides their well-known status as perennial critics darlings, Radiohead have enjoyed a well-earned reputation through the years as one of the best live bands on the planet. Playing before a packed house this past Monday night at Seattle’s Key Arena — to kick off the West Coast “Coachella” leg of their current U.S. tour — they demonstrated exactly why. In a two hour set that combined brilliant lights, exquisite sound, and a band clearly playing at the top of their game right now, Radiohead’s King Of Limbs show was an absolute stunner.
Let’s start with the setlist.
Although some older fans could probably lodge a semi-legitimate complaint that Radiohead didn’t play a single song from the band’s second album The Bends — or even OK Computer’s “Paranoid Android” for that matter — let’s face reality: The 1990s are over. The band has long since moved on from the edgier, alternative rock sounds of that period, to it’s current mix of rock with more droning ambient and electronica styles. Perhaps it’s time certain fans did the same. In many ways, Radiohead isn’t even the same band it was back then — at least not musically.
Even so, fans looking for a more rocking show couldn’t have possibly been disappointed with a setlist, where even the more “ambient” songs from The King Of Limbs seemed to carry just that much of an extra kick. Jonny Greenwood’s searing guitar work was also on display often – particularly during a blazing version of “There, There.”
Both that song and “15 Step” also focused on poly-rhythmic drum sounds — literally every one in the band was making a racket on some form of percussion instrument at numerous points during this show. Radiohead’s original drummer Phil Selway also had help from a second skinsman, Clive Deamer, on loan for this tour from Portishead. Even with so many drummers flailing away in unison, the sound was still flawless. Every single beat shot through the air with a distinct, crisp crack.
But for hardcore fans, this was also a setlist jam-packed with either rarely played, or brand new songs altogether. At one point, about midway through the set, there was a particularly breathtaking series of such rarities, that included “The Daily Mail,” “These Are My Twisted Words” and the brand new “Identikit.” For diehard Radiohead geeks, this was about as close to a dream setlist as it gets.
Each of these songs was accompanied by brilliant lighting effects that included thousands of LED lights projecting swirling patterns displayed on a screen behind the band, as well as what seemed like dozens of HD monitors hanging from the rafters in various configurations. These captured all the action in various close-up shots of the band. The effect was dramatic at times — with Radiohead often looking like black silhouetted images of themselves projected against the stunning light spectacle going on behind them. This was not unlike the old psychedelic light shows used by 1960s bands like the Jefferson Airplane — only upgraded for the modern, computer age.
As already noted, the sound mix at this show was also exceptional — an impressive feat in and of itself, for a very loud band playing in an NBA arena refurbished two decades ago for a team that moved out of town after deciding it wasn’t up to snuff. The many songs featuring numerous drummers were perhaps the most obvious beneficiary of the surprisingly great sound. But Colin Greenwood’s bass has never sounded fatter. All of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien’s bits on guitar (and the other various electronic gadgets Radiohead uses in concert), also seemed to have an extra bite at this show.
But musically, Thom Yorke’s voice was the real star. As a singer who uses his voice as more of another instrument, than as a means to interpret lyrics, Yorke’s voice has always been one of this band’s greatest selling points anyway. His haunting falsetto was mixed way out front where it should be, and put to particularly effective use in the encores — especially during the multi-layered vocal loops used on “Give Up The Ghost” and the traditional show-closer “Everything In It’s Right Place.”
“Reckoner” was the real stunner though. Here, Yorke’s eerie, otherworldly vocal wails echoed through the rafters like an alien dispatch from some distant planet. Of the five times I have seen Radiohead in concert, Yorke has simply never sounded better. The In Rainbows song was also dedicated to Jonny Greenwood, who was apparently suffering from a hand injury (prompting Yorke to call him a “real trooper”).
You wouldn’t have known it from where I sat, though. Greenwood, like the rest of Radiohead on this night, sounded amazing. It was indeed, one of those shows I’ll never forget.
Setlist, April 9, at Seattle, Washington:
3. 15 Step
4. Little By Little
6. The Gloaming
7. Morning Mr. Magpie
8. Pyramid Song
9. The Daily Mail
10. These Are My Twisted Words
13. Lotus Flower
14. There, There
17. How To Disappear Completely
18. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
19. You And Whose Army
21. Give Up The Ghost
23. Everything In It’s Right Place