Radiohead Last Night At Austin City Limits

At the end of Radiohead’s two-song encore at last night’s Austin City Limits taping, they played “Paranoid Android,” and we couldn’t help thinking how easy it would have been, back in ’98 or ’99, for the band to have just kept churning out classics like that — songs that updated the BritRock complexities of David Bowie, while still informed by punk.  Instead, what they became was a band that can thrill us with an accumulation of songs and styles that slip the bounds of genre.  Not Krautrock or electronic jazz, not New Wave or Prog Rock or Classic Rock, but all of the above, in boisterous form.

Seventeen songs, some seven short of the tour average, but the only thing we really missed was them playing “Separator” from King Of Limbs, which was #1 on Tulip Frenzy’s 2011 Top Ten List.  We’re not big fans of “Bloom,” which they’ve started with every show this tour, and “Little By Little” was a little ragged, Thom Yorke perhaps too desperate to get a groove going.  But by the time they played the second version of “Reckoner” — this was a TV taping, so flubs could be corrected with a second take — the band was thoroughly in a groove, the double drum setup working, Jonny Greenwood bouncing between instruments (drums, keyboards, guitar), Thom Yorke playing utility infielder (keyboards, guitar, singing mostly gorgeously.)  On “There There,” Yorke was the only guitarist playing that song’s Martian rockabilly against a four drum set up.  And it rocked.

And maybe that’s the best part about seeing Radiohead live.  As gorgeous and exciting as King Of Limbs is, since the exploration of electronica that came with Kid A, Radiohead records seem almost antiseptic, the perfect music to play with an Apple product connected to expensive headphones, Jonny Greenwood meet Jonny Ives.  There’s an absence of grit, a band that couldn’t even tolerate the electronic imprecisions of an Eno production.  But live, nothing ever goes perfect, right?  And on a song like “Morning Mr. Magpie,” the precision of what sounded to us on the album like an homage to something off Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way was played with a recklessness on Yorke’s part that made it seem more like early Talking Heads.  You need to see them live to have them confirm absolutely that, yeah, this is still rock’n’roll.

Yorke’s central role in the band keeps eyes glued on him, even when he’s in his DJ in Ibiza bad dancing mode, but the 40-year old Jonny Greenwood plays the youthful savant to a tee, hitting his lead notes like he’s a black belt chopping wood.

We emerged into the Austin night, stunned by what a great venue the ACL set is, and how genuinely rock’n’roll it can be, grateful to have seen a band that, tonight, for example, will sell out a huge arena, and yet we saw them play for such a small crowd in so intimate a setting.  That Radiohead no longer sounds anything, really, like they did when they wrote “Paranoid Android” shows just how far they have come, and the excellence of new songs like “The Daily Mail” show just how far they’ve yet to go.

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