It is a peculiar thing to see Radiohead live, particularly in the context of a massive festival such as Lollapalooza. In the nearly quarter century since the release of their first album, the Brits have trafficked in sounds best experienced while alone. It's music written from a vaguely isolated perspective that has the general effect of making the listener feel distant, paranoid, alienated, even alien. This ethos runs counter to the harmony and camaraderie typically stirred by the most memorable festival acts like, say, the Flaming Lips.
So it was with a mix of excitement and dread that I anticipated Radiohead's Friday set in Grant Park's south lawn. The event violated my long-standing personal prohibition against playing or listening to Radiohead in public. In my mind, there's no more surefire way to bring down the mood of a get-together than an iTunes shuffling to something off of Kid A
. Recently I was standing in line at a cafe when "Everything in Its Right Place" came on the stereo. The song's cold synths suddenly cast the roomful of people hunched over laptops in an eerie new light, and I was compelled (however briefly) to contemplate mankind's contemporary relationship with technology when all I wanted was a fucking cup of coffee.
Apparently I wasn't alone in my apprehension. On Twitter, Reader
contributor Sasha Geffen perfectly summarized the tension:
But once the quintet appeared onstage a few minutes after 8 PM and kicked into the propulsive "Burn the Witch" from this year's A Moon Shaped Pool,
the unease began to slowly dissipate. "Stay in the shadows," Thom Yorke sang as the sun set in the overcast sky, "cheer in the gallows." By the end of a set that clocked in at a little more than two hours, Radiohead had delivered a day-two performance worthy of a fest-finishing Sunday slot. Even as they mounted a passionate defense of new material, the band played the hits and fan favorites without any hint of obligation. They also displayed a mastery of dynamics: quiet, contemplative moments counterbalancing raucous, angst-ridden sections; proggy instrumental excursions followed by beat-heavy bits that were just this side of danceable.
If there was lingering uncertainty about the potential to enjoy Radiohead as a shared experience, it was wiped away six songs in by "My Iron Lung," an anthem of discomfort that saw the audience transformed into a chorus of thousands. "If you are frightened," they sang in unison, "you can be frightened. You can be, it's OK." Standing slump-shouldered over his instrument, Jonny Greenwood responded with blasts of overdriven guitar and fits of bodily spasms that sent his mop of hair flying. That was followed by the sinister creep of "Climbing Up the Walls," which inspired another group chant.
As it turns out, Radiohead has a surprising number of songs that lend themselves to mass sing-alongs. Over the twitchy synthetic snare hits of "Idioteque," the crowd quickly mumbled along: "Mobiles squearking, mobiles chirping / Take the money run, take the money run." Between verses, Yorke writhed around like a mental patient trying to wriggle out of a straightjacket.
A rapturous woman in her 20s near me leaned closer to her friend. "He's an alien, I swear to God," she said of Yorke. "No one writes music like this on this planet."
Amid the unexpectedly collective atmosphere, it was still easy for the mind turn inward or journey up and up and up into space. As Yorke's howl echoed across Grant Park, the prerecession high-rises of the South Loop suddenly appeared unfamiliar, like a skyline from an extraterrestrial city, surrounded by ominous clouds tinted orange by light pollution. There was decidedly little stagecraft that would've kept anyone's attention grounded for long. The band members all dressed in neutral tones of black, white, and gray. A block of six screens hung on each side of the stage, with a horizontal line of a half-dozen more in the center. Used sparingly, the screens would go black for extended periods and come to life, when appropriate, with strobing patterns and radiant colors. Each intentionally indistinct frame featured a different close-up shot—Yorke's stubbly, contorted face in profile, drummer Phil Selway's steady left hand, the pick guard of Ed O'Brien's guitar. The presentation recalled fuzzy NSA surveillance footage, as if Big Brother were watching too.
Yorke wasn't about to bring anyone out of their respective reveries, meditative trances, or drug-aided journeys of self-examination. What little he did say came out as gibberish in the cadence of rock 'n' roll banter, perhaps intended as a send-up of the typical bloviating that happens on Lollapalooza's stages.
"We've got a few more," Yorke mumbled with relative clarity when the band returned for an encore.
"Thanks so much for having us. Have a good weekend," he offered at another point near the close of the night, before dropping some advice on the Lolla attendees: "Don't mix your drugs. Have a good time."
Many in the audience appeared struck throughout the performance by the realization that perhaps they've never known what the Englishman was singing, even on the band's biggest songs. During "Paranoid Android," a bro next to me seemed to be chanting "Form a grapevine" in place of "From a great height." But who gives a shit? It didn't stop him from making his voice a part of the chorus.
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised Radiohead's material translated so naturally to Lollapalooza. After all, the band's dominant themes—technology-aided isolation, insidious fascism (Trump, anyone?), maddening loss of privacy and personhood—happen to be some of today's overriding societal concerns. "For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself," the Lolla multitudes chanted during an encore of "Karma Police." In the end their bond was a shared sense of alienation. It connected them better than any social network could.