Radiohead week: Existential crisis?

Radiohead's two-night stand in Austin reviewed

Radiohead's Tom Yorke at the Frank Erwin Center, 3.7.12
Radiohead's Tom Yorke at the Frank Erwin Center, 3.7.12 (by Gary Miller)

Radiohead week in Austin has spun me into an existential music crisis. I consider the UK sextet the most important band of the past two decades. It’s an arguable point, sure, but the city's been giddy at hosting the band since last night's Erwin Center show sold out immediately, and its Austin City Limits taping became the hottest ticket in town.

For both shows, the set lists were generally the same; the arrangements similar. And yet the shows, and my reaction to them, could not have been more different.

The excitement among the crowd at Tuesday night’s 90-minute Austin City Limit’s taping at the Moody Theater was palpable. Some 2,000 people packed the handsome venue, but it still felt intimate, one of the highlights of the new theater. And yet somehow, Radiohead failed to connect for me.

The taping certainly wasn't bad. Yet even disregarding my admittedly high expectations, the show was one where the performance did less to move the crowd than the crowd did its best to will the performance into transcendence. Not many audiences can accomplish that, but the demonstrative excitement at the Moody certainly shot the moon.

For those like me expecting Radiohead either stripped down and intimately adjusted to the small stage, or the full Radiohead experience compacted into a more intimate space, neither was realized. It was a somewhat muted performance, with standard ACL lighting, and a quieter mix. The band’s intricacies may have been slightly more on display, but not with any particular emphasis.

It was a performance that failed to engage me, and I wondered why until the next night’s show at the Frank Erwin Center. Here was the full Radiohead experience, enveloping in sound and vision and inescapable. Oddly enough, Yorke seemed looser and more comfortable on the larger stage.

Both shows covered mostly new material, with few hits. The songs from King of Limbs were all well evolved live, especially “Lotus Flower,” which in both sets kicked off a definite shift in energy and sound that was capped with an exceptional “Idioteque.”

Still, the reason the ACL taping fell short of Radiohead’s two-hour arena performance the following night is of an existential nature to me, one of what Radiohead's music is about, what it seeks to accomplish, and how it works.

Radiohead is ultimately a headphones band, both because its music demands the attention and because they're a group built on affect, on creating an encompassing soundscape that captures the listener and then proceeds to unsettle them.

Radiohead is band of the uncanny - they're meant to unsettle, to disrupt. Their music is hypnotic and subliminal, an effect that they induce to only eventually break apart. And live, that affect is best achieved in full display. The encompassing sound, the bolts of disorienting LED lighting is all essential to the very core of what Radiohead is and what their music attempts to accomplish.

From Yorke’s uncomfortably jerked dance moves and cryptic lyrics, to Jonny Greenwood’s wash of effects, Radiohead is meant to be uncomfortable, by paradoxically drawing you in and then shattering the lull either with unexpected contortions, or outright eruptions, such as both nights' final “Paranoid Android” encore.

The problem with the ACL taping was that none of the affect was in effect. There was nothing to disrupt, and what was revealed was simply a band – the wizard behind the screen of something so much grander and ambitious. But amid the swirl of images and lights, inside the dystopian digitized world that Radiohead has foretold, that's where the band is fully realized.

Here's both nights song selections, with abbreviated origins of the tune.

ACL Set List: March 6, 2012

Bloom (Limbs)
Little by Little (Limbs)
Daily Mail (new)
Myxomatosis (Thief)
Morning Mr. Magpie (Limbs)
The Gloaming (Thief)
The Amazing Sound of Orgy (b-side Amnesiac “Pyramid Song”)
Staircase (new)
Reckoner (Rainbows)
Arpeggi/Weird Fishes (Rainbows)
Identikit (new)
Lotus Flowers (Limbs)
There There (Thief)
Feral (Limbs)
Idioteque (Kid A)
Skirting on the Surface (new)
Paranoid Android (OK Computer)

Erwin Center Set List: March 7, 2012

Bloom (Limbs)
Little By Little
The Daily Mail (new)
Morning Mr. Magpie (Limbs)
Myxomatosis (Thief)
The Gloaming (Thief)
Kid A (Kid A)
The National Anthem (Kid A)
Reckoner (Rainbows)
Arpeggi/Weird Fishes (Rainbows)
Nude (Rainbows)
Identikit (new)
Lotus Flower (Limbs)
There There
Feral (Limbs)
Idioteque (Kid A)
Separator (Limbs)
These Are My Twisted Words (new)
Everything in Its Right Place (Kid A)
Give up the Ghost (Limbs)
You and Whose Army (Amnesiac)
Paranoid Android (OK Computer)

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Radiohead, Austin Music Limits, Tom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Austin City Limits, Frank Erwin Center, King of Limbs

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