April 15th, 2012, 6:15 pm · · posted by GUEST
After five hours of sleeping on it, I’m still evenly torn about Radiohead‘s late-night set Saturday at Coachella, the adventurous English band’s first appearance at the renowned festival since its ballyhooed 2004 performance just after the Pixies’ once-unthinkable reunion.
The longtime fan in me loved every exploratory moment of it, relishing the chance to hear so much relatively recent material (four from In Rainbows, half of The King of Limbs, plus the non-album From the Basement track “Staircase”) amid such a mysterious, mood-setting festival apparatus. Like so much of the group’s work on stage and on record since the groundbreaking arrival of Kid A in 2000, Radiohead’s genre-defying sounds and meticulously parceled-out spectacles remain riveting intoxicants that slowly enter your bloodstream through the eyes and ears, infiltrating your senses and rewriting what you think is possible of what still is essentially a five-man rock band.
They remain unparalleled (yet still unassuming) gods of this scene, capable of fusing the innovative to the traditional in ways that are light years ahead of most everyone else yet still so approachable, if you can stop resisting, open up your head and allow their sonic mélange to wash over you. Rather than present a retrospective best-of set, which might have been what more casual onlookers desired, Radiohead reminded why it has been able to venture further than any other arena-level outfit of the modern era by challenging this festival crowd to meet them more than halfway. Either you got on board with the glitchy post-rock and outer-space Afropop they concoct out of push/pull impulses and technical wizardry, or you were left standing bewildered in the desert cold.
Many flock to it, especially younger fans who might not even have gotten into the group until In Rainbows was given away at a name-your-price download rate roughly five years ago. Such futuristic music plus the promise of some kinda light show was the reason so many of the estimated 75,000 attendees gathered to witness whatever Radiohead had concocted for this long-awaited moment. (OK, not everyone left Kaskade’s EDM explosion in the Sahara tent. There’s a huge contingency here that doesn’t care much for anything else, and will likely abandon Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg’s much-touted guest-filled celebration on the main stage tonight to instead check out the hype on AVICI.)
The Coachellan in me, however, is having trouble determining whether Radiohead did the right thing by playing it so unusually. The roar that burst out of the crowd when “Karma Police” showed up halfway into the performance, leading to an impromptu continuation of its “I lost myself” refrain once the song was over, suggested that the bulk of this amassed gathering would have been perfectly content if the band had eschewed its forge-ahead aesthetic and played nothing but staples from its canon.
Their response grew even louder for “Paranoid Android” and “Everything in Its Right Place” later in the set, the latter led into via a fitting verse of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” sung mostly a capella by Thom Yorke. Yet those bits were all too fleeting. Enveloped in their skittering electronic textures as I was, I still wasn’t impervious to feeling a bit cheated; when the 15-song main set ended, it seemed too soon.
In short, what should have been another crowning achievement for Radiohead instead played out like just another tour stop. (As opposed to the remarkable one-off show they gave for Haitian relief in January 2010, the setlist from which might have had a higher wow factor out here.) Very little about the performance, apart from the oversize scope of the location, seemed unique to Coachella, nor did a jovial Yorke have anything interesting to say between songs to mark the occasion, the way he did eight years ago by commenting how “when I was at college, it was Pixies and R.E.M. that changed my life.”
Granted, this show was miles ahead of something as conventional as Kings of Leon’s ordinary set here two years ago. Yet it came across just as stiffly at times, pre-designed to have spontaneous soul sucked out of it, rather than open up the parameters and chase after some surprises. Yorke is a magnetic presence, and the interplay among the band (especially Jonny Greenwood’s forays into the F/X wilderness and the forceful polyrhythms of drummers Phil Selway and Clive Deamers) is like nothing else you’ll see live. Yet all of that, too, felt a tad too thought-out, the frontman’s spasmodic dances erupting less naturally than cued-up.
What would have helped tremendously is if anyone beyond the main-stage mixing alcove could have seen what was happening on stage.
So much of Radiohead’s magic lies in the monolithic nature of its music; you probably aren’t supposed to discern who’s making which noise at what point when it’s better to consume it all whole. But since they veered toward so much newer fare and deliberately avoided several crowd-unifying favorites (nothing from The Bends, for instance), it likely would have compelled more people to stick with a difficult set for longer than three or four songs had there been more visual impact than just fragmented, esoteric snippets – exactly the sort of show Radiohead has been presenting since before In Rainbows.
To screen or not to screen – that was the burning question Saturday, and it bedeviled more than just the Oxford geniuses. Jeff Mangum insisted on no cameras (not even photographers in the pit) for his handful of mildly engaging but also pretty whiny and slight songs from his time with Neutral Milk Hotel; had he simply let a single camera focus on his face, thousands more people would have been drawn in.
Likewise, Noel Gallagher, who sounded strong on jaunty new material and Oasis gems yet still came off like watching paint dry, opted to keep his High Flying Birds band logo on the jumbo screens throughout much of his performance, alienating much of the crowd. I walked away after hearing “Talk Tonight” and “Half the World Away,” both pleasant, but it wasn’t until “Little by Little” later on that I noticed Gallagher was able to be widely seen.
Radiohead’s refusal to use them, however, was a mistake, I think. Look, I dig the artsy thing, and I was close enough to savor the whole experience. I kept telling myself that there weren’t giant screens for them to use in 2004 – you had to press toward the front back then as well – and that was an even more powerful performance than this one. (Just as edgy, too: the setlist that night was clogged full of selections that are now classics but at the time were still freshly progressive.)
Still, there’s a way for them to have made the most of the construction available to them without undoing the mood they were trying to capture. Allowing for Coachella’s usual camera crew to illuminate what was happening on stage – just as Bon Iver and Feist and the Shins and Andrew Bird and seemingly everyone else did on Saturday – hardly would have marred the overall impact of Radiohead’s performance. If anything, it would have made it more lastingly memorable.
Instead, for many who could only glimpse the machinery at work as if peering through glass on the back of a pocket watch, this reappearance in Indio may become merely another phantom lingering in the mists of the past.
Then again, a hard-hitting “There There” was virtually definitive this night, and “Idioteque” was digitally icy as ever. Maybe they’re just playing a long game with this double-header festival, and a certain cohesion about their return to the Empire Polo Field will become apparent after next weekend. We shall see.
Was it a strong day overall, in addition to Radiohead? Absolutely, and more thematically presented than Days 1 or 3 will have been, although something about Friday (the rain, the chill, the energy of the performances) somewhat sets that portion apart for me.
For a Saturday night, it was a rather austere environment, a Pitchfork fanatic’s dream come true that sent those who wanted to party over to see Miike Snow’s ebullient second-stage set, or to Gobi for the electro squiggles of SBTRKT. Frankly, thousands stayed put in Sahara, smashed back to chest in a tented bacchanal. (Every time I ventured over there, I couldn’t get very far – and astonishingly, the lights would go out, each DJ apparently bracing for another visual explosion I kept missing.)
But back in the land of slow, sensitive, non-rock indie symphonies, Bon Iver was tremendous, creating a towering sound on the main stage that dwarfed the considerable grandeur Justin Vernon and his ensemble unfurled at Gibson Amphitheatre last year. They accomplished it by buffeting the set with seamlessness, each piece floating into the next almost unnoticed, while others were hurtled forward by skronky sax solos and guitar distortion.
As with Andrew Bird’s lilting, loop-filled early-evening performance (including his version of Kermit the Frog’s signature song “Bein’ Green”) and Feist’s captivating performance at the Outdoor Theatre shortly before Bon Iver’s turn (bolstered by just as large a mini-orchestra), here was evidence of how to do the mellow/quiet thing without lulling the audience to sleep or boring them to distraction.
And unlike the Shins, who in a new configuration sounded stronger than ever (heavy on Broken Bells atmosphere) and even dared a convincing cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” but were otherwise static to watch, Bon Iver’s set didn’t shy away from visual impact. It looked as majestic as it sounded. What’s more, Vernon’s high falsetto, almost as arresting and nuanced with grit as Thom Yorke’s, provided a rare back-to-back helping of two of modern music’s greatest voices.
That alone was probably reason enough to have spent $300 to freeze on this field.
Lots more still to come, including more thoughts from the rest of our crew on the Shins, Feist, Andrew Bird, Jeff Mangum, St. Vincent, Squeeze (the small-crowd singalong to “Tempted” was wonderful) … plus there’s still one more marathon day. Gotta shut up and get back onto the field.
Setlist: Radiohead at Coachella 2012, Weekend 1, April 14, 2012
Main set: Bloom / 15 Step / Weird Fishes/Arpeggi / Morning Mr. Magpie / Staircase / The Gloaming / Pyramid Song / The Daily Mail / Myxomatosis / Karma Police / Identikit / Lotus Flower / There There / Bodysnatchers / Idioteque
First encore: Lucky / Reckoner / Everything in Its Right Place (preceded by Thom Yorke singing a verse of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush)
Second encore: Give Up the Ghost / Paranoid Android
By Ben Wener for The Orange County Register
Click here to see pictures of day 2 at Coachella.
For more Coachella coverage all weekend (and next!) go toocregister.com/coachella.