Atoms for Peace concert review: Thom Yorke and Flea’s superband lets loose


FAIRFAX, VA - September 30th, 2013 - Thom Yorke, Nigel Godrich, Flea and Joey Waronker of Atoms For Peace perform at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, VA. The band performed songs from the group's debut album, Amok, as well as songs from Yorke's solo debut and Radiohead b-sides. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson / For The Washington Post) (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
October 1, 2013

Thom Yorke discussed the recording process for his Atoms for Peace project with an interviewer recently, describing how the band “got wasted, played pool and listened to Fela Kuti all night.“

At a three-quarters-full Patriot Center on Monday, there were traces of Kuti’s seminal Afrobeat style — and an informal party vibe — in the air, but it was the slithering, sinewy electro-rock supporting Yorke’s talismanic vocals that dominated the event.

The Radiohead frontman’s Atoms for Peace is a supergroup of sorts, featuring Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich (who played keyboards and occasional guitar), drummer Joey Waronker (known for his work with R.E.M. and Beck) and percussionist Mauro Refosco (of frantic New York-via-Brazil band Forro in the Dark). The outfit released its debut recording, “Amok,” this year, a densely layered, nine-track collection of pulsing beats and fractured rock structures that at its core feels like a tripped-out Yorke solo outing.

As Radiohead devotees — who seemed to make up the majority of the crowd that filled the general-admission floor of the Fairfax arena — well know, the Atoms formed in 2009 and first served as interpreters, playing live versions of songs from Yorke’s well-loved solo record, “The Eraser.”

Expectedly, the set list was drawn from both “Amok” and “Eraser” (and was identical to reports from recent shows in Philadelphia and New Jersey) but included a couple of detours from those records — notably a version of Radiohead’s “Paperbag Writer.”

The quintet, led by a ponytailed, red-shoed Yorke, worked to free the songs from those recorded impressions, presenting them in loose-limbed, serpentine sections dominated by a constantly onrushing groove.

And all night, the groove was the thing: Flea and Yorke (even when he was sitting at the upright piano) were in constant, freaky-dance motion, while the three others occupied a riser behind, workers bent on manufacturing shape-shifting backbeats.

As with many side-project/occasional group performances, it often seemed that the musicians were having more fun than the audience, but there were kinetic moments in which the Atoms sounded like more than the sum of their parts. “Stuck Together Pieces” was genuinely propulsive, with Yorke shifting vocal keys atop a battering groove and a bass riff so authoritative that it touched off a spasms of joyous (albeit awkward) dancing throughout the crowd.

The oft-reworked “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses” was the real peak, the percussionists clawing at the hulking, spectral foundation while Yorke bobbed and weaved around Flea’s menacing bass line. It was here that the Atoms made the most sense: five ­electro-beat-obsessed, minimalist rockers staring into the emotional emptiness of the 21st century and sounding very much like a real band.

Foster is a freelance writer.

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