By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
The music of Radiohead does not exactly conjure images of sunshine. The band, one of the most beloved in contemporary rock, specializes in gorgeously anguished tales of dread and alienation -- sullen songs for sullen souls.
It was fitting, then, that Radiohead's stunning concert Sunday night at Nissan Pavilion was performed in the midst of a torrential downpour. Flooding on nearby roads led to major traffic delays and prevented some ticket holders from reaching the sold-out venue, adding to the legend of local Radiohead rainouts. In 2001, the band canceled two shows at Bull Run Park in Centreville because of flooding, and in 1998, Radiohead was on the bill of the massive Tibetan Freedom Concert when lightning struck RFK Stadium, forcing promoters to suspend the show. (Radiohead performed the following day.)
"We know how tough today has been for you guys, and, uh, sorry," singer Thom Yorke said midway through Sunday's set. He then introduced an old warhorse, 1997's "Paranoid Android," calling it "a nasty song; it's not nice."
Yorke sang dismissively -- in a high, quavering voice -- of insufferable people, and then the caustic song exploded, with screaming, spiraling guitar riffs shooting off in every direction. And then it shifted once more, transforming into a rousing singalong, with Yorke leading a chorus of thousands in declaring, "Rain down, rain down/Come on rain down on me."
The crowd cheered rapturously, and for the briefest of moments, the stoic Yorke appeared to be smiling. Or maybe he was just grimacing.
As a songwriter, Yorke is a tortured poet with a dystopian, world-weary view; over the course of two hours and 25 songs here, he sang of isolation and anxiety, of frustration and dissatisfaction.
"I only stick with you because there are no others," he warbled in "All I Need," the atmospheric ballad that opened the show and thus set the tone for the night. Indeed, there was a quiet intensity to the set, during which Yorke's ethereal falsetto -- so fragile, yet so powerful, like a Qawwali singer's voice -- was warm and clear, landing perfectly in the exceptional mix.
But clear doesn't necessarily mean straight-lined: Yorke bent and otherwise distorted his own soaring, swooping vocal notes, as if his voice came with an effects pedal. And actually, during "Everything in Its Right Place," it did: As Yorke sat behind a keyboard to sing such lines as "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon," the multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood crouched over a bank of pedals, manipulating the frontman's vocals to stirring effect.
Save for the rhythmically vexing "Faust Arp" -- which was performed as an acoustic folk song, without the strings of the studio version -- the songs featured Yorke's vocals wrapped in the warm textures and Technicolor grandeur of Radiohead's music, which manages to sound at once cerebral and intuitive.
The band's ebb-and-flow instrumental approach was centered on the sturdy rhythms of drummer Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood, and the songs frequently featured a three-guitar attack (Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and the mysterious Ed O'Brien). But Radiohead hardly used the firepower to stack power chords or peel off virtuosic solos. Instead, the guitars -- along with the keyboards, pianos, samplers and such -- were used to build a cinematic wall of sound, as in the majestic "Lucky," the orchestral "Bodysnatchers" and the chiming, swelling "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi."
The latter two songs were from Radiohead's new recording, "In Rainbows," which was performed in its entirety and then some: In addition to the 10 songs from the album, released online late last year, the set also included material from a bonus disc that came with a deluxe, limited-edition version of "In Rainbows."
The new material translated well to the stage, particularly the twittering piano ballad "Videotape" and "Bangers and Mash," a snarling, angular rock song featuring double drums and some of the night's most jagged riffs. There was plenty of old material, too, including "Karma Police" (before which Yorke had some harsh words for the suits on Capitol Hill) and a terrific trio of songs from 1995's epochal album, "The Bends."
Among them was "Planet Telex," a howling, reverb-laden rocker during which there was a kaleidoscopic explosion above and around the artfully lit stage.
The most surprising and successful of the older songs, however, was the haunting "Fake Plastic Trees," which opened the band's second encore -- and which Yorke dedicated to those who missed the show because of the rain and traffic. Radiohead was thought to have retired the brilliant song from its live repertoire. As it turns out, the band was just saving it for a rainy day.