Radiohead are in the rare position of being able to do whatever they want. When their contract with EMI elapsed in 2003 they could have negotiated a lucrative new deal. Instead they chose independence. They own their recording studio, their management company and their songs’ copyright. They release records according to their own schedule. The days of being pestered by record executives to make another OK Computer are gone.
At tonight’s enthralling show Radiohead made the most of their freedom. The tone was set by opening track “Lotus Flower”, from their latest album The King of Limbs. Thom Yorke sang about emotional dependence and liberty in his enigmatic falsetto while a powerful bassline and two sets of drums projected the song deep into the 20,000-capacity arena. Already there was the sense of witnessing a breakthrough, the solution to a conundrum. On their first tour in four years Radiohead have worked out how to translate the subtle complications of their recordings into a large-scale live setting.
Yorke was centre stage, bearded and with hair tied in a top-knot, as though submitting to the 1970s prog-rock genes in the band’s DNA. Next to him, Ed O’Brien handled most of the guitar duties. On the other side, Jonny Greenwood played a range of instruments – keyboards, drums, electronic devices – alongside his usual intense guitar interventions. On bass, his brother Colin communed in the background with drummer Phil Selway. Portishead’s touring drummer, Clive Deamer, was the extra stickman.
Nine LED screens arranged themselves in different patterns above the band, a shifting mosaic showing images of the six players at work. It created too much information to take in at once, a common Radiohead theme. “Everything, all of the time,” as Yorke sang in the techno-apocalyptic “Idioteque”. Arresting visuals were matched by superb musicianship. The twin drummers gave “Myxomatosis” a sophisticated force reminiscent of King Crimson. Songs from The King of Limbs were beefed up: sternum-quaking bass in the dubsteppy “Feral”; guitars building to a violent pitch in “Morning Mr Magpie”.
OK Computer’s “Karma Police” was one of the few back-catalogue favourites. Meanwhile a new song “These Are My Twisted Words” – drone rock in a nervy Radiohead register – portrayed them as a band in their prime, as inventive and untrammelled on stage as they are in the studio.