Like many a privately educated Englishman, raised on a diet of repression and the classics, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke desperately wants to feel the groove. His quest for this intangible, almost mystical essence of music – its rhythmic quality, its swing – has taken him from Oxford to Los Angeles, where he tracked down the thumb-slapping guru of groove, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. Together the odd couple have formed a curious but rewarding side-project, Atoms for Peace.
Transatlantic stereotypes were reversed at the Roundhouse for the full band’s UK live debut. Yorke wore a vest and ponytail and looked unusually loose and muscular; Flea wore a buttoned-up Oxford blue shirt and projected a nervy, Yorkeian aura of coiled energy. They were joined by Atoms for Peace’s other members: Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich (guitar, electronics), LA session drummer Joey Waronker and Chili Peppers touring percussionist Mauro Refosco.
The UK-US hybrid opened with the first track from their album Amok, “Before Your Very Eyes ... ”. Yorke sang an enigmatic, sorrowful croon, full of an emotion that can’t be clearly articulated, his signature mode with Radiohead. But the music was in a different register, fast jittery funk anchored by Flea’s bass and powered by immensely lithe drumming from the two percussionists, building to a breathtakingly powerful finale.
“Default” found the singer bounding around the stage giving uninhibited expression to apprehensive lyrics, enveloped by a complex but propulsive pattern of sounds – Orbital-style chimes, pattering beats, rippling bass; punctuated at the end by a karate kick from the no longer buttoned-up Flea.
Godrich has cited arch-fusionist Miles Davis as an influence on Atoms for Peace. But other than the winding bass riff that Flea slapped out in “Stuck Together Pieces” there was nothing very jazzy about the music.
Instead the LA rhythm section brought a sense of wild but focused attack to proceedings. A highlight was a sensationally amplified version of “Harrowdown Hill”, from Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser, about the suicide of the Iraq weapons inspector Dr David Kelly – given added heft tonight by an explosive outbreak of beats and flashing lights: a conspiracy theory you could dance to.
The fivesome were so forceful in this mode that quieter songs, led by Yorke at a piano, couldn’t help paling in comparison, such as a meandering “Rabbit in Your Headlights”. It was when they were at full pelt that Atoms for Peace really hit their groove: a stunning one.