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In the darkness a recording rang out of Nina Simone saying “I’ll tell you what freedom is for me. No fear.” It was an interesting choice of quote for a band whose work is fuelled by feelings of fearfulness and anxiety. Take those away and Radiohead would cease to exist, or would exist in a radically different form, possibly involving tambourines and lots of smiling.
The first track showed how far they are from reaching that unwelcome kind of freedom. It was “Burn the Witch”, a gripping exercise in mounting dread played on a stage lit in infernal red light. “This is a low-level panic attack,” Thom Yorke intoned as Jonny Greenwood sawed at his electric guitar with a bow, an abbreviated stand-in for the orchestral strings on the recorded version. Two drummers, Philip Selway supplemented by Portishead’s touring sticksman Clive Deamer, took up the slack with a pounding groove.
This was the first of five tracks played consecutively from Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool. “Daydreaming” was beautifully suspended between Greenwood’s minimalist piano and Yorke’s saddened voice. “Decks Dark” featured bereft lines about being “in your darkest hour”, comforted midway through by warm interplay between Colin Greenwood’s bass and Ed O’Brien’s guitar. “Desert Island Disk” and “Ful Stop” respectively drew on the opposing 1970s traditions of folk-rock and krautrock.
Yorke’s depressive lyrics were lifted by the richness of the music. In proof of their artistic stamina, the last of the great 1990s alt-rock bands proceeded to range through their back catalogue. “Talk Show Host”, a 1995 B-side, was given an almost hip-hop-like beat by the two drummers amid psychedelic wah-wah guitar from Greenwood. During “My Iron Lung”, the ectomorph guitarist attacked his strings with the violent intensity of a Giacometti figure starting a chainsaw. It was spellbinding to see him back in axe-maestro mode.
Yorke was in fine voice, his high croon spiralling through the songs. The band’s shift towards electronic music was represented by standouts from the transitional album Kid A, “Idioteque” and “Everything in Its Right Place”. The band’s developing ability to fuse rock dynamics with elaborate electronic textures was traced through tracks such as “Myxomatosis” and “Morning Mr Magpie”. It was not without stumbles — “Nude” required a restart after a mistake from Greenwood — but the fallibility, amid such a high level of musicianship, added the humanising touch that Yorke’s unintelligible stage banter could not.
They finished with new song, “Present Tense”, its title an affirmation of being in the moment, followed by old track “You and Whose Army?”, in which Yorke, at the piano, adopted the guise of a Nina Simone-style torch singer. Then came “Paranoid Android” from their masterpiece OK Computer, climaxing in Greenwood’s brilliantly convulsive guitar solos. The unforced passage between past and present suggested Radiohead have found their own version of Simone’s freedom. We need not fear an end to them yet.