It is said that Hipsters love irony. Perhaps this is why one of the most universally-embraced bands in that all-too-easily loathsome community is the ever-venerable Radiohead. After a particularly revealing 90 minutes with them in the hot California desert, it became increasingly apparent to me that the World's Greatest Rock Act regards many of their concert-goers with a certain, thinly-veiled disdain. Maybe it's because Thom Yorke and company are so hellbent on promoting some vestige of social awareness in this markedly apathetic world into which we have grown. In return, many of the attendees at a typical Radiohead show--especially at the unforgivably scene-y Coachella Music and Arts Festival--could give two shits about changing the world for the better. They're much more concerned with capturing this live event on their smartphones so they can post incontrovertible proof by way of Instagram and Youtube that they were here--LOOK AT ME! How very fantastic for them, and indeed the world.
On the road promoting their most recent LP, The King of Limbs, most sets from this tour kick-off with the unsettling melancholy of that album's first track, Bloom. In the opening lines, Yorke advises all those that would listen to "open your mouth up wide" in a "universal sigh." This phrase has torn at the tendrils of my soul since the very first time it entered my ear canals. In the bleakly-aware landscape of our times we have traded in our desire to coagulate into meaningful masses in exchange for falsely elevating ourselves onto meaningless pedestals of self-diluted grandeur. Radiohead's frontman Thom Yorke suggests that the obligatory response is a billowing sigh.
In the 60s, hundreds of thousands of socially-conscious spirits would descend upon the streets and parks of our cities with minimal amounts of premeditation. Today we have the "social media" at our disposal to facilitate rallies ten times larger, yet instead we all sit at home in front of our screens to post pictures of our latest vacation to Facebook. As Yorke asks in his next number, the techno-rhythmic 15 Step: "You used to be alright, what happened?"
After he's done prancing around the stage in his trademarked maniacal manner, Yorke wonders aloud if the crowd of some 75,000 people are "drinking enough water?" It's a reasonable inquiry for a drug-addled mass of humanity that has been baking in 100+ degree temperatures for much of the day. Yet his sarcastic din implies that he doesn't really give a shit. You can't help but wonder if the sea of cellphones and MDMA is really attune to such nuance.
The band fearlessly plods forward, offering an enchanting array of new B-sides that didn't make it onto the latest record. Only with Radiohead am I able to feel the same level of inspiration regardless of what era of their catalogue is being showcased. In fact, one of the most transcendent moments of the show came during Staircase. A song that can't be more than a year old, yet offers so much in the way of mesmerizing melody that you can't help but be drawn in upon first listen. Of course the elaborate stage setup helps to up the ante, with a series of large monitors--each displaying a different band member--slowly ascending in a staggered pattern high above.
After a hearty assortment of newer material, Radiohead digs slightly deeper into their repertoire--to the obvious enjoyment of the crowd. Busting out standards like Kid A, steeped in eery post-apocalyptic musings, There There, a heavily percussive piece that always starts off with the guitarists accompanying the drummer's beat with large toms hanging from their necks, and the anthemic Karma Police, which culminates in a (somewhat-forced) sing-along: "phew, for a minute there I lost myself. I lost myself." To me, this is always the most redemptive quality of a Radiohead show--or any great concert--the transcendence of losing yourself to another spiritual plane. These guys can bring you there like no other and for that I am eternally grateful.
Radiohead's live experience typically features two separate encores, which were somewhat truncated on this late Saturday night/Sunday morning to accomodate the strict cut-off time of Coachella which I assume to be 1AM. As the concert is winding down they decide to break out a few tracks from 2007's In Rainbows. The first of which, Reckoner, is a supremely haunting number warning that you "can't take it with you." A fitting admonishment for this uber-materialistic menagerie of Southern Californians. The tune ultimately arrives at a crescendoing finale of spiritually-uplifting falsetto that I wish would just have the decency to extend into infinity.
Unfortunately that's not possible and upon the angelic conclusion, Thom takes a moment to tell the horde about why the band chose to play large festivals this summer. Essentially: togetherness. Yet I have to question if there's anything to be gained in the collective process of passive listening; are we really all sharing the wonder or are we just hopelessly quarantined within our own respective bubbles of isolation? Goddamn, somebody's breath smells just downright rank! At any rate, they end the first encore with the gutbusting guitar-driven frenzy of Bodysnatchers, a gritty number that you can tell guitarist/mad scientist Jonny Greenwood just loves sinking his fiery fangs into.
For the grand finale, they decide to unearth a couple of classics from their seminal work, 1997's critical darling, OK Computer. Nobody's going to argue with a decision like that. The spine-tingling, Floyd-esque Exit Music (For a Film) never disappoints. And when Yorke commands us to "wake from your sleep," you have to wonder if anyone is really paying attention, or are they too busy trying to capture his mischievous mug on a million little smartphones speckled high above the landscape. When the drums kick-in halfway through this jarring masterpiece, it marks one of the most visceral moments of the entire show.
Thom busts out the acoustic guitar for the final number, signaling the inevitable: a performance of their quintessential composition, Paranoid Android. No surprises here; played note-for-note with every iota of its arena-rocking grandeur. Many songs throughout history have hinted at an impending apocalypse and some paint the grim sketches of a dreary, post-apocalyptic world. But no other piece of art captures the end of days--as it unravels in real time--with such compelling vigor as this: "the dust and the screaming...the panic, the vomit." And everything comes to an end with that most classic of ironic lines: "God loves his children." A tidal wave of applause erupts into the desert night. Perhaps a universal sigh would be a more appropriate response.