This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Radiohead live, but it was different from past shows. There was an electric feeling in the air, masses of people swarming around the entrance, expressing their hopes and desires for the show. That buzz continued inside. As soon as the lights dimmed and the band took the stage, that electricity became overwhelming. The fans along the barricade felt that surge of energy, which propelled one of them over the barricade and into the photo pit. Seattle’s Key Arena erupted as Radiohead opened with “Daydreaming,” off their latest album A Moon Shaped Pool. “Daydreaming” was an unexpected start to the concert, but this is Radiohead, and they are unpredictable. Thom Yorke stood at a keyboard center stage, the lighting dancing behind him.
After my work was done in the pit, I made my way up to my where I had an entire row almost to myself. Of the two hours of music, 5 of the 25 songs were off the new album — the same number of songs played off OK Computer. The setlist wasn’t a Greatest Hits, at least in terms of singles. It was a list for fans, those of us who have been celebrating Radiohead’s discography for as long as some of you readers have been alive. During their last time through Seattle five years ago (almost to the day), their performance at Key Arena brought a bolder stage set and lighting display. This time, the band remained fairly static, apart from instrument changes, and the dynamic displays of lighting were toned down. Just one large screen at the back of the stage, mostly displaying distorted live imagery. They seem to have mellowed with age. Which is not bad, just different. A normally reserved Yorke made a number of funny exclamations during the show, and after a couple false starts of “The Gloaming,” he joked, “I’m a fucking professional!”
Prior to the mishaps with “The Gloaming,” Radiohead played “These Are My Twisted Words,” which was the first time they’ve played it live since their last tour in 2012, and we ate it up. We, the audience, were thread like a needle through time, back and forth. It was 2017, and then 1993, 1997, 2003, and 2017 again. All of my memories coinciding with those songs — where I was when In Rainbows shocked the music world with its “pay what you want” digital release online, the first time I saw Yorke being pushed in a shopping cart on 120 Minutes, etc. — came back. The nostalgia was warm and comfortable, but it was during those moments when they would throw us into the present, sometimes almost violently, reminding us they’re not done pushing the boundaries of music. They’re still reimagining what a song can be, like their return to A Moon Shaped Pool with “Burn the Witch,” which took the song to a completely different place live than in the studio version. It was magnificent, and beautiful, and terrifying.
After the main set, we were rewarded with an encore that started off with “No Surprises,” included the epic “Paranoid Android,” and finished with “Lotus Flower.” With the end of the encore, I turned to a fellow photographer: “It can’t be over, they haven’t played ‘Everything in it’s Right Place’ yet!” When I saw them in this same arena, one day shy of five years ago, they ended with it, and it felt right. How could they end on anything else? When the band re-emerged, I bubbled with excitement: here it was! They surely came out to give us what I expected! When “You and Whose Army?” began, I tempered my disappointment, because, why would I complain about getting more of what I loved? The song finished, and I looked back to my friend, we both raised our eyebrows and said “…maybe? Maybe they’ll do it now?” And there it was: “Everything in it’s Right Place” slowly filtered out the band member by member, until only Ed O’Brein was left on the stage using pedals to loop distorted vocals. He soon exited.
As we stood there whistling, cheering, screaming, clapping, and reveling, we were rewarded one last time. An unplanned encore of a stripped-down “Fake Plastic Trees,” reaching way back to 1995’s The Bends, just for us. I can’t tell you what other people felt, but when Yorke sang, voice straining, “And if I could be who you wanted/ If I could be who you wanted/ All the time/ All the time,” to end the night, I felt completely incomplete. It didn’t conclude the night with the full stop at the end, the feeling that everything was in its right place, but it felt like the right song to finish with. A passive comment of plasticity in the world? Or a reminder to us, the audience, to remember not to force Yorke into a box of what we want and expect from him and Radiohead? I don’t know if there was motivation in the choice thematically or just a “thank you” to the thousands of fans who would sing along at the top of their lungs. Either way, I walked out of the arena stunned by a band that could still make me feel vulnerable, hopeful, and surprised to feel those things.
Desert Island Disk
Exit Music (for a Film)
Burn the Witch
These Are My Twisted Words
I Might Be Wrong
You and Whose Army?
Everything in Its Right Place
Fake Plastic Trees