While millions around the world spent Sunday watching the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 7,000 fans lucky enough to score a ticket to Radiohead’s show at the Hollywood Bowl witnessed not only a band at the top of its game but also an act that at times seemed to be the best on the planet.
Certainly that’s high praise, but during its two-hour set — the first of two sold-out nights at the Bowl — the quintet from Oxford, England, managed to cast a spell over the crowd without resorting to fist-pumping anthems like U2, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam or even Coldplay. Radiohead simply operates on a completely different level: It connects with the audience through sublime and hypnotic intensity rather than by pummeling a crowd into submission via bravado.
Even its politics are subtle. Throughout the set, two Tibetan flags were draped on the backs of keyboards; this was never addressed but nonetheless sent a message as the rest of the world celebrated the Olympic Games in China. And, in the jaw-dropping, fuzz-bass-fueled “The National Anthem,” the band employed snatches of audio hijacked from infomercials that effectively mocked mindless consumerism.
Radiohead has enough confidence in its music and fan base that it initially offered its latest album, the superb “In Rainbows,” as a name-your-own-price download. That self-assuredness also was on display Sunday (August 24).
Frontman Thom Yorke performed several songs, including the sinuous “All I Need,” at the piano with his back to the crowd, a move that came off not as standoffish but organic, as did the band’s tasteful yet stunning video and lighting presentation.
As it has since the release of its third album, 1997’s landmark “OK Computer,” Radiohead served up an intoxicating mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation at the Bowl that somehow managed to sound thoroughly modern and incredibly human. “Faust Arp,” from “In Rainbows,” was performed by the duo of Yorke and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, on acoustic guitar. On the other end of the spectrum, the electronic and live percussion of “Idioteque,” from “Kid A,” packed enough punch to fuel a rave.
The band’s heart and soul is Yorke, whose voice at times resembled the cries of a wounded animal. For nonbelievers, it might have sounded like an endless stream of whining, but those who felt an emotional connection with Yorke were moved not so much by his insightful lyrics as by his wordless vocalizing, which can be just as effective.
Before launching into the set-closing “Everything in Its Right Place,” Yorke sang a few lines from R.E.M.’s “Electrolite,” in a nod to the band’s alt-rock forefathers. On Sunday, Radiohead proved that the torch has long been passed, and the band is running at full speed with no need to look over its shoulder.