There are certain albums that I can listen to no matter the setting, the time, or my relative emotional stability. The Clash’s London Calling sounds like a masterpiece when I’m happy or sad; the Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, when I’m angry or calm; and to use an example from this century, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, when I’m running or ready to fall asleep. They’re Swiss Army knife albums, appropriate for any situation.
The flip side of this is the situation album. The environment needs to be just right for maximum enjoyment. Let’s call it the Radiohead Rule.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I like Radiohead as much as anyone who read Pitchfork in the 2000s. OK Computer and Kid A are rightly hailed as masterpieces; The Bends is nearly as good; Pablo Honey is slight but fun; In Rainbows has “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” which is simply an excellent song. But I don’t consider myself a Radiohead fan. I can’t just turn on “Everything in Its Right Place.” I need to be driving in a car, late at night, by myself, with the windows up, going much faster than I should be. Radiohead songs make you paint a mental picture, and it’s hard to create great art during your lunch break at the food court. I play OK Computer when I’m feeling alienated, Hail to the Thief when I’m stressed, and The King of Limbs, well, never. (I do not care for The King of Limbs.) But whenever I share my specific opinion of Radiohead with a diehard, I always get the same response: “You gotta see them live.” (If context listens is the Radiohead Rule, then this is the Phish Rule.)
Radiohead has been on my concert bucket list for years, but for whatever reason, I never got around to seeing them. (In my defense, I also haven’t seen Atoms for Peace.) That changed this weekend, when the group played Austin City Limits Music Festival, Austin, TX’s annual celebration of tacos and music. The environment was certainly perfect for a Radiohead show: the weather was stuck somewhere between hot and cold, and Foals and Flying Lotus, who played before the headliners, keep the crowd moving and entertained. As for the set itself: in honor of “2 + 2 = 5″ (The Lukewarm.),” which they dusted off, here are five things I learned about Radiohead and, I guess, myself.
1. Music festivals are the best (how else are you going to see Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, and LCD Soundsystem in the same weekend?), but they’re also the worst. They’re dusty, expensive, and you’re surrounded by flower crowns and old-school NBA jerseys and flags that read “COLD BEER.” (I get raising a Tina Belcher “Turn Down for Butt” flag, but “COLD BEER”? That’s nothing.) But all those worries went away during Radiohead’s set. The crowd was stunningly quiet, respectful but loose, clearly lost in reverie for one of the world’s most admired bands. The tens of thousands around me, many of whom had gotten there at 9 a.m. so they could be up front for an 8 p.m. set, hung on to Thom Yorke’s word. It was beautiful, actually. The loudest applauses were for the older material, like “Idioteque” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” and set closer “Karma Police” turned ACL into communal karaoke. It’s hard to be jaded when you’re surrounded by so much appreciation.
2. Years ago, I got into an argument with a friend who said the Ramones sucked because they didn’t play their instruments “well.” “They’re no Travis Barker,” the Blink-182 apologist said, without a hint of irony. I countered that the Ramones playing fast and loose and sloppy was the point. (We are no longer friends.) The point being: Barker is more technically proficient than Tommy Ramone, but his style does nothing for me. It’s almost too fine, especially on the later albums — too rehearsed. That’s how I sometimes feel about Radiohead. Everything — every bleep, every bloop, every tap of the piano — is literally in its right place. It can be suffocatingly precise, like one of Wes Anderson’s lesser movies. Again, I realize this is kind of the point, and it’s not like I’m on #TeamMuse, but it personally leaves me cold. Live, though, the band loosens up. The fluorescent energy of “The Gloaming. (Softly Open our Mouths in the Cold.)” burns bright. The twin drumming of Phil Selway and Clive Deamer adds a heft that gets lost in the album mixes. Bassist Colin Greenwood is all smiles. And Jonny Greenwood, well, I already considered Jonny Greenwood a virtuoso, but now he’s been upgraded to musical genius. He looks awkward and uncomfortable on stage — watching his his hunched-over posture hurts my back — but his guitar howls with confidence.
3. Thom Yorke’s spastic wiggling is worth the price of admission alone.
4. A brief aside: The morning after the concert, I drove to get lunch (true story!). As I was pulling into my apartment complex on the way back, I stopped and let a man holding a juice from a nearby food truck continue on the sidewalk. The juice man was Thom Yorke (I could tell it was him by the 84,294 bracelets on his wrist). I quickly parked and caught up with him to say I liked the show, it was my first time seeing you, etc. He was entirely pleasant to talk with, but he had one complaint: the crowd up front. It was a wristband-only group, one of those deals where if you have a certain phone you get to skip the line, and Yorke said their lack of energy was a “bummer” on the band. Radiohead performed fan favorite shout-along “Creep” at their last two shows, but not in Austin. Once I heard about Yorke’s momentary displeasure with the crowd, I couldn’t help but wonder if not playing “Creep” was a f*ck you to the wristband-goers. That makes me like Radiohead more.
(Also, the juice-maker misspelled Thom’s name as “Tom.”)
5. Anyway, as for the question in the headline — can seeing Radiohead live turn me into a Radiohead fan? — I guess the answer is: neutral. I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t wowed, either. If anything, it only confirmed my feelings: that I can appreciate Radiohead, and even love a few of their songs (“The National Anthem,” which sounds like a “Seven Nation Army”-esque anthem in person, and “Let Down”), without actually considering myself a “fan.” I can admire them without forming an attachment, while simultaneously understanding why someone would form that level of attachment. Radiohead is an entirely personal band — they talk directly to you, not at you. (Unlike Sunday headliners Mumford & Sons, who unsuccessful try to talk for everyone.) That’s rare to find at a massive outdoors music festival, where the spectacle often speaks louder than the songs. Radiohead sounds intimate — and desolate and inquisitive and harrowing — even while playing for 30,000 fans, and while I’m glad they exist, I probably won’t see them live again.
Maybe I’ll give Phish a shot.