Over the weekend, Thom Yorke attended the Star Wars premiere and posed with the adorable BB-8 robot on the red carpet, showing both a sense of humor and connection to pop culture that is rare from the musical legend. For a moment, Yorke was every bit the same type of fan that he must experience daily, particularly as he’s become one of the most obsessed over figures in contemporary music. Sure, he’s the frontman to the legendary rock group Radiohead, but there is something more about Yorke that makes him both memeable and so utterly respected, the kind of man that everyone wants to listen to as soon as he opens his mouth and pour over every bit of music that he releases.
This morning, his band was snubbed for entry into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but the funny thing is that Radiohead and Yorke would rather push forward than look backward.
Yorke, for his part, has managed to exist successfully outside of Radiohead for more than a decade since he released his criminally underrated solo debut, The Eraser. Aside from the releases under his own name, which also includes 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, he also took the time to start a side project named after one of his solo songs, Atoms For Peace. In Atoms, he worked with Flea and his Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, but it still very much felt like an avenue for Yorke as the solo artist, able to successfully disappear into his other interests before triumphantly returning to his main gig.
It’s a practice shared by his bandmates. Drummer Philip Selway also releases solo albums and has even played Coachella on his own. Radiohead’s second most famous member, guitar wizard Johnny Greenwood, is one of the most celebrated film composers of the last decade, frequently collaborating with Paul Thomas Anderson and up for a Golden Globe this year. Word is that Ed O’Brien is working on the first solo album of his career. Each member has more to say than what they can within the band, and the sheer reverence in which Radiohead has earned in its 25-year career has afforded them these opportunities. And Thom Yorke moves the needle more than any of them.
Still, when Yorke announced a small run of shows for the end of this year, including a headlining set at this weekend’s stacked Day For Night Festival in Houston, most immediately thought it would be a stripped-down DJ set of sorts, enough so that the festival needed to officially announce that it would be a proper live performance.
When you’re Thom Yorke, you don’t need to do much more than show up to impress, so the modest expectations of him weren’t far-fetched. In hindsight, though, underestimating Yorke’s commitment to his solo material might be exactly what he wanted, allowing him to blow audiences away with a fully-realized, immersive, and often breathtaking show.
This was the scene on Wednesday night at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, where Yorke decided to kick off his mini-tour. It was essentially a warm-up for the big festival set this weekend, with this show and an Oakland date leading the way for what was a surprising bit of booking for the Houston festival. It’s been three years since he released his last solo album and had already provided some support for it, including a 2015 appearance at Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris. But a scan of Yorke’s merch stand revealed Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes t-shirts, vinyl, and posters, coinciding with that album (as well as his other solo material) being added to Spotify for the first time.
But the set didn’t play out much like a direct support of that album, or any album. When the curtain of the venue rose sharply at 10 PM, following no opening act, all expectations went out the window. Any pre-conceived notion that this might be a stripped-down affair was wiped away when the stage revealed three large projector screens and setup for two other artists besides Yorke.
One of these turned out to be his longtime collaborator, Radiohead producer and Atoms For Peace member Nigel Godrich. The other was a visual artist Tarik Barri, whose placement on stage next to Yorke speaks to just how important the visual element was to the show. It was a similar setup to what Yorke brought to Paris a couple years back, but seeing Youtube clips of the performance can’t do justice to just how breathtaking and engrossing it all was.
This speaks to star quality. We’ve seen it in music videos and countless gifs, but when Thom Yorke dances, when he’s really feeling the music, the world wants to join him. Part of it is the DGAF attitude he brings to his onstage movements, where gyrating motions and endless wiggles turn out to be flat-out contagious. It’s been said before that concerts are watching people truly believe in themselves, and that’s never a question when it comes to Thom Yorke. He’s able to shrug off calls for “Karma Police” with wit and grace, knowing that even when much of his set was rare, unfamiliar material, he could sell it through his presentation. He can sell it by simply being Thom Yorke.
But as captivating as it is to have a rock star like Yorke on stage in a small venue, the MVP of the night was probably Barri. The projections pulsed to the beat, at times happy to bathe the audience in morphing shapes and colors, and at other times creating hypnotic experiments with light that felt almost three dimensional. When Yorke would drop a beat, the visuals always followed with a similar intensity.
Yorke’s set had its eyes fully on the greater prize of a complete sensory experience, enough so that when one of the set’s most recognizable cuts, Atoms For Peace’s “Amok,” was dropped in the middle of the performance, it felt more like an afterthought that it might actually be a well-known song to the more casual fan. No concessions were made to crowd-pleasing. Yorke knows that following his own vision would be pleasing enough.
And, he was right. He debuted a pair of new songs, fighting through technical issues for the groovy “I Am A Very Rude Person.” At the top and near the end of the performance, he offered up two of his strongest Eraser-era songs, “The Clock” and “Cymbal Rush,” but that album remained mostly untouched.
The night ultimately played out like the other side of a coin to a Radiohead show. Yorke knows how to appease a mass audience — look at the number of times he dusted off “Creep” in the last couple years at music festivals. But existing without Radiohead, and without their revered canon, Yorke was just as brilliant and captivating as he is with the band. At the point in his career where he could easily rest on his laurels, his greatest attribute might be the fact that he never does.