The sold-out Greek Theater in Berkeley is silent. Thom Yorke is onstage with an acoustic guitar and Jonny Greenwood is off to his left, standing in front of a laptop. Yorke begins the first few bars of “Give Up the Ghost” and we hear it echo back. The two exchange a few glances and it’s clear—that’s not a pre-recorded track. They’re creating the loop right there on the spot, in front of all 9,000 of us.
Not even Radiohead is perfect. Something is off. Yorke knows it; Greenwood knows it. They try to sort it out. They keep pushing through, but Yorke is rattled. “Aw sheeeeeeeit,” he says into the mic, diffusing the tension. The audience bursts out laughing. The loop continues, now a mix of Yorke’s haunting vocals, followed by “aw sheeeeeeeit” and then crowd laughter. Yet, they persist! For about 10 seconds. Yorke can’t take it anymore and cracks up. They start over and nail it on the next take.
By the end of the song, I realize I have tears streaming down my face. I don’t even know why.
I had been nervous about going to this show. Radiohead is one of the most influential and important bands of my generation, but if I’m honest, a lot of their music goes over my head. That’s been especially true in recent years. To make matters worse, Radiohead fans can be intellectually intimidating. They’re able to dissect and analyze songs the same way sommeliers talk about wine.
It’s next-level fandom, and I’m not in the club.
I saw the band once before back in 1998, shortly after OK Computer was released. They’ve evolved more than any other band from this era, but I still have trouble letting go of the alt-rock, radio-friendly version of Radiohead that defined my early adolescence. The Bends remains one of my favorite records; it sounds like home. But that’s not who they are anymore, so I didn’t know what to expect.
Now it’s 2017 and Radiohead is on the second leg of a world tour supporting their ninth album, last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool. With only 10 U.S. dates, two of which are headlining Coachella, I’m shocked they’re doing back-to-back shows at the Greek. While sound problems and technical glitches disappointed fans down south at Coachella’s opening weekend, reports of their first night in Berkeley suggested a flawless and redemptive performance.
Radiohead comes on right at 7:35 p.m. after a high-energy set from openers Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis. “Daydreaming” is the first song, and it sets the mood for the whole night. Not even a full minute into the song, I’m completely mesmerized by the soundscape and the visual effects, and realize I am a wash of emotion. I’m not picking apart the musical elements of the song—I’m far too busy feeling.
As the set continues, I get deeper in it. The push and pull of emotion from song to song is masterful. The transition from old material to new is seamless, impressive to anyone familiar with their catalogue. (For a fun exercise, try listening to 1993’s Pablo Honey and 2012’s The King of Limbs back-to-back.) Maybe this is what I’ve been missing about Radiohead in the last 10-15 years. I may not understand their music on a granular level, but I don’t need to. What’s resonating with me more is the emotion each song evokes.
I feel hope during “Airbag.” I feel grief during “Videotape.” I feel fear during “The National Anthem.” During “15 Step,” I feel joy.
This is not to say that their technical prowess is lost on me. It’s not. All six musicians are at the top of their game. The three guitar players—Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Yorke—have some of the most unique effects and frankly weird guitar sounds out there. Watching them re-create those parts live is a treat. Greenwood, who also plays piano, keyboards and ondes Martenot (looks like an organ, sounds like a Theramin), even played his guitar with a bow at times. O’Brien has more guitar pedals on his rig than I’ve seen in some shops. Yorke put his guitar on the floor and hit it during a song.
The rhythm section—bassist Colin Greenwood (Jonny’s older brother), drummer Philip Selway and touring percussionist Clive Deamer—are the glue that hold the chaos together. The two drummers work in tandem. When they play in unison, they truly sound like one person, and when they play different parts, they fill in all the spaces with the kind of versatility you’d expect from five percussionists in a pit orchestra. Colin Greenwood is the secret weapon standing in the back. Without his driving and occasionally spine-chilling bass lines, everything would fall apart.
All topped off, of course, by Yorke’s haunting voice, which easily travels in and out of falsetto, and even in and out of pitch with intentionality and purpose. Each note and tone is chosen for a reason.
“Karma Police,” the last song of the night, is over. The band takes a bow and Yorke walks to the front of the stage, strumming the chords to the outro. Without provocation, the crowd sings: “For a minute there, I lost myself. I lost myself. I lost myself.”
Desert Island Disk
Climbing Up the Walls
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Where I End and You Begin
The National Anthem
How to Disappear Completely
Give Up the Ghost
House of Cards