28 August 2008

Everything in, and not in, its right place

Eds. Note: Today we have a very special treat for you readers and Radiohead fans: a guest blog from our friend, journalist and fellow blogger Jeremy Edwards. Here, he reports on the experience of the Radiohead show recently performed just south of Seattle, WA. This was originally published August 24th and is reprinted with gracious permission. Please check out his great Music Review blog, "Don't Fear The Reaper," at http://therecordreaper.blogspot.com. Enjoy!

I felt bad for the people on the lawn. It was Radiohead's first Seattle-area show in five years, and it had been raining for way too long. And it wasn't a brush-it-off-or-ignore-it kind of rain; it was a wind-driven, spoil-sport kind of rain. I was chilly but relatively dry in my 200-level seat of Auburn's White River Amphitheatre, but those people on the lawn were beyond the shelter of the venue's roof. Those people looked pained. Even Thom Yorke, playing hundreds of feet below, must have noticed, because he announced to the lighting technicians, "We have one request: Please, if we could see everyone on the lawn." Floodlights flashed on, illuminating a sea of bodies. The 20,000-capacity amphitheater had sold out in what seemed like only minutes back when tickets went on sale in April. Yorke looked at the sea of humanity; he looked at the people on the lawn. "I hope you're warm and dry," he said.

Radiohead Concert Poster for Seattle

It was August, but it sure didn't feel like August on Wednesday night, when Radiohead brought the masses to Auburn, nakedly out of place among the big cities on their world tour itinerary. Opening band Liars spoke to as much when lead singer Angus Andrew commented on the area's history of "Native Americans and such" in accordance with the fact that the venue was on the Muckleshoot reservation. "We want to tap into that with a little drumming and a little screaming," he said, before testing the limits of his vocal cords.

Liars played to a scattered crowd of maybe 5,000, churning out their polyrhythms and guitar spirals as large bald patches wound through the seated sections. With a 7:30 start time and Radiohead not due till more than an hour later, any band would have found it challenging to hold people's attention. Liars didn't really try. Andrew bounced up and down on the stage and, perhaps channeling the schlock-metal denizens the amphitheater is more known for, slobbered out banter that could have come from Spinal Tap: "We wanna get you warmed up"; "Wow!"; "Are you guys excited?"; "Go get your popcorn and get ready." Needless to say, it was at odds with their image as provocateurs.

When Radiohead took the stage at 9:05, after stringing together a network of chime-shaped tubes, the contrast couldn't be overstated. Yorke handled the banter, and his stance was definitely "less talk, more rock." The tubes their crew had erected refracted live video feeds of the band, throwing closeups of their expressions, arms or instruments onto giant screens. The screens to the left and right of the stage were split up into four sections, a la The Beatles' "Let It Be" album cover. The one in the center of the stage had six. As the show progressed, panels moved and footage changed hue with the lighting effects, ensuring that no matter how high up someone was sitting, there was plenty to look at. (I'd like to show you what this grand display looked like, but apparently no photographer bothered to scale the stairs to take a perspective shot.) Perhaps the most powerful convergence of visual and audio came during "Lucky," when the overhead lights burst into bright red as the band hit the chorus. It was as if their guitars flipped the switch.

Naturally, "In Rainbows" figured heavily into the set, with the band playing all of the album tracks except "House of Cards." "Reckoner" inspired a huge cheer from the audience members, but it also revealed that a large minority weren't intimately familiar with the song, thinking it was over after the bridge and applauding prematurely.

"Kid A" material took up the bulk of the rest, with twice as many songs coming from that album as the next. This cut "The Bends" out of the loop except for the keening "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," a curious decision, considering that "The Bends" is filled with traditionally structured rock songs and would have fit in well with the "In Rainbows" selections. "Hail to the Thief" also was given short shrift, but that was understandable, given Yorke's comments in interviews about not being entirely satisfied with it.

Most songs were immaculate technically but felt restrained, although Yorke loosened up somewhat after false starts on "Faust Arp." A few longed for their studio touches. "The National Anthem," for instance, really missed its squall of horns. Overall, though, the set was solid.

And Radiohead played not one, but two, encores. (The stagehand wheeling the piano out after the first encore was a good indication that another was to come.) The first featured a surprise appearance by the band's longtime producer, Nigel Godrich, introduced by the always economical Yorke: "This is Nigel. He makes our records." Godrich took up tambourine on "In Limbo." In the second encore, we learned that Yorke's favorite thing about Seattle is the way protests sprouted up during the World Trade Organization conference there in 1999. That remark kicked off "You and Whose Army?" And then, solidarity built (if it wasn't already), Yorke looked up to the people on the lawn and made his request. "No Surprises" followed, tailor-made for sing-alongs, and everybody clapped unprompted--the best kind--to the final song, "Everything in Its Right Place."

After that, however, everything got out of hand. Everyone headed for the parking lot(s), a large contingent of us toward the school buses we took on the 30-minute ride to the venue. Now, one would think that if an amphitheater sold some 20,000 tickets and if the band was environmentally conscious (like, say, Radiohead), the coordinators might want to have plenty of buses available. Instead, venue staff herded our alternative-travel army out to the plaza, then stopped us, shoulder to shoulder, in a giant logjam. Hemmed in by the concrete walls and shuttered food booths, we could only stand there, wondering what could possibly be preventing us from moving forward. Raindrops gleamed ominously on barbed wire atop the wall to my left, separating the venue from what appeared to be a trucking business.

The mood was positive; it would take a lot to dim the post-concert glow. A few folks tossed around an inflatable shark, giving it the beachball treatment. Still, as 10 minutes stretched into 20 and 20 stretched into 40, people began to grumble. They were tired. They were hungry. They were thirsty. They were wet. They were cold. With the show on a weeknight, many had to be up by 7 a.m. or earlier for work. Some enterprising souls decided to cut through the trucking business, aiming to hop a fence, but supervisors turned them back. One fellow in front of me braced two friends, hobbled by a leg or foot injury. "Freeeeeedommmmmmmmm!" he cried in mock exasperation. And so it was that I became who I pitied, one of the people on the lawn, soaked and cold. Except we all were on blacktop now.

An hour went by. The nearest parking lot had emptied. It began rain harder. Two people in uniform made their way through the crowd. "There's really not a lot going on up there," one said, informing the questioners. "They're just standing around, waiting for the buses." Clearly, each bus was making several round-trips, burning up fuel at its 6-miles-per-gallon rate. How was this better for the environment than simply carpooling? Surely, Radiohead, whose merch booths had trumpeted "you can make a difference" in regard to $40 T-shirts made from reclaimed plastic bottles, would be aghast.

At the 75-minute mark, I squeezed onto a bus, 3,000 people, or possibly 4,000, still stranded. Directing people to the buses, a testy traffic guard instructed the driver, "It's a charter; they can stand."

15 Step
There There
All I Need
Pyramid Song
Talk Show Host
The National Anthem
The Gloaming
Faust Arp
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Climbing Up the Walls
Dollars & Cents
How to Disappear Completely
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
In Limbo
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
[Second encore]
You and Whose Army?
No Surprises
Everything in Its Right Place

Radiohead - Nude (live).mp3
Radiohead - Reckoner (live).mp3

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I tried to buy tickets the moment they went on sale and I still got put in the lawn. I was SOAKING WET the entire time but it was worth every second. Absolutely life changing.