NEW YORK — As Thom Yorke strummed the beginning of Radiohead's current single, "There There," on a sunburst hollow-body Thursday night, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien banged tribal beats on tom-tom drums.
Yorke moaned, "Just 'cause you feel it doesn't mean it's there," and the crowd reacted with loud cheers, feeling the pathos and intensity Radiohead have engendered since their inception. After a two-year hiatus, it was clear: The band that makes most English rock seem pale and pasty by comparison was back at full force.
The singer flopped his head from side to side while bassist Colin Greenwood stood rooted in place at the back of the stage, bobbing his head to the beat. Four minutes into the song, Jonny dropped his sticks, donned a guitar and plucked an angular, minor-key arpeggio as the song increased in intensity.
"There There" set a dramatic tone for the two-hour show — the band's first in North America in almost two years — which featured a range of electronic-filled, noisy guitar-based and melodic pop songs that spanned the past 13 years of Radiohead's recording career.
Throughout the show, the bandmembers demonstrated how versatile they've become as musicians, playing a variety of tones and textures that ranged from clattery and dissonant to beautifully atmospheric. As adept and integral as they were on their primary instruments, everyone except drummer Phil Selway took breaks to play pianos, keyboards, samples and other electronic gizmos strewn around the stage.
During the haunting "Climbing up the Walls," Jonny manipulated buttons on a noise box, clutching the instrument to his chest like a kid with his favorite toy, and for a dread-fueled "Everything in its Right Place," Jonny and Ed dropped to their knees to create otherworldly sounds on rows of effect pedals.
When he wasn't strumming a guitar or caressing a piano, Yorke was alone with the microphone, and while he showed off his perfected bobble-head move when he sang, during instrumental breaks he broke into a few goofy and demented dances that made him look like a cross between Martin Short's nerdy Ed Grimley character and Spike Jonze.
For the skittering beats of "Kid A," Yorke flapped his arms, then raised them above his head and wiggled them asymmetrically. On "Backdrifts" he spun around in circles like the Tasmanian Devil on his way to a piano at the back of the stage, and in "Idioteque" he pranced and wriggled like a manic chicken.
Radiohead played nine songs from their new album, Hail to the Thief, but paced them so they didn't interrupt the flow of hits. One hot spot was album opener "2+2=5," a majestic number with skewed guitars that features the cynical and cryptic lyric "Are you such a dreamer to put the world to rights?/ I'll stay home forever where two and two always make a five." Other memorable moments included the jangly, insistent "Go to Sleep" and the drifty "Sail to the Moon," which echoed with an ominous beauty reminiscent of something from Angelo Badalamenti's "Twin Peaks" soundtrack.
Of the new material, the crowd reacted most strongly to "Go to Sleep," which could have been an outtake from The Bends, but the highlight of the night was "Sit Down, Stand Up," which started with a baleful melody in which Yorke moaned, "Walk into the jaws of hell," and peaked as O'Brien left the side of the stage, clutched a microphone and joined Yorke for the frenetic, climactic repeated chant of "Oh, the rain drops" as Yorke jogged in place.
As exhilarating as moments like these were, reflective new songs like "Punch up at a Wedding" and "Scatterbrain" momentarily sapped the crowd's energy level until the band bounced back with a more energized track.
There were no surprises when Radiohead launched into the xylophone-embellished track "No Surprises," but it was refreshing to see Yorke at a piano singing Neil Young's pensive "After the Gold Rush" as a lead-in to "Everything in Its Right Place." And it was exhilarating to see Radiohead play "Kid A" and "Fake Plastic Trees," songs that haven't been part of their recent repertoire. The latter proved conclusively where bands like Coldplay and Starsailor learned their chops.
The first of three encores began with "I Might Be Wrong," which sounded a little messy, but the band quickly recovered with Hail to the Thief's "The Gloaming," in which Jonny lifted the lid of a laptop computer and created crazy sounds through the art of typing.
A couple of songs later it was time for encore number two and "Karma Police," which Yorke dedicated to "people ruining their lives through seriously bad karma," followed by "Lucky," which began with O'Brien creating eerie sounds by strumming his strings at the headstock. After the song ended, the band exited and retired backstage. But it wasn't quite time to rest for Yorke, who returned for the solo acoustic "True Love Waits."
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