MELBOURNE, Australia -- The arena was sweltering. But Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood was on fire.
When he wasn't tearing into a guitar riff, darting around the stage at Festival Hall or tuning into obscure local radio stations on Sunday, the man with the sharpest axe stood behind the xylophone or keyboards, coaxing strange noises seemingly out of nowhere.
"It was good," Greenwood said of the rising room temperature and his fiery stage presence at the Hall that night. "I think because you feel like fainting, it gives an air of lunacy to the whole thing, makes the performance just a little more wired."
Radiohead have been subjected to some ridiculous comparisons over the years -- Queen and Pink Floyd among them -- but their performance at Festival Hall went some way to explaining that tendency.
Like those two '70s-rock arena bands, Radiohead are able to create grand, hyper-emotional moments that are almost overblown in their reach. Like Queen and Pink Floyd, Radiohead are also not adverse to a little highly conceptual wordplay. Unlike Queen, however, Radiohead avoid stadium rock clichés like the plague, preferring to create excitement with their own highly structured and idiosyncratic arrangements and sense of dynamic. And unlike Pink Floyd, Radiohead's concepts never overwhelm the music.
Greenwood in particular was inventive that night, summoning sometimes unbelievable squalls of noise out of his guitar and occasionally substituting on keyboards and even xylophone for the delicate opening of "No Surprises" (RealAudio excerpt) -- a song that singer Thom Yorke dedicated, with heavy sarcasm, to the World Bank.
The audience, sweating in the heat of the arena, reacted with a curious combination of stunned reverence and ecstatic applause. Perhaps the band's signs posted outside the venue requesting no moshing or stage-diving had fans confused -- or maybe it was just that this performance required more than the normal powers of concentration.
The band tramped onstage to the robotic mantra featured on its album
OK Computer: "Getting on better with your associate employee
contemporaries, at ease ... No paranoia," it droned, like some benign computer overlord lecturing a hall full of human worker-drones. The set opened with "Lucky," the slow-burning anthem that first cropped up on the Warchild fund-raiser album, Help, in 1995. With Greenwood's tortured guitar riffs and a bleakly relentless chorus -- "Pull me out of the air crash, pull me out of the lake" -- it proved a strange choice for an opener; but then, this band seems intent on subverting the established rock-show etiquette all the way down the line.
Nine of OK Computer's 12 tracks were featured in the set. "Karma
Police" saw diminutive frontman Yorke howling "I've given all I can -- it's not enough" like a spurned lover. Meanwhile, the swirl of dub noise phasing all over the speaker stacks gave the insidious "Climbing Up The Walls" an even more claustrophobic air than the album version. That song also gave guitarist Greenwood a chance to flail around with a shortwave radio transmitter, interjecting samples of Melbourne's airwave fodder into
the mix. Perhaps it was a case of "If local commercial radio won't play us, we'll play them." "I spend about 20 minutes tuning in some local radio stations
before the show," Greenwood said. "There’s always the danger that Huey Lewis and the News are going to turn up in an inappropriate part of the song -- but that’s all part of the fun, I suppose."
The band enjoyed themselves in a heads down, reserved English way, that is until Yorke broke from his usual quiet demeanor to demand that the air conditioning be turned on, then performed a theatrical double-take at the news that there was, apparently, no air conditioning -- "Oh, great," he said.
Perhaps overheated, if not burned out, the band exited after a gorgeous rendition of "Fake Plastic Trees" (RealAudio excerpt) -- but the crowd was having none of that. Yorke re-emerged to perform a lovely solo take of "Thinking About You," a simple love song from Pablo Honey that threw the band's more recent, complex material into sharp relief. The band (bassist Colin Greenwood, drummer Phil Selway and guitarists Ed O'Brien and Greenwood) then joined its singer for a three-song encore that covered "The Bends," "Street Spirit" and that psychedelic flotation-device, "Subterranean Homesick Alien."
Hoping to capture some of Radiohead's energy live, the band has hired someone to document the tour, Greenwood said. "He sat down and watched it all back-to-back the other night -- and said it was funny to note how perky we all are at the start of the tour," he explained, "and how rounded our shoulders and dark around the eyes we become as the tour progresses."
With their tour winding down, the band must now consider where to take their music. If you ask Greenwood, there's no sign of Radiohead slowing down. "Well, we keep getting told by our manager that we have to take the summer off, which just sounds awful," he said. "I'm bored already at the thought of stopping for any length of time." [Thurs., Feb. 5, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]