Radiohead’s most recent record, The King of Limbs, was released in February of 2011 but, aside from a few shows in 2011, the band didn’t really start touring on the album until February of this year. Such is the luxury afforded a band like Radiohead, who can do pretty much what they want at this point in their career. The tour finally brought Radiohead to the Philly area on Wednesday June 13, at the Susquehanna Bank Center.
It’s been a hallmark of Radiohead’s live shows, at least since 2000’s Kid A, for them to reimagine the songs from their experimental, challenging albums into accessible, arena rock-friendly anthems. This was especially a point of interest approaching a concert where they were touring on The King of Limbs, possibly the most challenging and poorly-reviewed Radiohead album since 2001’s Amnesiac (although “poorly-reviewed” in Radiohead terms translates to “mostly favorable reviews” instead of “universal acclaim”). For the most part, Radiohead didn’t disappoint in “arena rocking” The King of Limbs. In particular, “Bloom” and “Lotus Flower” benefitted from a propulsive, driving rhythm section, due in large part to the addition of Portishead drummer Clive Deamer on a second drum kit. On the other hand, the dubstep-inspired “Feral” didn’t get much of an update, staying faithful to its abstract, loopy album version. Its performance wasn’t helped by Thom Yorke’s voice, which sounded strained and rough throughout the night.
Another big question mark going into this show, particularly among those who follow Radiohead religiously, was which of the brand new, unreleased songs that they’ve been work-shopping on this tour (“Identikit”, “Skirting On The Surface”, “Cut A Hole”, and “Full Stop”) would make an appearance on this night’s setlist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer was “Identikit”; the one that they’ve been playing the most on tour (but not the best of the bunch: arguably, “Skirting on the Surface” wins that award so far).
Otherwise, Radiohead’s setlist drew heavily on their most recent albums. Unlike their 2008 tour supporting In Rainbows, no songs from The Bends made an appearance, and even OK Computer was only represented by two songs (“Lucky” and “Paranoid Android”). On the other hand, post-The King of Limbs non-album B-side single “Staircase” did make an appearance (despite the fact that it’s A-side, “The Daily Mail”, would have been a better choice).
Aside from re-imaging their songs, Radiohead are also known for providing a pretty decent spectacle at their live shows. On their 2008 tour, this was accomplished through large light pillars that hung from the ceiling, and almost down to the stage in some places. They flashed in nearly every color imaginable, and provided a very direct, immediate compliment to the music. On this tour, they’re attempting to accomplish the same effect through giant, movable screens that are suspended above the stage. While this did compliment the music well on some songs – they were positioned face-down during “15 Step”, and flashed white, almost giving the appearance of the band playing in a small venue – they mostly did not contribute as much to the performance as the stage set-up for Radiohead’s In Rainbows tour did.
Overall, given the increasing rarity that Radiohead tour the US, any opportunity to catch them live is a special occasion. It may not have been the overall experience that the In Rainbows tour provided, but an average Radiohead show is still better than one put on by almost any other arena rock band.
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