Thursday, January 15, 2009

When I’m at the pearly gates, this’ll be on my videotape.

Radiohead with Grizzly Bear - 8/12/08
Susquehanna Bank Center, Camden, NJ

Sound Check - 4:30 PM:
I arrived in Camden 2 + hours before the gates of the venue were scheduled to open. While there were lots of friendly-looking folks tailgating in the parking lot, I decided to head over to the Susquehanna Bank Center, figuring that I’d find a bathroom and a drink of water after my 2 hour drive. As I approached the gates, I could hear Thom’s perfect, pure voice singing “Pull me out of the air crash, pull me out of the lake, for I’m your superhero, we are standing on the edge…” I probably don’t have to tell you what a thrill it was at the moment to hear them playing, seemingly, just for me. I couldn’t see anything, but if I put my face through the bars of the gate and closed my eyes, it really didn’t matter. The SOUND was perfect. It was a rare moment of really truly just listening to a group of amazing musicians-there was no crowd, no cheers, no one talking or singing along in the background-it was just them and me (well ok, 2 or 3 other people were there listening too). There were 2 teenage boys who couldn’t stop smiling—they were in complete awe—and eventually more of a crowd formed and the spell was broken. But for those several minutes of listening quietly to the sound check, it was much harder to think of them as gods- no matter how I would feel later- we were just human beings a few hundred feet away from each other that were momentarily connected.
[Besides ‘Lucky,’ they also played ‘I Might Be Wrong,’ ‘The Gloaming,’ and ‘Go Slowly.’]

The gates opened at 6:30 on the dot. The line stretched down the street. There were groups of teenagers, college kids, parents with children, loners (like me), thirty and forty somethings, even a few white hairs. I only had 2 people in line in front of me, so was one of the first people to enter the venue. Despite being slightly dehydrated and still needing to find a bathroom, I skipped all of the concession stands and walked passed the restrooms. Lawn seating is of course first come first serve, and I was not going to take a chance of getting a bad spot, especially since every spot is a bad spot if you’re as short as me. Luckily, I got a perfect spot, and the closest spot on the lawn. The only thing separating me from Thom were those yuppies in the expensive seats. I plopped my blanket down right against the railing at the bottom of the lawn, slightly right of center, which ensured an unobstructed view. Even if the entire seated crowd stood, or stood on their seats (which they did), I’d be able to see. And thank god – once the show started, the entire lawn stood, so even if I was on the incline, there’s no way I would’ve seen anything. It looked really unbelievable though, a complete sea of people, with no sign of grass anywhere, and 25,000 devoted fans. A nice couple seated to my right offered to watch my blanket while I went for a walk, and after I did the same for them, we talked for much of the night. They weren’t nearly as surprised as I was to learn that we were all from Baltimore (!), and they filled me in on some local bands (Fools and Horses—has anyone heard of them?).

It’s probably a good time to take issue with the recent comments from Liam Gallagher, of the highly overrated British band Oasis, who called Radiohead fans “boring and ugly.” I’d also like to dispute the stereotype that Radiohead fans are predominantly white, middle class, and morose. It was an amazing, beautiful, diverse crowd. My Baltimorean friends were white—he was originally from Philly and looked kind of like Flea—but the audience covered the spectrum. To my left were two Russian supermodel types, I could totally see their thongs when they sat down, and behind me were 2 young Asian students, a brother and sister, who spoke in heavily accented English. It was their first Radiohead show. There were young hipsters wearing brightly colored ties smoking thin cigars and wearing sunglasses after the sun went down, same-sex couples holding hands, the tattooed and pierced, the dreadlocked, and lots of intense looking young men. There were people talking, laughing, reading, dancing, smokin’ up. One of the security guards confiscated a joint from someone next to me, but suspiciously pocketed it. I don’t think he was going to turn it in to his supervisor. Definitely not a boring, ugly, or easy to pigeonhole crowd.

The opening band, the Brooklyn-based Grizzly Bear, played a pleasing set, but like most of the crowd, I was anxious for Radiohead. Prior to their last song, the lead singer thanked Radiohead and thanked the audience for listening to them “while waiting to be blown away.” I think that was the general consensus, Grizzly Bear were a good band, but we were all waiting to have our minds blown. And we did.

Shortly before 9 PM, Radiohead took the stage. Hearing and seeing Radiohead last night I felt what it must have been like to see Pink Floyd before Roger Waters left. While Thom is definitely the epicenter, the confluence of these 5 talented men is what’s made Radiohead work. While they’ve done some great things apart (Thom’s “Eraser,” Jonny’s composing), as a band they are preternatural. They opened with ’15 Step,’ the “In Rainbows” opener, to an awesome LED “light show”— energy efficient ‘lighting’ (think Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, but really cool)—and Thom’s wacky dancing, a cross between running in place and religious possession. I’m sorry, but this man is the definition of sexy—all wiry, lazy-eyed 5’5 of him, the author of ‘Fake Plastic Trees,’ with a falsetto that rivals Beth Gibbons’ of Portishead. For the majority of the night, he was playing guitar or playing piano, so had less opportunity to flail, although he was conducting the audience like a deranged maestro during ‘Idioteque.’ Jonny arrived wearing a dark hoodie covering his head which made him look strangely elf-like (I kept picturing Liv Tyler in Lord of the Rings), especially with his lanky body, head down, and hair covering his face. I saw a post on a RH fan site recently that asked “does Jonny Greenwood have Asperger’s?” Who knows, but he certainly plays like he’s possessed. He eventually took the hoodie off, looking more human, albeit pretty intense. At first I thought Ed was wearing a suit, looking all dapper and poised and tall. His backing vocals were stellar, especially on Weird Fishes. Colin looked like Colin—happy and wearing a white tee, while it was pretty hard to see Phil, except for the top of his bald head. They were all pretty quiet between songs, with Thom’s occasional “thank yous” and “cheers.” More than that was unnecessary.

They played an amazing set, including 2 encores, lasting over 2 hours. They played every song from “In Rainbows” as well as ’Go Slowly’ from disc 2, which Thom dedicated to “everybody up in the lawn.” But while “In Rainbows” dominated the setlist, they played songs from all of their albums (if you count ‘Morning Bell’ for “Amnesiac”). ‘The National Anthem’ was a killer, followed by ‘Videotape’ which made my eyes well up. They even did ‘Street Spirit’ to end the first encore--the songs from “The Bends” were pleasantly unexpected (they also did ‘Just,’ ‘The Bends,’ & ‘Planet Telex’). During ‘No Surprises’ it was pretty chill inducing to hear 25,000 people sing “bring down the government, they don’t speak for us” and then cheer wildly. There were many other highlights of the night: Thom and Jonny playing ‘Faust Arp’ alone, hearing ‘Lucky’ at sound check and then again during the show—‘Lucky!’, thinking the show was over and then starting the second encore with a brilliant ‘Reckoner.’ The show ended just as it began—with pure theatrics. They played “Everything in Its Right Place”—there’s something right with the world when thousands of people are singing “yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”—and ended with each band member leaving the stage while the others continued the song. Thom left first, then Jonny, and so on, with the LED lights finally converging to spell “Everything in Its Right Place.”

It’s difficult for me to describe the experience, just as it’s difficult for me to separate them as a band and individual musicians, from their politics and activism, their totally ‘green tour’ (the LED lights, no plastic, having their equipment shipped, etc), their giving away their album for free on the internet, their other musical accomplishments. When you enter the venue and are immediately handed information about human trafficking, you expect to have a different kind of evening. When Radiohead hired consultants to determine how to reduce their carbon footprint on this tour, they got some flack for being high-brow do-gooders, but were also called hypocrites (Damon Albarn from Blur and Gorillaz criticized them for touring at all). So what does this have to do with music? Well, a lot, I think. Their persona as a band is partly why they have such a devoted following. Let’s face it, if you’re an arch conservative, you probably don’t love Radiohead, despite the fact that they are probably the most talented and groundbreaking band in my lifetime. By definition they do attract a different kind of fan. How else would a band who hasn’t had a “hit” song played on the radio since the early 1990s thrive as one of the world’s most successful and beloved bands? They’ve accomplished this with virtually no mainstream radio play since ‘Creep’ in the early 1990s. Personally I think that’s what’s given them the creative freedom to do an album like ‘Kid A’ – they’ve never been part of the mainstream, so they’ve been able to continue pushing the boundaries musically without any negative repercussions. On the contrary, they are loved because they are fucking amazing musically, and therefore haven’t been accountable to your typical radio listening top 40 audience. Sure, they’re multimillionaires now, but releasing ‘In Rainbows’ on the internet under a “pay what you want” model was a risk, just like everything else they do.
A band like Radiohead is also very freeing for a fan. Sure, everyone has their favorite songs, but since they have no “hits” the people who go to hear them live aren’t waiting for ‘Creep’ (which they do not play anymore, hell they don’t even play ‘High and Dry,’ ‘Paranoid Android’ or ‘Karma Police’). Their fans are there because they know their 7 albums and many of the bootlegs and b-sides. Radiohead can draw on their extensive musical catalogue (as they did last night) and put on an awesome show—there are no limitations.

Strangely, the whole experience felt pretty intimate. Being there with 25,000 people, standing on a small ledge of concrete against a metal railing, I experienced something I haven’t in a long time. I was completely focused on the present. I didn’t think about work, I didn’t think about anyone else, I didn’t even think about myself. I just listened, saw, felt. Happiest I’ve been. Jigsaw falling into place.

Setlist: (thanks to the At Ease website)
01. 15 Step
02. There There
03. Morning Bell
04. All I Need
05. The National Anthem
06. Videotape
07. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
08. The Gloaming
09. Where I End And You Begin
10. Faust Arp (before starting, Thom: “Good evening Jonny. How are you?”)
11. No Surprises
12. Jigsaw (before starting, Thom: “Okay. You ready?” Crowd roars.)
13. The Bends
14. Idioteque
15. Climbing Up The Walls
16. Nude
17. Bodysnatchers
Encore 1
18. House of Cards
19. Lucky (Thom: “Okay”)
20. Go Slowly (Thom: “This one is for everybody. Everybody up in the lawn … This is a slow song for a good reason.”)
21. Just
22. Street Spirit
Encore 2
23. Reckoner
24. Planet Telex
25. Everything In Its Right Place

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