Artistic Grace

Radiohead

Hutchinson Field - Chicago

August 1, 2001

First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2001, Volume 8, #9

Written by John Metzger

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Each of Radiohead's last four albums (The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, and Amnesiac) has found the group slowly, but surely dismantling and redefining rock's well-worn institution. With the commencement of the second leg of its jaunt across North America, the band now has turned its attention towards reconfiguring another industry standard the summer tour. Rather than mindlessly moving from amphitheater to amphitheater, all of which increasingly have the same drab appearance and atmosphere, the band has chosen to keep things interesting by performing in a variety of fields and parks.

On August 1, a makeshift venue was created in Chicago's Hutchinson Field a sprawling meadow of baseball fields nestled among skyscrapers, Soldier Field, and the shore of Lake Michigan. Amazingly, the show went off without a hitch, and the venue proved to be far superior to any of the alternatives. With the exception of those who insisted upon being closest to the band, the capacity crowd of 25,000 fans had plenty of room to maneuver the spacious area. Large screens flanked the stage and captured genius at work, and the sound system was not only amply loud but also crystal clear, allowing each breathtaking note and subtle nuance to be heard.

As for Radiohead, they turned in a flawless performance, bringing many of their esoteric, otherworldly excursions full circle. Rather than the dark, desolate, isolationist soundscapes that bleakly pour from Radiohead's recorded works, the group's songs took on more vibrant life in a concert setting. Tracks from Amnesiac and Kid A railed against society, while opening into sprawling opuses that were impossible to resist. The band still succeeded in improvising and experimenting, but they did so within a more rock-oriented idiom. Pyramid Song's off-kilter waltz mutated into a prog-rock composition as swirling keyboards swallowed the selection's stumbling drum beat; Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box and The National Anthem violently pushed spirited, fuzzed-out bass lines against driving rhythms; and Everything in Its Right Place ensconced singer Thom Yorke's obsessive-compulsive mantra within layers of broiling synthesizers and keyboards.

Even older material felt free and revitalized, providing different textures and playgrounds in which Radiohead could operate. Pablo Honey's Lurgee raged with all the fiery fuel of The Velvet Underground, while Lucky borrowed heavily from the crunchy psychedelia of Pink Floyd. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood stabbed at My Iron Lung with Hendrix-like glee, and Paranoid Android mutated from acoustic folk-rock to crash and burn guitar to space-filled swirl, all within the span of a few minutes.

Through it all cut Yorke's liquid phrasing, his voice emoting a sad despair as well as a hopeful yearning. This duality perfectly captured his thoughts on mankind and radiated them back through his lyrics. Whether Radiohead's fans were inspired towards action remains to be seen, but at least, for the moment, they are still listening. And given the challenges the band has thrown at them through its artistically graceful endeavors, that is quite an accomplishment one that shouldn't be taken lightly.

The Beta Band opened the show with a 45-minute set of songs that blended the sounds of the late '60s with those of the early '00s, allowing Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and The Kinks to commingle with U2, the Stone Roses, and, of course, Radiohead. While the Beta Band's songs never surpassed any of their influences, they still served a delicious dish of psychedelic rock for a hazy, summer afternoon. DJ Kid Koala performed a 15-minute mini-set in the middle slot, utilizing sounds and styles to paint shades of emotion.

Amnesiac is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright 2001 The Music Box