I never imagined it would be the last time I saw the Twin Towers upright instead of in a smoldering pile of lost innocence.
And I’d bet Radiohead were thinking the same thing.
Nearly 15 years after I last saw the genre-bending UK rock legends at a music festival—in New York City just one month before the day that will forever live in American infamy—I set out to travel across Europe and fulfill a dream to see them in that wonderful and currently crisis-filled land.
In some ways it was the same world. Some things had gotten better. So much had gotten worse. Mostly, though, things had just changed. Everywhere.
The same could be said for Radiohead’s art.
It’s also now been a decade and a half since the Oxfordshire, England, lads separated themselves from all of their musical peers and, let’s be honest, the rest of the human race, lifting off to the double dimension of rarified air that Kid A and Amnesiac inhabit.
Those albums were big, bold and unwaveringly blazing a path in a unique realm. At the time, I remember feeling like I’d discovered a lost city as the sounds of both records bounced off the walls of my college apartment. Inspiration like that then led me to study abroad, Radiohead soundtracking my walks through Versailles and strolls under the Sistine Chapel for humanities class farther away from my Tampa, Fla, school desk than I could ever imagine.
With years increasing my yearning for a return to the blurs of Europe again, and a new Radiohead record bringing my passions for the band back, I returned to a country and a band wrapped in growing pains for different reasons.
This time, in a changed continent known for changing, it was a band known for changing, too, that was ready to unveil a new show full of fragile masterpieces off their new A Moon Shaped Pool. Frontman Thom Yorke was seemingly ready to play the hell out of these personal songs about his recent wrenching breakup from longtime partner Rachel Owen. My European Radiohead-following brethren would be receiving me among them—and receiving these new songs. Was anyone prepared for this journey that surrounded us…on and off stage?
The world was different back in the Kid A days, the Amnesiac days. It felt like anything was possible before the attack on the United States, in the glow of France’s gifted statue in the harbors of New York. Radiohead’s twin tower album release represented that. It had been so long since that kind of freeform creativity changed the tide. I remember seeing a headline for a story about the band in the aftermath, simply dubbing them “Punk Floyd.”
Then followed three just-pretty-good-for-a-Radiohead-album albums, each one bringing them slightly closer back into the orbit of the rest of the musical reality we all live in. Certainly, after knocking it out of the galaxy—not just the park (twice no less)—Radiohead could be forgiven for not going back into the creative depths of maddeningly murky waters and just having fun knocking around and playing some regular tunes.
It seemed like we’d seen the best of Radiohead, until 2016 came around. Suddenly there were rumors of band members spotted near studios with random orchestral instruments coming and going. Then the band’s presence disappeared from social media. And then, boom, we had a new record.
And what a Radiohead record it was.
The sound of A Moon Shaped Pool is, again, totally unique. But this time instead of reinventing the wheel, the sound Radiohead emits here in the present day is one of a group of musicians in lockstep. It oozes with confidence of musicianship, a subtle swagger that only a group of guys constantly reinventing cool can pull off. Moreover, it’s a portrait of Thom Yorke & Co. painting with a palette they’ve amazingly always avoided—straightforward emotion in the form of a lyrical (and musical) breakup review. The result is, once again, an epiphany moment for the band and its loving legions.
And both were seemingly chomping at the bit to see the songs hit the road. Here, there and not really everywhere. Radiohead rolled out an oddball list of tour dates that brought them to all kinds of corners of the earth, mostly via festivals and like a beautiful geographical puzzle laid out like one of their masterpiece records.
After initial stops in the UK and then “brexiting” to the most popular of EU destinations, they marked a slithering soundscape throughout the politically charged continent. There were questions to be asked, answered and experiences to be broadened in live settings in far-flung forests and focus points across myriad oceans.
Only then would they come back to an equally odd America. This week, in fact, back in New York City of course.
But I couldn’t wait until then. For so many reasons—most being as intangible as the intertwined pull of forces that make the quilt of Radiohead’s music so warmly fulfilling in ways that cannot always be spoken. For whatever reason, or for obvious reasons you might say, one of the places they’d set off to spread the word of the Moon Shaped Pool was in the hidden riddle of the forests deep in Switzerland.
So, to those solemnly secretive and antiquely decorative medieval streets of St. Gallen I followed. The Open Air St. Gallen Festival was a wondrous little thing, a fest tucked away in the sleepiest of moss mountain towns: a stone’s throw from a city play-walking a tight rope between the past and the present.
Inside the festival there was music and masses and mud. Lots of mud. The festival was short on pomp and long on understated majesty provided by the encircling hills and greenery, the perfect place for Radiohead to provide what seemed like a singular treat for all in attendance.
A Moon Shaped Pool opener “Burn the Witch”—sonically out of place on the album—fit like a glove kicking off the Swiss show, enthralling the crowd with a slower burn more fitting of the track. The mystical whir of “Daydreaming” and the chill grooves of “Decks Dark” and “Desert Island Disk” captivated nicely, right into the thematic rabble rousing of “Ful Stop.”
Satisfying the exact 1-through-5 running order of the new album, which will double as this tour’s setlist opening sequences, Radiohead then plowed through a run to satisfy the band’s most fervent fanatics. The beautiful angst of OK Computer live rarities “Lucky” and “No Surprises” were sandwiched between famed B-side rocker “Talk Show Host” and King of Limbs standout “Lotus Flower.” They punctuated those enlivening choices with Amnesiac lead single “Pyramid Song,” a magical choice in the damp glowing aura of the Swiss evening.
A few newer tunes ornamented the rest of the run, which also included the Kid A double whammy of “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Idioteque.” The meat of the set closed with a real old-school pick, the emotive rocker from The Bends days, “Street Spirit (Fade Out).”
The first encore included live staple “Paranoid Android” surrounded by latter-stage Radiohead nuggets like “Bloom” and “There There.” The final encore was the real gem, though, laid out via a tandem of OK Computer album cogs.
The predecessor to the Kid A/Amnesiac years, 1997’s OK Computer first found the band wallowing in the preeminent Y2K heebie jeebies. That mood still resonates posthaste, like when the band crept through the cathartic “Exit Music (For A Film)” and “Karma Police.” The latter found Yorke connecting with the audience in a new, more personal way than ever, singing an a capella refrain to the show closer.
Then it was over, the fluorescent hum of stage lights carrying into the thick fog of the wee hours that was the spectacular foliage of night. A tour bus carrying Yorke, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, his bassist brother Colin and longtime lynchpins guitarist Ed O’Brien and drummer Phil Selway out of the front gate, onto the swirling motorway and across Europe.
Again, I followed closely behind.
A solemn stop in the French capitol of Paris and its surrounding cities of worldly offerings were up first on the map in between Radiohead’s St. Gallen, Switzerland, show and their next stop in Lisbon, Portugal. In France, during the Euro 2016 soccer tournament and in the wake of recent attacks (and now, in retrospect, the Nice disaster), a palpable veil of the uncertain and unsafe shrouded the country. Café commerce and natural and preternatural prettiness was interrupted by bullet-ridden store fronts and jarring hate vandalism scrolled on some cityscape. Still, the everyday people showed strength and life, willing to help one music-fueled traveler reach their border and then push across Spain on a Night Train To Lisbon.
It sounds like Radiohead’s next album title.
The band’s next performance was what was on deck, headlining the NOS Alive Festival.
Leading up to it, I walked the streets of Lisbon. The vibrations were sunnier. Warmer. And not just because of the weather. All walks of ethnicities mixed in the Euro 2016 Mixed Zone where they showed the triumphs of the country’s national team, and that squad’s Thom Yorke—Cristiano Ronaldo—orchestrated the feelings of millions. That is to say, millions of native Lisboans and the throng of tourists who wanted to play as one with the Portuguese. We chatted in hotel lobbies, eating Portugal’s Pasteis de Nata (creamy lemon tarts), drinking port wine and strewn about portside steps in the square. Just waiting on Radiohead. Together.
Later that night, after finding transit en masse to the festival further out of town—to a place less beautiful but regionally important to the culture for commerce and suburban sprawl— Radiohead began again.
They strolled through those aforementioned first five songs off the current album, bringing them into to the humid Portuguese air to breathe with us all. In a subtle, welcome change to the band’s Swiss set, the quintet reached back into The Bends era for the guitar reign of “My Iron Lung,” got sexily spooky on “The Gloaming” off 2003’s Hail To The Thief and jammed on In Rainbows highlight “The Reckoner.” Heck, they even cracked out old girlfriend “Creep” for the encore. By night’s end, it was again Thom Yorke serenading the packed crowd of the festival with an a capella “Karma Police,” with 50,000 voices as the only musical accompaniment.
There really is nothing like thousands of people singing in unison. “For a minute there, I lost myself,” we all said. Again and again. Together with Thom.
There is something strange about Radiohead’s music, something singularly different yet broadly familiar within all of us fans…within the adventure of each new twist and turn. For a minute there, we lost ourselves.
It happens all the time in our present world. For better or for worse. But as certain groups spend these current times trying to break people apart, break away and break up the road ahead, we, as one world of people, have a harder time finding ways to come together once again. That’s why music is so important. It’s the language we are all still excited to speak together and revel in the sharing of its many wonders.
Thom Yorke and his band of magnificent musicians seem to revel in being the bricklayers of this. It’s a fun road to travel. And traveling opens eyes like no other way: to all this place’s beautiful people. To the worse, but most often the better. Radiohead shows are things of intricate and fragile beauty, shared in by millions making pilgrimages catching flights, hopping trains and camping out to see—arm and arm, singing out in unison in the crowd.
It’s a setting we could use a little more of in our present world, far away from the festival stages. For the better.