Zooming out to look at the entirety of Radiohead’s first performance in Portland, Oregon in over 20 years, the decision by the band to close out the night with a molten take on their 1992 single “Creep” feels inevitable. They were leading us to it the whole time.
The set list for the evening emphasized the group’s ongoing attempts to create beautiful and riveting moire patterns by laying their artistic and commercial interests atop each other. They nipped at their 1997 international breakthrough OK Computer, deigning to play only two songs from the album (a rather turgid take on “Airbag” and a lovely run through “No Surprises” that pulled a huge reaction from the crowd once Thom Yorke slowly unfolded the lines “Bring down the government/they don’t, they don’t speak for us”). The Bends got similar short shrift, represented only by the swells and ebbs of “Street Spirit (Fade Out).”
The rest of the nearly two hour show was a bungee ride. They slowly let the audience free fall with them past their polyrhythmic experiments and reckonings with the rapid developments in electronic music before rebounding into something undeniably crowd pleasing. It took a rattle through bifurcated takes on “Bloom” and “Identikit” to get to the liquid pulse of “Everything In Its Right Place”; the gush of “Street Spirit” was preceded by the burbles of “All I Need” and “Separator.”
What Radiohead dared not do was leave much up to chance or, unless absolutely necessary, make any truly bold changes to the recorded templates that they were referencing. The perfect set of instruments were always at the ready, even if that meant the road crew wheeling out an upright piano for only 90 seconds of use. All the gears were lubricated and working at optimum speed, even when Yorke urged the rhythm section to push “The National Anthem” up a few BPM or when Jonny Greenwood warped and distorted small samples of the live vocals of “Everything” using a Kaoss Pad. Only when the band were forced to adapt a song to their six-piece live setup (the usual gang augmented by percussionist Clive Deamer) did they more fully unveil their daring: the Reichian strings of “Burn The Witch” rewritten as a tornado of guitars; Jonny Greenwood’s arcing solo to replace the honking horns of “National Anthem.”
But, again, the group played all the right cards for a stadium gig. Both encores started off with a slow, almost teasing song (“Glass Eyes” and “You And Whose Army?”) before throwing the curtains open wide to big splashes of skin and color. Radiohead knows they have to leave a crowd buzzing at the end. At previous stops on this U.S. run, that job was left up to songs like “Bodysnatchers” and, as they did just one night earlier in Seattle, “Fake Plastic Trees.”
In Portland, Yorke walked himself to the lip of the stage so as to completely absorb the ripple of joyful recognition that ran through the crowd once Ed O’Brien plucked out “Creep”’s all-too-familiar melody. As has always been the case with the song, it didn’t truly take flight until Jonny Greenwood landed those chunky guitar stabs preceding the chorus. It felt as triumphal, slightly manipulative and magnanimous as a big ticket arena rock concert should.