Confessions Of A Fanboy Who Drove 10 Hours To See Radiohead
Since the beginning of time — or the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, same diff — the story has been the same: I travel long distances to see Radiohead play concerts. Someday I may finally see a Radiohead concert without the burden of long-distance travel, but my resolute commitment to living in Columbus plus Radiohead’s resolute commitment to never performing within two hours of Columbus plus my resolute commitment to Radiohead has resulted in many dramatic voyages over the years. Prepare for anecdotes!
As it stands today, Radiohead road trips bracket my entire 16-year concert road trip history. They are the alpha and omega of this particular pastime. Teenage obsession begat my first such trek, to gorgeous outdoor amphitheater Blossom Music Center in the Akron/Cleveland area during the 2001 tour supporting Kid A and Amnesiac. (The Beta Band opened. It was dope.) Nostalgia and the onset of middle age prompted the most recent one, a 10-hour odyssey to Kansas City last Wednesday designed as a sort of last hurrah before my second child is born and such exploits become nearly impossible.
Back in college I would do this kind of thing monthly, even weekly. There was always some band I wanted to see playing within driving distance of Athens — the small rural Ohio town where I attended Ohio University — and my friends and I always somehow convinced ourselves it was worth the trip. That’s one benefit of being a young, privileged college student with free time and disposable income and barely anyone counting on you for anything: the liberty to drive four hours on a weeknight to see Grandaddy and Super Furry Animals in Louisville or whatever. Almost without fail these trips involved driving back overnight because we were young and indestructible (and more often than not had the leeway to sleep in).
This practice expanded to comic extremes in the summer of 2003, when my longtime pal and future Stereogum contributor David Holmes (not this guy) decided it would be a good idea to buy tickets to three separate dates on Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief tour. We drove to Blossom again. We drove to the “Chicago-area” show at Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley Music Theatre, which, haha, is actually two hours past Chicago. We drove to Toronto twice; our show at Molson Amphitheatre was postponed due to a massive blackout that engulfed the entire Northeast, so on the first trip we just hung out in David’s sister’s apartment and went to some urban market and drove home disappointed that we sprung for pit tickets and didn’t even get to use them.
If you think this Toronto story is over, then you’re wrong! Because we bought the tickets on eBay, exchanging them for the rescheduled gig at Skydome involved tracking down the original seller, asking him to make the switch for us, mailing them back to him (via the US Postal Service because 2003), and desperately hoping new tickets appeared in the mail. They did, which led to the most ridiculous sequence of events: I drove the 90 minutes from OU back to my parents’ house in suburban Columbus on a Tuesday night, picked up David at Ohio State on Wednesday morning, drove to Toronto, saw Radiohead from the Skydome floor(!), drove back overnight, dropped David off at Ohio State on Thursday morning, drove back to Athens, went to class for four hours (who knows why I didn’t just skip), drove back to Columbus, picked up David and another friend, drove four hours to Detroit to see the Strokes (we were late, and our seats kinda sucked, and honestly why would you schedule the Strokes at a seated venue), drove back to Columbus overnight (or rather sprawled in the backseat while one of the other guys drove), dropped off the dudes at their dorm, drove back to Athens, and passed out on Friday morning.
Subsequent Radiohead trips have not been quite so complicated: a visit to Lollapalooza in 2008, a return to Blossom in 2012, the world’s greatest work trip to Primavera Sound in 2016. I figured that would be it for a while unless the band returned to Blossom this summer, but I also figured they’d return to Blossom this summer, as they always have in support of every other album this millennium. When they announced a run of US dates leading up to this weekend’s Coachella festivities, including none in the Midwest or Northeast, this was my quandary: wait and see if they announced more shows later, or commit to a ridiculous 10-hour drive to Kansas City in the middle of the week?
Even though I saw Radiohead at Primavera last year, missing them on tour was not an option. I go to way fewer shows than I used to, but an ongoing dynamic relationship with Radiohead is one way I desperately cling to my youth, and as I mused upon the release of A Moon Shaped Pool, you never know when this band will decide to call it quits and focus on their sundry inferior side projects. So I hit up a younger friend whose kinship had been sealed via Radiohead fanboy geekery, and we made the trip.
I am getting too old for this shit. Radiohead, apparently, are not. Their show in KC was probably the best Radiohead concert I’ve ever seen, though after eight gigs over the course of 16 years it’s hard to really be sure; due to immediacy and the trickery of human recollection it may actually have just been the most recent Best Radiohead Concert I’ve Ever Seen among many. It probably helped that we were seated just to the left of the band in the closest section to the stage, one of the consistent benefits of attending an arena show as media. What I can say definitively is that despite all my fond memories of seeing this band at outdoor venues, Radiohead are meant to be experienced in an enclosed space. (Sorry, Coachella-goers. You’ll have to camp out in front of the stage all day if you want to get the full impact. In my experience, watching this band from a football field away is not great.)
One downside of Radiohead’s discography overflowing with timeless glory is that they’re never going to play every song you want to see them play. There are simply too many options. The flip side of that logic is that you never know exactly which delights they will bestow on you on any given date. But before they get to the alarms and/or surprises, for some reason they’ve decided to begin every show this tour with the three-song sequence of “Daydreaming,” “Desert Island Disk,” and “Ful Stop.” Front-loading the setlist with tracks from your latest album is not surprising, and I am into the idea of an opening slow jam giving way to a big, loud rocker. But beginning with two consecutive slow jams seems odd in theory and was, in fact, underwhelming in practice, especially because “Daydreaming” is one of those Radiohead songs that really loses something in the live setting — that light show, though! — and because “Desert Island Disk” is one of the least essential songs on A Moon Shaped Pool. Viewed more charitably, it’s nice to get the worst part of the show out of the way up front.
“Ful Stop” was so enlivening that the initial descent into quietude was quickly forgotten. Colin Greenwood’s ever-looping two-note bass part, which seems persistent and stoic on record, becomes explosively aggressive on stage, and the rest of the band follows suit. I was bouncing uncontrollably, and I did not stop for another three songs. Early tour setlists suggested they might next launch into “Airbag,” my favorite Radiohead song and one I’d only seen them perform once before. I was hoping they would follow suit Wednesday at the Sprint Center, and they did. Oh my God, they did. It was perfect, too. All the moving pieces came together beautifully, coalescing into a big finish as cataclysmic as the studio recording — everything truly in its right place.
A lively maraca-powered “15 Step” then gave way to “The National Anthem,” arguably the greatest song to witness at a Radiohead concert. It is so maniacally intense from beginning to end, but whereas some bands’ sustained monolithic chaos can become nothing but a dull roar, Radiohead’s sustained monolithic chaos contains dramatic peaks and valleys so effective my whole body tenses up and contorts like Thom Yorke’s when he reads about climate change or, you know, performs “The National Anthem.” Even without the brass section that once accompanied them on SNL, they’ve figured out how to make that song so claustrophobically noisy.
The more rhythmically charged tracks were hitting with the kind of visceral force you dream of when you attend a rock show — perhaps because Phil Selway continues to be joined by a second drummer, Portishead’s Clive Deamer — but after four straight bangers it was time to chill out a bit. Thus, the lovely and ever-underrated “Separator” was our breather en route to monster piano ballad “All I Need” and then “Street Spirit,” the eternally gloomy The Bends closer that is singular in Radiohead’s catalog yet, in a sense, foretold their future. “Bloom,” the King Of Limbs song Radiohead seems most attached to these days, emerged from an array of electronic blips and rhythms like a Magic Eye painting coming into focus.
By then things were picking up again, with Yorke wilding out on a tambourine (Thombourine?) on “I Might Be Wrong” and traipsing about the stage like Anthony Kiedis during a deeply funky “Identikit.” The guitar brigade was in full force for the gradual build and magnificent payoff of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” and then the six-strings went away entirely for a furious run through “Idioteque.” Given the current state of global affairs, Yorke’s cries of “We’re not scaremongering! This is really happening!” felt more terrifyingly prescient than ever; also, holy crap does that song destroy.
Of all the live rarities Radiohead could have dusted off, “Where I End And You Begin” (performed for the first time in nine years) would not have been my preference, but its contagious rolling bass-drums action swept me away anyhow. Then came “Lucky” and along with it a chance to hear Jonny Greenwood really rip on guitar like the good old days. The main set ended with “Present Tense,” which Yorke puzzlingly described as “one for the women in the audience” and which plaintively eased us into the intermission.
Radiohead setlists are extremely generous. You always know you’re getting two encores — one lengthy, another short — and occasionally they return for a third time to play one last song. In this case they picked back up even more quietly than they left off with a stunning “Give Up The Ghost” featuring Yorke on acoustic guitar and loop pedals, accompanied only by Jonny’s minor atmospherics. “Burn The Witch” was next, sounding stronger and more able-bodied than it did last year in Spain, Greenwood attacking his guitar with a bow in the absence of orchestral assistance.
A chiming, percussive “Reckoner” led us to “Fake Plastic Trees,” one of those songs so musically and emotionally straightforward that it’s sometimes hard to believe the band still performs it. But yes, they play it, and yes, it’s as gut-wrenching as you’d want it to be. Whatever violence Greenwood was unloading on his guitar made verse three’s descent into distortion particularly explosive. “Nude,” closed out the first encore with grace and beauty; it was one of many songs on which Yorke’s sometimes shaky live vocals were totally on-point.
Encore two gave us Yorke perched at a piano pounding out “You And Whose Army?” while playfully peering into an eyeball cam projected on the massive egg-shaped video screen above the stage. Thom Yorke Is Watching You — a frightening thought! And what could have been a grand finale was “Karma Police,” a transcendent sing-along as stirring as anything in this band’s songbook (or any other band’s, for that matter), amplified by Ed O’Brien standing back from his microphone and belting out background vocals as if trying to blow a house down. In an uncharacteristic bit of rock-star posturing — though not entirely unexpected if you’ve seen them play “Karma Police” recently — when it was all over Yorke returned to his acoustic guitar to lead the crowd through one more “For a minute there, I lost myself!”
Had that been the end, we could have all gone home happy. But it wasn’t the end, so we went home happier. After about a minute of rampant howling and screaming from the audience, Radiohead appeared one more time with an arsenal of auxiliary percussion in tow and blasted through a monumentally gnarly “There There.” Again, what stood out was Greenwood’s wild mangling of the instrument he has often drifted away from. Hearing him unleash the familiar high-range squalls at the song’s conclusion was a reminder that his mad genius is as electrifying when channeled through a single guitar as an entire symphony orchestra. Nobody plays that instrument quite like him.
After 25 songs and two hours it was finally over for real, at which point the main drawback to driving 10 hours to see Radiohead presented itself: You have to drive 10 hours back. Even if you’re not as vehophobic as Thom Yorke, a certain dread accompanies 10 hours in a confined space with no Radiohead concert to look forward to at the finish line. It helps, though, when you have a spouse and children waiting for you back in the real world. I originally planned to burn through the whole return trip overnight like the good old days, but my wife talked some sense into me, so we crashed hard at a Holiday Inn in the middle of Missouri and spent most of Thursday wearily traversing the Midwest, marinating in our memories of the previous night and wondering if we’d ever have another chance to see our favorite band. Maybe they won’t come around again. Maybe life will get too complicated to accommodate Radiohead road trips. Not to be too morbid — but I mean, look at which band I’m writing about — maybe I’ll die!
Considering what I’d like to believe are the more realistic options: Say parenting kids A and B makes these kinds of road trips logistically impossible. Or say Radiohead opt to cease touring and recording so Selway can make more solo albums or O’Brien can focus on his collection of white sneakers or whatever. Say this latest, greatest encounter with Radiohead was truly my last. I’d look back happily on — actually, don’t say any of that. Anybody know how long it would take to drive to Coachella from here?