Thom Yorke’s Live Show Might Change Your Perspective On His Solo Work
This past Monday, Thom Yorke brought his live show to an undistinguished corporate rectangle with poor sight lines known as Express Live. On one hand, this was exciting news for Columbus residents like myself: Yorke had never performed in Ohio’s capital before Radiohead finally graced us with an arena show in the summer of 2018, and just over a year later he was already returning in support of his new solo album ANIMA. On the other hand, I had assumed the show would be at Express Live’s outdoor amphitheater, an exponentially more stylish and comfortable concert environment. Thus, doing it indoors was less than ideal, unless you accept the proposition that there’s no better place to witness Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes than inside today’s modern box.
There may be something to that, actually. Yorke’s current ensemble, named after his 2014 solo album, comprises the man himself plus longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich manning an assortment of gadgets and instruments, with live video projections by Tarik Barri. The setup lends itself to dark enclosed spaces, as does Yorke’s solo discography in general. When left to his own devices, he leans way into the frigid, beat-driven side of his aesthetic. Especially when compared to the wide-open horizons of Radiohead anthems like “Karma Police” and “There There,” Yorke’s solo work is largely interior. He even once said 2006’s The Eraser was designed to be experienced in tight confines. So maybe being packt like sardines inside this big black cube was the move.
As someone who’s been to double-digit Radiohead concerts but had never seen a Yorko solo gig, I figured a Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes show would be something like a DJ set with some live instrumentation sprinkled in. That’s not exactly wrong, but it severely short-sells the amount of performing that goes on up there. It’s true that at times all three men were hunched over their technology stations like Animal Collective or some shit, and that Barri never once moved from his computer, and that a large portion of the sound bursting out of the speakers seemed to be pre-programmed. Yet this was not a chin-stroking intellectual exercise. Yorke and company were putting on a goddamn show.
It wouldn’t work without Yorke’s weirdo charisma. The guy has evolved into quite the presence — more laidback than the nervous wreck seen heaving his way through SNL performances circa Kid A, yet less self-consciously goofy than the dancing whirlwind who blew through the “Lotus Flower” video. He often still busts a move with that herky-jerky fluidity that made him a meme. But he does so more gracefully than ever. Though sometimes stuck behind a guitar, bass, or piano, he was more free to move around than he would be at a Radiohead show, and he looks extremely comfortable doing so. Except “comfortable” implies that he was taking it easy, when in truth he was hustling, whether bombarding his bass strings on “Harrowdown Hill” or feverishly stalking the stage.
All three members of the ensemble were bringing this level of sweaty determination. Godrich smoldered in the background, manning his array of machines and instruments with a scrunched-face intensity. Barri was stationary and seemingly so immersed in his work that I’m not sure he ever looked up from his screen. At first the images he projected struck me as glorified screensavers, but as the show wore on, the morphing patterns, shapes, and textures became a fitting complement for the hard-hitting digitized beats.
And man, did they hit hard! This was one big takeaway from the show: Although Yorke’s solo catalog is a lot more bleary and cerebral than Radiohead’s, those songs will throttle you in the live setting. As someone who loves Radiohead and merely appreciates most of Yorke’s solo releases, I feared I’d be bored Monday, but the trio’s energy level left no room for boredom. Complex programmed beats plus heavy rhythmic guitar and bass work added up to a powerful launchpad for Yorke’s one-of-a-kind voice, which performed its usual heavenly acrobatics Monday. What often scans as textural on record was much more visceral on stage. Witnessing this all in person unlocked Yorke’s body of work for me the same way live performance enhanced The King Of Limbs.
That body of work is deep. This was my other big takeaway. The setlist was designed so that most of the new material was piled at the end, allowing Yorke to tour us through his back catalog first. A bunch of The Eraser tracks (“Black Swan,” “Harrowdown Hill,” “Cymbal Rush,” “The Clock”) were both groove-oriented and gorgeous. Slow jams “Interference,” “Truth Ray,” and especially “Nose Grows Some” revealed a subtle beauty in Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes I’d forgotten about. Tracks that sometimes strike me as background music, like “Has Ended” from the Suspiria score and Atoms For Peace’s “Amok,” instead became engaging segments in a journey. When the grandly cinematic ANIMA bangers arrived at the end, they made for an emphatic main-set finale.
Yorke’s discography proved so durable, in fact, that he got away with leaving out arguably his two very best solo songs. He hasn’t been performing “The Eraser” on this tour, which makes some kind of sense since that phenomenal computer ballad sounds like belongs in the Radiohead catalog. But he has been playing “Dawn Chorus,” the stunner at ANIMA’s center, usually at the start of his encore. In its stead Monday we got “Atoms For Peace,” the playful and beautiful Eraser track that later gave Yorke’s side project its name. Then came a sweeping “Runawayaway” and a dynamic performance of Atoms For Peace single “Default” that proved it’s the equal of many latter-day Radiohead highlights.
After the group’s final bow, the lights came on, and I thought we’d been robbed of the second encore that appears on most of Yorke’s current setlists. Shockingly and delightfully, the room went dark again a minute later and he returned to perform “Suspirium” alone at the piano. Part of the thrill of Monday’s show was witnessing Thom Yorke do Thom Yorke things up close rather than from across an arena or festival grounds. Seeing him dance, howl, flash bizarre grins, and even press buttons without having to squint at a video screen was exciting. Watching him conjure spare, angelic beauty was even better. It was easily my favorite moment in Monday’s show, but it was also a case of encountering beauty where I expected it. Even more rewarding was being confronted with a collection of music I had written off as lesser, having my understanding of it rewired, and being sent off to discover those records anew.
“A Brain In A Bottle”
“Nose Grows Some”
“(Ladies & Gentlemen, Thank You For Coming)”
“Not The News”
“Atoms for Peace”