What’s the point of seeing a hugely popular band at an arena concert?
For Radiohead, whose albums are renowned for their musical sophistication and sparkling production values, the acoustics of a basketball arena probably won’t be great — the band will never sound better at an arena than they do on record. And for fans of Radiohead’s unique, album-only orchestral arrangements that transcend the cheese-rock trappings of bands who think “Hey, wouldn’t this song be awesome with some string arpeggios??” its almost a bummer to know they never tour with backup musicians. Instead, they strip their many of their songs bare in a live setting, arranging them for a traditional five or six piece rock band (depending on the participation of additional touring drummer, Clive Deamer).
None of which is to say that Radiohead doesn’t deliver the goods live. At last night’s Key Arena show in Seattle, they kept the crowd rapt for nearly two and a half hours, ripping through a 25-song set list that delivered new favorites from their most recent album, A Moon Shaped Pool, alongside a generous smattering of material from nearly their entire catalog (OK Computer, in particular, was well-represented; Pablo Honey fans, you’re still outta luck).
For fans who haven’t seen Radiohead in five years, a Seattle show feels increasingly like a gift. Want to know what it sounds like when a band has really, really made it — and they know it? Watch them own a 17,000 plus crowd during every song, no matter if the guitars all kinda sound like a wash in the cavernous Key Arena. And hear the massive roar as the band comes back for two planned encores and a maybe not-planned third encore of “Fake Plastic Trees,” the only track from The Bends to make the setlist.
Listening to scattered conversation in the line for the show, though (and yes, my fiancee and I waited a solid 10 hours in line to get up to the front in GA), you can feel the crowd hunger for deeper connection than cheering to the tunes. Superfans, some of whom gleefully attend dozens of shows or entire chunks of a tour, talk about the personal details of the band’s lives as though they all used to go to the same high school. People wonder aloud how old Thom’s kids are now, what personal strife informed the creation of Radiohead’s last record, and how they can get the band’s attention at the rail (props to the kid who got a smirk from Yorke by shouting for an encore of “Anyone Can Play Guitar”).
It’s all a reminder that growing up with a band and falling in love with their output is an odd experience — a strong, but potentially toxic mix of the mass-produced and deeply personal. For all you know, a stadium rock band may as well not be actual people. Most fans will never know the joy of seeing their favorite musicians in a truly intimate venue or meet them in person. You can read the interviews, buy the t-shirts, watch the band as specks on stage from the cheap seats, and feel as though you’re never quite doing more than drinking Favorite Band-brand cola. Delicious, but ultimately a product.
A Radiohead arena show is perhaps best appreciated, then, for the moments where they transcend the limitations of form and remind you that they do, in fact, exist. They subvert common practice and never play the exact same setlist every night — each show holds the promise of being extra special and hearing your favorite deep cut. In an age where many bands are swallowed by arena-sized production values, they keep their stage design relatively minimal and the focus on the music. They also screw up, as during an equipment malfunction in last night’s “The Gloaming.” The crowd ate it up anyway, especially as Yorke gave up halfway through the song with some goofy tongue wagging at the crowd.
And then there’s the truly sublime, like “Fake Plastic Trees.” With an entire arena completely hushed save for Yorke’s falsetto and gentle guitar strums, you could believably pretend that 17,000 people had dropped away and you were hearing the band for the first time, maybe over quiet chatter at an acoustic open mic. Full of promise, just a little flawed, and for a moment, finally real.