People travel great distances for love, and perhaps even further for their favorite band. Little else could explain the extreme travel itineraries of visitors to Radiohead‘s sold-out show at KeyArena in Seattle on Saturday, April 8th. After the doors opened at 6PM, I spoke to brothers who split a 13-hour drive from Edmonton, a man who took a week’s vacation to fly to shows in New Orleans and Kansas City while his wife waited for him at the show in Seattle, and a young man who braved a packed general admission section on crutches, all to catch a glimpse of the legendary rock band. The explanations for the trip by each of the pilgrims varied – “Radiohead haven’t visited Vancouver in nine years” / “They’re getting older” / “I saw them in Austin and it changed my life” – but they all boiled down to one idea. Why travel so far? “It’s fucking Radiohead.”
I could sense the excitement the Kid A innovators still generate in the anxious movements of the crowd before the show. As the band’s crew made last-minute preparations onstage, a carefully dressed teenager in a Smiths sweatshirt raced out of the stands for one last trip to the bathroom, fanning himself with his ticket. A man waiting in line at the refreshments stand for 20 minutes griped that “this better be the world’s best pretzel,” if it was going to justify missing even the opening lick of a Radiohead show. Another fan marched around the concourse, high fiving strangers and shouting “Turn up!”
Around 9PM, the crowd roared from within the arena as Radiohead walked onstage, effectively emptying the concourse of anyone still waiting for a hot dog.
Balancing the frenzy in the arena, the band eased into the evening with meditative material from 2016’s A Moon-Shaped Pool. Though Radiohead is known for changing their sets each night – and rarely a week goes by these days that Radiohead playing a song for the first time in years doesn’t make Pitchfork headlines – they’ve opened all six shows of their tour so far with the same trifecta of songs (“Daydreaming,” “Desert Island Disk,” and “Ful Stop”) from their most recent release.
The slow-building material did little to still the crowd, who didn’t just cheer in between songs, but in between sections of songs. During “Daydreaming,” a change in the piano between the A section to the B section ignited cheers across the floor. As the band moved into the acoustic guitar-centered “Desert Island Disk,” a powerful realization seemed to be creeping its way around the arena, rendered in each attendee’s mind as some variation of “OHMYGAWDTHATSTHOMYORKE!” “THESEGUYSACTUALLYMADEKIDA” or “PLAYFAKEPLASTICTREEEEEES!” Raise the number of times each fan had missed seeing Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke at Coachella to the power of that realization and you’ve got your temperature check on the crowd.
As the pulse of Colin Greenwood’s bass quickened on the lurking “Ful Stop,” both band and audience appeared to be fully immersed in the music. Blue lights shot across the crowd and illuminated pockets of dancers like whirlpools in an ocean. The band locked in tight and fast, slowly building the post-punk groove. As the instruments began to overlap, images on the moon-shaped screen behind the band quickly disintegrated and reformed. The audience, in the best way possible, was lost.
With a brief moment to spare before the second verse, guitarist Ed O’Brien stretched his arm straight out towards the crowd, palm up, like a general commanding an army. Knowing full well the sample about to arrive, he wound his arm back and released skyward, unleashing a wave of cheers in time with the song’s snippet of kids shouting “Yeah!” As fans whistled, he held his finger in the air for an instant, as if relishing a moment that encapsulated the communal energy of the evening. The exchange between band and crowd felt like one big inside joke that nearly everyone in attendance was in on. A few seconds later, even Yorke – known to be an occasionally reluctant performer – leaned into the mic between lines to breathlessly mumble “thank you,” to the audience for their participation for this “15 Step” shout-along (there are videos, I promise).
Stacking the hits, Radiohead played “Exit Music (For a Film),” a fatal love song from 1997’s OK Computer, next. As Yorke sang the eerie opening lines, “Wake from your sleep / The drying of your tears / Today we escape,” a tall man in a track jacket and his much shorter partner embraced. For three verses, they clung together, swaying gently to the most morbid love song since Gnarls Barkley’s “Necromancer.” As the rest of the band joined in and the music escalated, it became clear that the couple’s arrangement could not last. The drums crashed down, yellow lights turned on the crowd, and the man threw his fist in the air, his other arm still wrapped around his partner’s waist, like he was caught between a call to arms and a slow dance. The projection screen turned to static and the arena erupted in applause, the longest of the night so far.
Closer to the middle of the set, Radiohead played “Burn the Witch,” the lead single from A Moon-Shaped Pool. Though Yorke deprived the song of its melody, speaking, more than singing the verses, no one seemed to care; Many fans pulled out their phones for the first time in the evening to capture the moment. It was largest number of people to whip out their phones so far, either a sign of the mostly 30-something crowd’s waning interest in social media or proof that most Radiohead fans are more concerned with experiencing Radiohead, rather than showing their friends that they’d experienced Radiohead.
The lights onstage remained red for the equally anxious, doubly-propulsive, “Bodysnatcher,” from In Rainbows. Cloistered at the corner of the stage with his extensive pedalboard, Johnny Greenwood kept his head down, his famous angular black haircut swooping back and forth across his forehead like a barrier between him and the outside world. Between strums, Greenwood wrenched his arm further back from his guitar. It looked like he was starting the world’s most difficult lawnmower.
Soon after, “The Gloaming,” a cut from 2003’s Hail to the Thief, turned into a looping fail. Yorke bounded around the stage with greater intensity, as if attempting to distract from the song collapsing around him. As the song feel apart, he turned nervously towards one of the drum risers, took a sip of water, and mumbled something to the band. Yet, with a crowd like this one, he was able to cash the mistake in for a laugh, saying self-deprecatingly after the song, “We’re fucking professionals.” There was an audible crowd-wide chuckle.
“Idioteque,” from Kid A, a few songs later, more than restored the hype. As the beat kicked in, Yorke bowed his head and circled towards the drum risers behind him, bouncing slightly like a boxer about to go into battle. People shouted along to the song’s gruesome lyrics as if the track were an anthem for the club, not the coming apocalypse. The lengthy applause after the song unseated “Exit Music” as the reigning fan-favorite of the night. After one more song, “The Numbers,” the band walked offstage. The show was far from over though, if the fans had anything to say about it.
Seconds later, a few hands shot up in the crowd, holding cell phone lights angled towards the center of the arena. Lights began to blink on across all sections of the audience, each one a symbolic refusal to let the night end. Within ten seconds, the arena resembled a globe of stars. Though an encore was essentially inevitable–any other outcome would have caused rioting or at least a different headline to this story – the arena-wide gesture was one of the most beautiful things I saw all night. Every light, accompanied by its share of screams and applause, meant that someone wanted to spend more time with one of their favorite bands, more time with the people around them, staying at least long enough to see if Radiohead would play anything from The Bends. When is the last time you’ve been in a room of people who have no one place they’d rather be, much less an entire arena?
Fans got what they wanted. Radiohead came back onstage not once, not twice, but three times – playing the bittersweet “No Surprises,” to open the first encore, “You and Whose Army?” one of three tracks from from 2001’s Amnesiac, to start the second and “Fake Plastic Trees,” a rare Radiohead love song to start and finish the third encore.
After the song ended and the lights came on, everyone had to leave Radiohead Land. The Seattleites walked to Dick’s to savor the afterglow of the evening with a side of fries, the brothers from Edmonton began their drive up north, and plenty more followed the band on to Portland.
Would any of them regret the trip? There was no need to ask. It was fucking Radiohead.