Radiohead delighted fans in Manchester on Tuesday with a host of unexpected back-catalogue surprises and rarities. Opening with OK Computer track, ‘Let Down’, it was the first time the song has been used as a gig opener and only the third time the song has been played in the last ten years, after recent outings at Glastonbury and Belgium’s Rock Wercher festival last weekend. Proving a much more popular opening than A Moon Shaped Pool’s ‘Daydreaming’, this felt like a Radiohead finally at ease with their past after a tendency to shy away from pre-Kid A works. ‘No Surprises’, ‘Lucky’, ‘Paranoid Android’ and ‘Karma Police’ all appeared too, as did rarity ‘I Promise’.
Recorded during the OK Computer sessions, the B-side re-release of ‘I Promise’ on OKNOTOK proved only one of the highlights of the incredible double encore fans were treated to in Manchester, in this their only non-UK festival gig. Live, the song is a beautiful unearthed treasure: the audience looked genuinely stunned to be hearing it. Moments later, Thom Yorke asked the crowd to “please sing along” because “I’ll probably forget the first verse.” As the opening heavy chords to ‘The Bends’ are played, the crowd veered between elation and frenzy: not being played in the UK since 2008, you can only hope the guy at Glastonbury whose flag read “Play the Fucking Bends!” was there.
The nine songs which made up the encore were a run of sophisticated brilliance. ‘There There’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ and ‘Paranoid Android’ all appear, as does closer ‘Karma Police’. The repeated singing of the song’s refrain continued long after the band left the stage and it poured out onto the streets of Old Trafford as fans left. As we’ve come to expect with Radiohead, supreme musicianship reigned supreme throughout the gig.
Dorian Grey Johnny Greenwood plays at his otherworldly peak as fans stare at him in wonderment: just how does he make an instrument sound like that? Thom Yorke’s lack of crowd interaction is forgiven as his voice seems at its most emotive and powerful for years.
When Yorke does interact with the crowd, like Glastonbury, it’s again for political reasons. Changing the “they don’t speak for us” lyrics in ‘No Surprises’ gains one of the loudest cheers from the 50,000-strong crowd who later erupted into chants of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ to the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army.’ Radiohead have always been a political band yet the sneer in Yorke’s vocals felt especially poignant amongst this young, politically charged crowd. Radiohead will always be a band that’s a little bit beyond anybody’s reach or understanding; their ambiguity has always been as entrancing as it is beguiling. For a good portion of the middle set, there is a distinct split in the crowd. The pre-Kid A fans look entirely lost during songs from Hail to the Thief or Amnesiac whereas the post-Kid A fans enjoy every glorious weirdness of songs from In Rainbows just as much as Radiohead’s earlier work. Like Glastonbury, Radiohead again lose a significant portion of the audience for large parts of the gig: people talk away during the gorgeous ‘Pyramid Song’; in ‘2+2=5’ many wonder if this is the same band that wrote ‘No Surprises.’
The loss of attention might not be solely down to song choice, however. Many need the combined experience of sound and visuals at a gig – especially at a stadium – but Radiohead’s choice of abstract visuals make for an incredibly difficult viewing experience. Even the most ardent of Radiohead fans are tested as many fail to see a single member of the band all evening. Likewise, the sound was unforgivably problematic throughout a long portion of the set. The instruments were so quiet on ‘No Surprises’ that the sound was entirely lost for anyone a few rows out. Being in the
cheap seats middle proved tough on Tuesday.
For a long time, Radiohead have redefined what it is to be a stadium band. The gorgeous harmonies of ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ shouldn’t work in a stadium, yet somehow do – their most introspective songs can either bring 50,000 to an awe-inspired silence or frantic, collective joy. Radiohead will probably always split an audience torn between the pre- and post-Kid A fan base, yet their fans return time and time again to witness the moments of sheer musical sublimity Radiohead always manage to achieve – and fans are always united in those moments.
Those who persevered through the less accessible songs, poor visuals and sound in Manchester on Tuesday were ultimately rewarded. Whilst Radiohead certainly made their fans work for it, many will always remember where they were when Radiohead opened with ‘Let Down’ for the first time in their history.