Radiohead is a great rock band, but it's not one that's easy to dance to. At the Greek Theatre on Friday, fans mainly had two choices: Sway to the English group's rich, stately ballads, or vibrate to the frantic beats of its more chaotic moments.
Then there was singer Thom Yorke, who responded to some of the music's intense moments by rapidly shaking his head and body in rubbery motions as he sang. Remarkably, he always kept his mouth right on the microphone, never easing up on one word of his disquieting warnings.
This gave the singer the appearance of a palsied prophet stationed at the gates of the future--a perfect visual component for songs that describe a human spirit increasingly threatened by advancing technology and declining morality. Paranoia, powerlessness, alienation, exhaustion and a dwindling grasp on reality are just some of the results.
Sounds like a downer, but on Friday, Radiohead showed how bleak raw material can become inspiring rock, thanks to music that's as grand as the issues. Particularly in the songs from 1997's "OK Computer," Radiohead's Grammy-nominated U.S. breakthrough album and still its definitive work, the quintet offered the virtues of melodic, classically proportioned rock, stirring the sold-out crowd with old-fashioned buildup from acoustic guitar opening to full-band symphonic climax.
Like ideas and values getting chewed up by modern life, that classic sound got mangled when it reached a certain point, shattering into harsh fragments of guitar freakout and pure noise. That gave the concert a remarkable textural range, one that added up to more than mere tricks of technique--it captured the feeling of being a helpless victim of genetic code and microchip, trapped by human biology and high technology.
Radiohead played almost all the songs from its atmospheric, abstract new album "Kid A." These worked better onstage than they do as an independent collection, gaining strength from the bracing of the older material and serving as connective tissue for the set.
Disappointed fans who regard the "Kid A" as a navel-gazing retreat from the front lines might have been encouraged by the intensity and commitment Radiohead showed Friday, but the band is still sending mixed signals. The new album suggests a reluctance to assume the burden of being the band-that-matters for these times, and the Greek show was the last of only three North America dates they played for its release.
Yorke's comment to the audience that this will be their last concert for a long time only reinforced the prospect that these prophets will be available not on a nearby street corner, but on a remote mountain top.