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Sounds like rock

Radiohead has experimented in arty genres. But in concert, the band lets down its long hair.

September 27, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

There's an old adage that if you look into the face of ugliness long enough you'll find beauty, which every owner of an English bulldog knows is true. So it figures that if you go through enough disabling self-doubt you can find joy, which is the story of Radiohead's Thom Yorke.

In case no one has pointed it out to the British singer-songwriter, Radiohead looked and sounded an awful lot like a rock band on Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl.

For most of the quintet's liberating two-hour set, guitars -- rather than the computers and other electronic devices showcased on the band's recent albums -- dominated. Stage lights flashed as dramatically as at an old Pink Floyd concert. And Radiohead even opened the final encore with one of its biggest hits ("Karma Police").

The thought of all this would have horrified Yorke just six years ago, when he went through a frightening period of creative self-doubt after Radiohead's brilliant "OK Computer" album pushed the group to the creative and commercial forefront of rock.

Amid the escalating career pressures and artistic expectations growing out of that icy look at alienation in the modern age, Yorke declared he was bored with rock and needed new inspiration. So he and the rest of Radiohead began one of the most dramatic readjustments ever made by a best-selling group.

They not only stepped away from pop-rock's traditional verse-chorus-verse song structure, but they also laid down their guitars, for the most part, to draw from electronica, classical music and avant-garde pop. In three subsequent albums, Radiohead leaned on these influences to varying degrees in beautifully crafted songs that are steeped in abstract, impressionist tones.

But the band has also slowly been reconciling with its rock 'n' roll past.

Radiohead's 2001 tour felt at times like a journey back to the band's roots, but that journey finally felt complete Thursday -- a night of celebration and triumph that showed Radiohead stronger, yet also warmer, than ever.

After an opening set by countrymen Supergrass, Radiohead wasted no time in showcasing its rock rejoicing.

Yorke stood triumphantly in the spotlight with bandmates Jonny Greenwood (guitar and synthesizer), Ed O'Brien (guitar), Phil Selway (drums) and Colin Greenwood (bass).

Radiohead began with "There There," the most accessible and rock-friendly track from the new "Hail to the Thief" album.

It then turned to "2 + 2 = 5," another song from the album, this one expansive enough to virtually summarize the band's chief creative theme (trying to make sense of a world in which things don't seem to add up) and exquisite musical range.

Yorke's intense singing is flexible enough to sound as fragile as someone barely able to find the strength to convey his isolation, or as guttural and defiant as a social rebel.

Many of his themes feel like wake-up calls, to himself and others, against forces as personal as apathy and doubt or external as unprincipled authorities. "Are you such a dreamer? / To put the world to rights?" Yorke asked at the beginning of the song Thursday in a voice barely above a whisper, the music itself equally delicate and soft.

Seconds later, the delicate mood was shattered by a harrowing sense of helplessness, "It's the devil's way now / There's no way out," Yorke declared, and the music gave way to a guitar-driven sonic explosion as fierce as any heavy-metal. In its chilling fury, Radiohead was lashing out at anguish and despair.

In the rest of the set, which drew chiefly from the "Hail" and "Computer" albums, the group moved freely from guitar-dominated textures to hauntingly exotic and ambient ones, music with a frequently symphonic grace.

By the end, Yorke had moved from electric guitar to acoustic, from upright piano to simply standing at the microphone and singing.

The other players shifted instruments and moods in ways that belie the idea that there is only one true instrumentation in rock.

Yorke, who has sometimes seemed stone-faced and uncomfortable in the spotlight, still has moments of somber reflection. At other times, however, he moved with the exuberance of a dancing marionette.

If the White Stripes, who kicked off a glorious week of rock in Los Angeles with three shows at the Greek Theatre, represent the raw, visceral side of the music, Radiohead offers the more studied and cerebral.

Together, the pair stand as splendid bookends of the contemporary rock experience -- music that is so independent and absorbing that it invites pop fans and would-be musicians to live up to rock's grandest mission: stepping away from the norm.

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