Atoms For Peace: Aragon Ballroom, 04.10.10
Posted 04/15/2010 by cal
A supergroup by definition, Atoms For Peace features a couple of major
90s icons who seem largely impervious to the rules of pop music, which
clearly state that they should both be totally irrelevant dinosaurs by
this point. But as almost anyone will attest, Thom Yorke is
still one of the most vital and influential musicians in the world, and Flea's
other band is still putting out albums that end up in top-ten lists.
That doesn't necessarily mean they can coexist in the same band,
I don't have much frame of reference for
the opening set by Flying
Lotus. The guy is not at all a typical DJ. He is not a slave
to the beat. There was plenty of rhythm to grab you, but the mix would
often descend into amorphous layers of sound. It sounds like a cop-out
segue gimmick, but it didn't come off that way. Naturally, it was the
few thrown bones of mainstream tunes that caused the biggest uproar
among the crowd; a hunk of Portishead's "Machine Gun" and some
"Idioteque" suggested our DJ knew his audience. But as unorthodox as
the performance was, it was still thoroughly danceable. Stylistically,
FlyLo seemed a perfect choice to open an AfP show.
I knew what we were in for: The Eraser, Thom's 2006 solo dance
party for the disillusioned, beginning to end. It's a very good album
in its own right, but one thing it doesn't have on it is a band. It's
just Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich
messing around and twiddling knobs, and lots of great songs. Nary an
organic drumbeat to be heard, and yet here comes Atoms For Peace,
Waronker, an unsung hero of the post-alternative era. He's the
guy that takes over when your other drummer quits the band or gets
fired, as with Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M.. If you
remember the one song on Beck's last album, The Information,
that actually had drums, that was Joey. He's an amazingly
versatile musician, and he's finally the drummer in the initial lineup
of a band.
Obviously, Nigel would have to be in the band; in a sense, The Eraser
is his greatest artistic statement ever. Freed from the Radiohead
name, he used his studio as an instrument more than ever before. Now
he's actually bringing that presence to the stage, which has got to be a
thrill. And surely, AfP is a more ambitious and rewarding venture for
percussionist Mauro Refosco of
Forro In The Dark than backing up Brett Dennen.
The biggest question mark for me was Flea: this couldn't possibly be funky,
could it? How is Flea gonna be Flea in this metronomic, über-serious
In the years since Bonnaroo '06, I must've forgotten how much fun Thom is generally
having onstage these days. He never stops moving, and maybe that's all
Flea really needs in a frontman. But rather than injecting a lot of
iconic Fleaisms into the main set, he chose to commit to what is, as far
as I know, an entirely new facet of his talent. Whatever this music
is, it's not rock and roll. A guitar is a novelty at an AfP show. I
don't know how Flea and Thom ever thought "let's form a band", but it
was working on this night. If anything, Flea brought an organic
spontaneity to the music that's not on the record, but not a ton. But
for the third section of the set, the new stuff, you could suddenly hear
Flea the smooth criminal emerge; he must have had a hand in writing at
least "Judge, Jury & Executioner" and "Hollow Earth".
But I have to hand the game ball to Waronker and Refosco, jointly. They
essentially took a collection of relatively chilling, cybertronic songs
and made them human. With flesh and blood powering the beats, the
songs leapt off the stage like lizards from a primordial circuitboard.
You couldn't help seeing "The Clock" and "Harrowdown Hill" and "Cymbal
Rush" in a totally new and scintillating light.
Of course, you've got the visual of Thom up there spazzing out, that
helps. But what you've really got here is not just a solo artist and
his buddies; you've got a band. The tension/release that the
ensemble achieved in the last two songs of the set can only be achieved
by five guys grooving in the same mind. And none of the machinistic
propulsion was lost on any of the album tracks; it was a booty-shakin'
get-down, albeit more twitchy than funky, but if you could stand still,
your jeans were just too damn tight.
Thom's solo spot was amazing, of course; an untitled new track, and then
the second-ever live performance of "I Froze Up", a Kid A-era
casualty that first popped up on a 2002 webcast and was never heard
again until this year. It's an uncanny string of emotions, lilting to
triumphant to disturbing in the span of a couple of minutes, performed
beautifully by just Yorke and piano. Same with "Everything In Its Right
Place", and stripped of its synthesizers it actually sounded kind of
like an anthem (oops!).
For me, the final four tunes, again with the full band, were the
highlight of the show. They reworked the minimalist, glitchy b-side
"Paperbag Writer" (from 2003's "There There") into a slinky slab of
percussive post-rock, quite -esque, Flea getting just a little funky for once,
fattening up that bassline as if it had been written for him. I'd say
he was dominant for the rest of the show, except it was still the
beatmakers who were the shining stars. The shuffling, insectile
clattering they created for "Hollow Earth" was otherworldly, and the jam
they masterminded that ended the show, out of "Feeling Pulled Apart By
Horses", could've gone on for another half hour and I'd have been even
happier. But as it was, I was elated. This almost, ALMOST, filled my
longing for a Radiohead tour, not because it was so like
Radiohead, but because it was another band with Thom Yorke in it, making
incredible music like no other band really makes.