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, however…
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, featuring Joey 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 atmosphere?
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.