Over the years I’ve bitched about Radiohead a lot. I justified my sense of entitlement in a lot of different ways but if there was a core gripe, it was this: Radiohead are widely acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest live bands ever, and they hardly ever tour, and when they do it’s never close to meeting the demand that exists, at least in the USA. Which is just me being salty about not having been able to see them live since they headlined Bonnaroo in 2012. Nowadays, the possibility of seeing the band live ever again feels more and more remote as the months pass. In Milwaukee, forget about it. Yet here were Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, the two primary creative forces of the band, playing in a trio with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, behind a debut album few Radiohead fans could possibly be disappointed in, as The Smile. At the Riverside Theater. And as of the day before the show, at least, tickets were still available at the box office.
What this city really needs is more music venues, though. Surely.
Maybe, on the other hand, I only think Radiohead are so universally lauded. Maybe that’s just the circle I run with. Maybe to the wider world they’re practically forgotten. Maybe Thom and Jonny are just movie soundtrack artists as far as younger generations are concerned, and The Smile, who aren’t playing any Radiohead material anyway, might as well be The Firm or something. Not to the packed crowd Tuesday night, though. These were our conquering heroes returning after having abdicated the throne of rock and roll decades ago, as if A Light For Attracting Attention were a proper follow-up to The Bends. Although the crowd was mostly seated, except for that one time when everyone in the middle section of the balcony stood up for like twenty seconds for some reason and then sat back down, the energy was huge enough to match what The Smile were cranking out.
This is probably not the dawning of a new era for Thom and Jonny, I told myself, because that’s what it felt like. Not unlike U2’s Elevation Tour, a reclaiming of any lost ground, a stripping away of some pretension, sonically both fresh and familiar. (In other words, what everyone except me seemed to think about In Rainbows?) Although the project has been hailed as a return to rock, these blokes are far too easily bored to play it as straight as all that. Shortly after the trio debuted in May of last year at the zoom-meeting Glastonbury, I listened to a recording of their set. ‘Intriguing’ was about the best reaction I could muster. I didn’t get the sense that Skinner was given much of a chance to contribute creatively to these bare-bones grooves; they sounded like half-finished compositions. When the album came out, it made those debut performances sound skeletal. On Tuesday night those same songs swelled as if the album versions were merely containers for the light inside them.
That’s not to say The Smile were jamming, per se, but compared to, say, Radiohead? It seemed only natural that Skinner’s influence would yield some improv, although it often came about in unexpected ways, like a seemingly spontaneous noise jam in between songs that saw Greenwood cutting a memorable silhouette bowing his guitar, or the classic-rock bleed-out jam that emerged from the unreleased new song “Bending Hectic”. Who saw this coming, an “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” surrogate? And it was potent though perhaps a bit cheesier than you’d expect from these fellas. I was a little more impressed with “Colours Fly”, a quirky and rather dark piece of music (featuring opening act Robert Stillman on sax) that also ended in what seemed like a couple minutes of let’s-see-what-happens.
It was all the more interesting given Yorke’s almost Bono-esque lyrical bent on some of these songs. Show opener “The Same” had almost the same brand of urgency as U2’s “Please”, even featuring a similar vocal plea, and to any lingering OK Computer-era purists, the optimism of “Free In The Knowledge” would have to come as a turnoff. This is a welcome trend amongst prominent gen-x songwriters, though. The astute amongst them who are still alive and can still write lyrics probably realize that they spewed plenty of bile in their heyday and could stand to spread some positivity in the world. I think it’s a part of why, for instance, a lot of Ani DiFranco’s old songs come off a bit forced on some nights, and why James Hetfield has embraced the overt lovefests that are modern Metallica concerts, and why Yorke probably doesn’t relish the idea of singing “Climbing Up The Walls” and whatnot night after night. It’s not that the righteous fury is gone (see: “You Will Never Work In Television Again” for starters), it’s just that they’re very different people now, aren’t we all.
The Smile played their whole album plus four unreleased songs, Yorke and Greenwood switching between various guitars, basses, keyboards and god knows what else, Skinner proving as adept with ballads and big rock bombast as with various jazz-ish modes and driving grooves. (He’s also got a pretty great new solo album out FYI.) And as badly as I might’ve wanted to hear an oldie, as obvious as it was at various moments that this very powerful band could positively destroy any Radiohead song from the ‘90s and make the tops of people’s heads pop right off, these new songs lacked for nothing. This might be the best Thom & Jonny material in 20 years. I loved A Moon Shaped Pool and there’ve been plenty of great Radiohead and Yorke solo songs this century. But better than “Thin Thing” and “Speech Bubbles” and “A Hairdryer” and “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings”? I dunno. Besides, if you demand old songs, how about “Skrting On The Surface”, which Radiohead played a few times way back in 2012? Or are you not a real fan. And let’s not forget that final song of the encore.
I had avoided looking at setlists prior to the show, which in hindsight was dumb. I could’ve prepared myself a little better for “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses”. I’d already seen Yorke perform the song twice with Atoms For Peace in 2010 and ’13; he finally released it as a single in 2016, but it had actually been around since at least 2001, when Radiohead played it at the Gorge and never have again. Previous iterations of the song are barely distinguishable as the same song except for its core bass line. The Smile version didn’t even feature a bass. It sounded way more like the Radiohead version than any of the other ones, though. For obvious reasons.
By the end of the show the air in the theater had begun to suffocate us in the upper decks. I never recall ventilation being a huge issue in the Riverside before so this was a little disturbing. It was 54 degrees when we’d arrived and stepping back outside in a t-shirt was harsh but invigorating. I thought about my first concert at this venue, Emerson, Lake & Palmer almost 30 years ago, another frigid night. I remembered walking across this same Wisconsin Avenue bridge, panicking over misplaced car keys, driving back to Janesville in a blizzard. We have it so easy now. This is nothing.
To think I could’ve seen Radiohead in Milwaukee later that year. Sadly, news of shows at Marquette University didn’t generally make it to Milton in those days, or maybe I didn’t hang out with the right crowd. I didn’t fall hard for the band until the fall of 1997 anyway, by which point they’d essentially ceased regular touring of the states. “I’ll probably never see them play ‘The Tourist’” I used to moan. Now all I could do was look up at the marquee, and think about how none of my crew had dropped out with covid, how this band from overseas did not have to cancel its tour due to exorbitant costs or illness or any number of other reasons, how these Radiohead guys are still stomping through the world and bringing us these experiences. How everything is change.