THE BEGINNING

There was ‘Creep’. There was ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’. But still this was a Radiohead show intent on making the environment work for them rather than working for the environment, a position that seems to split the audience.

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Radiohead at Primavera Sound 2016, Friday 3 June 2016

Whether you belong in the camp that feels Radiohead are whining career miserablists or untouchable musical gods, it remains equally unfathomable just how popular they are for the type of music they make. The sense of anticipation bubbles quietly but fervently leading up to their set: unlucky punters beg for tickets with signs outside whilst the queues for their main stage performance begin hours before the band play. The whole evening feels shaped around them and the pitiful size of the crowd at Dinosaur Jr, who were on at the same time as them, really hits home the magnitude and breadth of their ongoing adoration, despite not making a record with anything resembling a ‘hit’ or anything universally acknowledged as being popular music for many years.

The band sort of just fall into the set rather than start it. The looping backing track from ‘Burn The Witch’ quietly murmurs in the background and the band then simply join in around it. Without any physical string presence on stage, the stabbing, repetitive and ominous bow slides that drive the minimalist core of the recorded song are re-shaped and the song has more of a build-and-explode template to it.

As has been customary for all shows supporting ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, the first five songs are all from it. There’s an eerie, anguished and intimate ‘Daydreaming’ that somehow feels antithetical, wrong almost, in its outdoor environment despite its delivered potency. The reversed mechanical gargle of the lyrics “half my life” obtusely projecting to an eager festival crowd the recent break-up of Thom Yorke’s 23-year relationship. Despite being clouded by clipped electronics and mangled effects, there’s an emotion that still surfaces during it that’s hard to ignore and almost difficult to swallow.

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By the end of the run of five new songs the pulsating throb of ‘The National Anthem’ breaks the tempo and shifts the atmosphere into something more resembling a festival set. However, Radiohead seem intent on making the environment work for them rather than working for the environment, a position that seems to split the audience between those finding it admirable and others objectionable.

Their set is one structured around a coherent tone, a flow driven by Yorke’s more elongated and experimental vocals, backed by the spitting tip-tap and occasionally jazzy dual drums and electronics that weave between doomy drones and icy, spluttering eruptions. The deviation, or respite, from this is via the occasional sing-alongs like ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Karma Police’, but, enjoyable as they are, these feel more like bones of consideration thrown to the audience to chew on before they move back onto the path they wish to travel down.

The set ends on a strong run that merges ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ ‘Idioteque’ ‘Bodysnatchers’ and ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’, ‘Idioteque’ being perhaps the only song to throw anything in the way of a surprise as it descends into a sputtering, fractured explosion of pummelling sounds that extends the outro into a clattering back and forth before it collapses and dies like a machine malfunctioning and then giving up for good.

It’s these rare moments that are the ones to be cherished as it often seems that given their now 20-plus year history as a band, the element of surprise at a Radiohead show is centred around what they’ll play, not how’ll they play it and there’s often not a lot going on beyond straight-up recreation for the most part.

Opening the encore with the fairly prosaic ‘Bloom’ feels like a steep nose dive into a slog rather than the reinvigorating re-emergence one might hope from an encore. It does feel emblematic of the place the group are in at the moment, both sonically and in terms of mind-set, when they re-enter from the stage we go back into their world on their terms.

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It’s precisely at this moment that the set’s length begins to become apparent as it winds ever closer to two hours. The sprawling, multifaceted ‘Paranoid Android’ feels distinctly out of place in the evening with its thundering, crunching guitars, and chorus-like driven singalong, but that doesn’t stop it from still sounding explosive and rupturing. The sheer oddness of its structure still remains a joy nearly two decades on. It’s a set-up for a much more guitar-driven finale as ‘2+2=5’ and ‘There There’ close the evening out. A second, perhaps unplanned or even un-allowed encore takes place, seemingly with the bands monitors being switched off. It’s ‘Creep’ and it functions exactly as ‘Creep’ does, huge hacking guitars that sound like car crashes before the soaring chorus sails into the evening air. Perhaps it’s something of a ‘thank you for sticking with us’ moment from the band, as Yorke himself had conceded during their first encore, “I’m surprised you’re still here”.

For some parts of the audience it was palpable that this was not the festival headlining set they wanted to hear, but the days of Radiohead being a huge guitar-spewing rock band are long behind them and this set accurately reflected a career that exists far more in the esoteric world than it does the anthemic. Chances are if you’ve arrived in 2016 still a Radiohead fan then you embrace the challenges they’ve thrown at you over the years and tonight is no different. Whether the set entirely – and continually – worked in a festival environment is questionable, but there was an admirability to the honesty and commitment from the band, one who still know how to astound and confound in equal measure.

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