Valencia, Spain, August 4, 2002
Thom Yorke's never been much of a comedian but his exhortation to the Spanish
audience is particularly trite. "Muchas gracias... patatas fritas, no fish" he mumbles,
showcasing the linguistic genius shared by most of his countrymen. The audience
overlooks the cheap pokes at their language however: Benicasim is one of
favourite festivals and a regular testing ground for the band when they've got some
new tunes in the bag. An attendance here by the Oxford outfit is thus a guaranteed
sell-out and a lucky bag for fans who manage to get into the grounds.
And so it was tonight. Yorke's music was a lot better than his Spanish. Edge of stage, the tanned front-man looked vicious, molesting his mike to squeeze the good out of every word. The over-load of electronic gadgetry the band took with them was too much for the Benicasim stage however and the two resulting sound black-outs were probably the minimum trouble we could have expected during the set.
Opening with The National Anthem, the band went right into Morning Bell, and then Lucky. Radiohead's heart was in it, for sure, but it wasn't until Karma Police that the crowd joined in. Perhaps it was the illegibility and pure sonic-electronic indulgence of the first numbers (as one local newspaper would put it the following day "singing songs only they understand") or the overwhelmingly Spanish-French crowd expecting the rock staples which made Radiohead a big thing in these parts. The band lounging about earlier, unnoticed, in the huge easy-electronica "Chill Out" tent should have given a clue or two of what was to be expected. Dollars and Cents, Exit Music for a Film and Punch Up at a Wedding passed in a similar haze of crowd confusion and band well-meaningness. There's something existential maybe about Yorke's writing and performance these days, like he's tried to mine the soul and find some explanations to the existence of rock'n'roll. It's as if the lead singer feels himself free, but free in a prison of its own musicality, trying every damn instrumental and electronic fusion in an attempt to break out to eventual satisfaction and confidence in the music it makes.
The curiously country rock sway and then raw guitars on Exit Music... was a case in point. Punch Up at a Wedding rolled by softly and smoothly as the upright piano is rolled on stage for Yorke. Sound problems unfortunately silenced the cello during this number, leaving a pissed off Yorke to grunt "shut the fucking thing up" at the hapless player gone acoustic. Punching the keys, Yorke continued, head bobbing feverishly, shaking as he pushed out the lyrics. It was half two in the morning however, and many festival goers, this writer included, found themselves almost running out of patience watching the man exorcising his demons. May we hope he manages to sink a few of them in some of the tunes going in to the album the band is currently recording in Los Angeles.
It was the final four songs that took this sea-side show to the good time. Quite uncharacteristically, a hip-swivelling Yorke gestured to the crowd for a clap-along. His own feverish clapping and manic-idiotic smile lent the whole affair the air of a psychotherapy session for the little man from Oxford. But this was Fake Plastic Trees after all, a brilliant version of it too. Just followed the crowd pleaser, before an even bigger hit arrived, Paranoid Android. The encore number was Everything In Its Right Place, taking the show back to the territory in which it started.
The encore saw Johnny Greenwood takes up a snare and a tom drum at the front of stage, his brother doing the same on the other side of Yorke before the two go back to giving it loads of guitar on the promising second half to the song. It was an unsettling mish-mash of electronica and rock that constituted this set. Yorke finishes the affair jumping about with the crowd, clapping manically, as if he's maybe making up for the slight monotony of his set in several thousand eyes about the place, wondering perhaps if he has to, or if he's won the day. Radiohead may have nothing to prove. However with this electro stuff they sure can cut it, do it, push the envelope but can they remain relevant?