Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Radiohead At Santa Barbara Bowl

While I really wanted to watch Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention live on Thursday night, I couldn't miss an opportunity to see Radiohead perform the last show of the U.S. leg of their current tour. And the fact that it was at the stunning Santa Barbara Bowl, which happens to be the band’s favorite venue, sealed the deal.

Despite a four-hour drive to get there, a dearth of parking, and a security nightmare of endless lines in search of the proper seating wristbands, we got to our seats just as the spare syncopated rhythm of the opening to In Rainbows’ “Reckoner” was met by Thom Yorke’s plaintively eerie vocals drifting over it like a ghost train arriving at a newly materialized station. And just like that, we climbed aboard ready for the journey that only Radiohead can deliver.

They picked up speed with Kid A’s “Optimistic,” then started rolling relentlessly through the wild and varied terrain that makes up the band’s unique sound. They covered a lot of ground, squeezing twenty-five songs into just over two hours. From the slow vortex of “There, There,” the techno-laced dreamscape of “The Gloaming,” the sweet melancholy of “No Surprises,” to the wrenchingly beautiful rendition of “Lucky,” things were perfectly paced.

The stage was as spectacular as the sound. A massive light display created from vertically hanging LED tubes looked a bit like an over-sized Hyatt ballroom chandelier, except for the fact that they lit up in brilliant hues and patterns to match the tone and tempo of the music electrifying the whole scene. We later learned this was designed as a way to reduce the carbon footprint of the tour (fewer trucks and tour buses might have done more in this regard, but hey, they’ve got a lot of stuff to move around). Five screens mounted in a horizontal band behind the lights gave detailed views of the band members as they played.

Johnny Greenwood spent as much time on the floor tweaking knobs on his DL4 pedal and vintage RE201 Space Echo to push the boundaries of their sound as he did playing guitar.

Thom Yorke talked little, seeming more concerned with squeezing in as much music as possible before running up against the venue’s 10:00 p.m. curfew.

After two encores, they ended things in a final ecstatic surge launching into “Ideoteque” and ramping up the light show into its most colorful and chaotic of the night, while Thom Yorke let loose with his exuberantly awkward dance moves.

At the after-show party, we got a rare treat when we ran into Bob Boilen, former long-time director of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and current host and creator of NPR’s “All Songs Considered.” We had a great time talking with him and discovering his secret history as a member of D.C.’s psychedelic dance band Tiny Desk Unit. Here is an NPR podcast of Thom Yorke guest hosting Bob’s show back in February. Look for a webcast of Thursday's complete Santa Barbara concert on the All Songs Considered website Monday, September 8 at noon.

Thanks to my husband Greg Westall for all the great photos.

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