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Published: 2003/10/15
by Jesse Jarnow

Radiohead, Madison Square Garden, NYC- 10/9

NYC ROLL-TOP: Everything In Its Right Place

Radiohead's show at Madison Square Garden was about as far from the
do-it-yourself ethic as one could get. The elaborately arty stage set,
decked with banks of glittering lights and video screens, along with a
precisely synchronized team of roadies scurrying out between each song to
push pianos and distribute guitars, presented an image of perfect
machination. At the center of it all, coolly attached, hovered the band
members themselves. Somehow, despite the performance's intricate riggings,
the show managed to broadcast an experience that was both intimate and
inspiring, not do-it-yourself so much as
do-something-yourself. Across the arena, one could practically sense
lightbulbs exploding over the heads of future musicians as they realized the
possibilities. It was art rock at its finest, the band contributing to a
longer, broader dialogue — a slow improvisation with other albums, other
bands, and time. One could see it trickling out to other bands — art
rockers, jambands, arena acts, and indie kids. Like it or not, Radiohead
effects all of us, and we'd probably be wise to pay strict attention.

At a large festival or arena show, most of the audience experiences the show
from a distance. Radiohead acknowledged this by making themselves a small
part of a larger canvas. Above the band's gear was a rectangular grid of
trusses on which lights were mounted; and, above that, a series of mutated
streetlamp-like fixtures. Bracketing the set were two tall, narrow screens.
From a visual perspective, the performance held its cards tightly, never
showing more than a little, each song revealing a new arrangement of lights
and spectacle, each serving perfectly. Watching from the back of the room
was like seeing an ever-changing abstract image. Neon waves melted from left
to right, individual bulbs shot on and off, patterns revealed themselves. On
"I Might Be Wrong," for example, alternating diagonal spots shot down on the
band, while pinpoint bulbs flickered above, a long, black space between the
two groups of lights. Meanwhile, on the side screens, Thom Yorke played the

The screens added a great deal to the intimacy of the show. When bands
employ screens, they are generally to amplify what's going on stage, so the
people in the back can have a view, theoretically, as good as the people in
front. What frequently ends up happening, however, is that one ends up
watching the screens instead of the musicians — an unpleasant feeling that
is both impersonal and unrewarding, and leaves one feeling pissed off that
he ended up in the back. As with Radiohead's 2001 tour, where they featured
gorgeously creative black-and-white shots in a letterbox frame, the screens
simply added another layer to the experience. One never felt drawn to them,
his eyes wandering from the screens to the lights and, yes, even down to the
band. One never felt jealous of the kids in the general admission area up
front. In fact, one felt a little sorry that they were missing the show. The
footage on the screens – which included live samples of the band run
backwards, bizarro angles, filmstrip-like image division, and the occasional
requisite close-up – felt just as real as the musicians.

Yes, the musicians. They were there, too. Frontman Thom Yorke stalked the
stage, convulsing like a melodramatic Johnny Rotten, or perhaps just a
convulsive Michael Stipe. They were in incredible musical form, effortlessly
traversing the intricate arrangements of their studio work. And, as with the
screens, it never felt disingenuous. Rather, despite the music's intrinsic
strangeness, it felt completely live, like a completely logical way of
structuring songs. And, again as with the screens, the band never played all
their cards at once. The arrangements revealed what was necessary. On Kid
A's "Morning Bell," guitarist Jonny Greenwood played simple
up/down/up/down palm mutes, while Ed O'Brien simply contributed handclaps.

All of the visual and musical elements combined into a beautiful performance
set perfectly in a large room. Yorke's droning vocals on Hail To The
Thief's "Sail To The Moon" blended into the murk of the arena and
recalled Boards of Canada's humming keyboard sustains. "A Wolf At The Door"
seemed Beatle-esque — a mix of the stately arpeggios of "Because" crossed
with the too-many-words-crammed-way-too-tight bridge of "Please Please Me."
The crowd played a part in the music, too — random cheers bubbled up and
sounded like washes.

The problem with being progressive is that the audience always expects
something more, a next step, because the very notion of a progression points
towards something else. By the middle of the band's 17-song set, one
wondered what it would all amount to, if something Big was about to occur.
It would have to involve the light show, of course. During the set-closing
"Fake Plastic Trees," lights flickered on throughout the arena, and it
briefly seemed as if that would be the visual conclusion: the stage lights
seemingly melting off their grid and spreading out across the arena. But,
weirdly, they didn't catch on. By the second verse, they were mostly out,
and they didn't even return when the light show was temporarily shut off and
Yorke delivered a beautiful solo acoustic reading of "True Love Waits" in
the middle of the three song, second encore.

"Everything In Its Right Place," Kid A's gently paranoid
Rhodes-driven opener, closed the evening. The crowd clapped along at
breakneck speed, revealing the song's true frenzied inner core. The light
show fired to life again. It was there that the show reached its
2001-like conclusion — the beautifully psychedelic lights parting
ways to reveal something of great, ambiguous Meaning. Vague letters began to
appear behind the lights – R E V E R F – getting subtly brighter – O R E V – defining themselves – E R F O R – moving
faster – E V E R – the band fading into darkness and
disappearing – F O R E V E R F O R E V E R F
O R E V E R F O R E V E R.

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