The last time Radiohead visited New Zealand was almost generation ago — January 1998, to be precise — when they were at the peak of their popularity following the release of their watershed album OK Computer. Since then the lauded group have released a string of challenging, forward-thinking and zeitgest-capturing albums such as Kid A and In Rainbows that have wilfully shed their earlier alt-rock following while maintaining a strong and dedicated fanbase happy to follow their forays into more electronic and experimental territory. It was from these latter releases that Thom Yorke and co. drew for their feverishly-anticipated sold-out show at Auckland’s Vector Arena on Tuesday night, delivering a visually spectacular and frequently exhilarating two-hour plus set which unsurprisingly never catered to casual fans — despite their long absence from our shores — and left the majority of the diehard audience beaming with joy.
Following a dreamy, low-key half-hour set from UK-based Kiwi singer-songwriter Connan Mockasin, Radiohead casually took the stage to rapturous applause from the excitable, yet respectful, 12,000-strong capacity crowd. They launched straight into their latest single ‘Lotus Flower’, the standout track from last year’s The King of Limbs, with Yorke busting some of his signature dance moves. As the opening notes sounded, a dozen square screens tilted at odd angles lowered from the ceiling above the stage to reveal fragmented projections of the bandmembers as they perform, as well as other cryptic images such as QR codes (which don’t seem to lead anywhere). Another TKOL cut, ‘Bloom’, immediately followed, with the position of the futuristic screens and the accompanying lighting adjusting for each new song. Pausing only briefly to say “Good evening”, we were then treated to the show’s first highlight as Ed O’Brien’s iconic guitar riff took us back to 1997 with ‘Airbag’. An eclectic, late-career-spanning setlist followed, heavy on In Rainbows (‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’, ‘Nude’) and The King of Limbs (‘Separator’, ‘Feral’) cuts while also touching on Kid A (‘Kid A’), Amnesiac (‘I Might Be Wrong’) and Hail to the Thief (‘The Gloaming’). While these tracks and their admirable performances could hardly be faulted, they also struggled to connect with the audience at times and it wasn’t until the group unveiled an overwhelmingly gorgeous rendition of ‘Reckoner’ that the set — and the audience’s spirits — really soared. The song climaxed with some astounding vocals from Thom Yorke, who even on a rough night — the singer was jetlagged and had a sore throat — proved he is truly in a league of his own.
Once a piano was hastily wheeled out for Yorke, another set highlight followed as he and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Greenwood — playing his guitar upright with a bow — led the band through a rousing performance of ‘Pyramid Song’. Crowd interaction and banter was typically kept to a bare minimum throughout, but Yorke did stop to introduce one of their newest songs called ‘Identikit‘, a disorienting and percussive number with vocal harmonies from O’Brien. The first song to incite the audience into a frenzy — and arguably the show’s highlight — was ‘The National Anthem’, which was such an intense assault of blaring, increasingly-layered sonics and seizure-inducing lighting that I’m sure most of us are still suffering some kind of sensory overload. The set proper ended with a run-through of their upbeat, loose rocker ‘Bodysnatchers’, but it wasn’t long before Yorke and Greenwood re-appeared on stage together for the first encore with a spare ‘Give Up the Ghost’. Fans will recall the duo performed the track this way on Fallon last year, but it was still an impressive sight to behold as Yorke looped his vocals over and over until they built to a hypnotic crescendo. The encore continued with last year’s Record Store Day release ‘Supercollider’ — featuring both of the Greenwood brothers on bass — and a rather manic ‘Morning Mr. Magpie’.
The set reached its zenith with the one-two punch of ‘Myxomatosis’ and ‘Paranoid Android’. The former was dedicated to “Mitt Fucking Romney”, with Yorke gesticulating theatrically in true Roger Waters fashion, while the latter served as the loudest crowd sing-a-long of the night and likely audience favourite if the massive grins I witnessed were any indication. The band left the stage again to thunderous applause and deafening shouts for another encore, eventually returning for a remarkably updated and well-received version of ‘Idioteque’. It was a fine way to close out an impressive and diverse set, and while it’s somewhat disappointing to know that the audience at their previous gig in Antwerp, Belgium were treated to more great songs — ‘Everything in its Right Place’ and ’15 Step’ (plus ‘Karma Police’ during the main set instead of ‘There There’) — it’s perfectly understandable why Yorke cut the second encore short in his condition while mid-tour, and his vocal performance was damn commendable considering.
So was this the gig-of-a-lifetime that countless punters were hoping for? Almost certainly for some of the younger audience members, and it was absolutely a dream come true to finally experience my favourite band of the last 20 years in concert. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it matches my all-time favourite gig by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds back in 2005 at the St. James, but it definitely rivals Bon Iver as the best show of the year and is one I will not soon forget. From a visual perspective, the unique screens and lighting were sensational throughout, easily on par — if not besting — some great recent displays we’ve seen from peers such as Massive Attack and Gorillaz. The sound was also excellent, as expected, and the band seem to be more adept than ever at recreating the dense and intricately-layered soundscapes of their recorded material, with second drummer/percussionist Clive Deamer (Portishead) enlisted to help accomplish this. Radiohead proved that on a good night they are better than most bands on their best night, and in a climate of countless ’90s reunions shamelessly cashing in on nostalgia, it’s heartening to see that the defining group of their era can still deliver an elegant, uncompromising and consummately professional show to match their trailblazing music.