The last time I saw Radiohead was during the spring of 1992. A quarter of a century ago, down in the dark and dingy basement bar of Bradford’s now defunct Queen’s Hall, the unknown Oxford band were supporting a jokey Irish outfit called The Sultans Of Ping FC. They were one of two support bands that evening (I wonder what happened to Monorail) and I have a very fuzzy memory of jumping on to the stage with a handful of equally excitable teenagers towards the end of the gig, thrashing about amidst Thom and Johnny et al, blissfully unaware that we were witnessing the birth of rock royalty. Fast forward twenty-five years and the band’s first visit to Manchester in five years is a very different experience.
Manchester Arena was supposed to be the venue for two nights during this leg of the world tour, but the tragic events there in May prompted the decision to play just a single night at the city’s cricket ground this evening. The open nature of the venue probably affects the ambience and atmosphere of the evening if truth be told. The impressive light show would certainly have been much more striking in the dark confines of the arena and the huge crowd of fifty thousand is also less compact than it would have been, giving the show a festival atmosphere, but possibly a less intense one too. Despite the generational gap since my last Radiohead experience, there was also a sense that we knew what was coming. Headline spots at Coachella and Glastonbury in particular just the week before eliminate the sense of expectation that would normally accompany the arrival of one of the biggest bands in the world. It is therefore a pleasant surprise to hear the fragile tones of Let Down open the show. This is the first time the song has opened proceedings and hints at the substantial focus that would be paid to the band’s seminal album OK Computer throughout the evening. As if to confirm the point, the wonderfully lugubrious Lucky follows. For a band who have generally abstained from delivering what the fans want or expect on record, this is exactly what this evening is all about and we are served up an absolute smorgasbord of hits from all their records except Pablo Honey (yep, no Creep this time!) over two and a half hours. This approach ensures that the tone of the evening is constantly shifting and the volatile Myxomatosis is immediately offset by the more subtle tones of All I Need and Pyramid Song as if to prove that point.
One thing that is different from the Glastonbury performance this evening is the absence of any political canvassing and an underwhelming chant of Oh, Jeremy Corbyn quickly fizzles out during No Surprises, ensuring that the evening remains just about the music. Indeed, Johnny Greenwood is at his enigmatic best throughout. The sonic scale of sounds he creates and the emotional impact of his playing is staggering and perfectly compliments Thom Yorke’s intensity, which is enhanced by the dramatic video footage of the band being screened behind them. This intensity manifests itself in Yorke’s reluctance to really engage the crowd until the very end of the show when, midway through the second encore, he introduces the penultimate song. “Here’s a treat for you, if we can remember how to play it. You might have to sing along with this one, I’ll probably forget the first verse.” he says before launching into a rare airing of The Bends which has the Manchester crowd in raptures.
The evening eventually concludes in suitably dramatic fashion with Karma Police and it feels like we have ended where we began; “for a minute there, I lost myself” continues to drift faintly over the crowd as we leave several minutes after the band have departed for the last time and once again I’m left to reflect on my previous experience at that Radiohead concert back in 1992. Nobody could have predicted the impact of this little band from Oxford that night, but this evening Radiohead allowed us to celebrate their significant cultural impact over the last quarter century in style. I think I would have enjoyed it more if we were back in that dark basement in Bradford though!
Follow updates from Radiohead here.
Review by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto