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Live review: Thom Yorke at the Orpheum Theatre*

With Flea driving the groove, Radiohead's frontman funks it up.

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To understand what Thom Yorke is up to with the new ensemble he brought to the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday, it's useful to quote one of pop's surviving godfathers. "Once you've done the best you can, funk it!" said George Clinton, the founder of Parliament Funkadelic and guiding light for countless musicians trying to find their footing on the dance floor.

To "funk it" doesn't merely mean to relax; it requires concentration and the kind of muscle that never tenses up. For Yorke, the frontman for the highly cerebral and very popular band Radiohead, it also means rejiggering the multidirectional music that group has perfected, to better emphasize its cornerstone: the groove.

Radiohead isn't often discussed as a dance band, though its sound relies as much on rhythm as on Yorke's woozy melodies and Jonny Greenwood's thickets of effects. But by joining forces with alternative rock's favorite bassist (and Clinton's friend) Flea, as well as drummer Joey Waronker and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco, Yorke is aggressively reaching for the bottom in his own sound.

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The effort (which was reportedly similar to Friday’s at the Echoplex) revealed what Yorke's compositions have in common with the work of such post-punk bands as Gang of Four and Mission of Burma, which also mixed rock's sharpness with the heavy pull of funk and disco. The songs, many of which came from Yorke's 2006 solo album, "The Eraser," are clearly influenced by recent dance music trends such as jungle and dubstep, but with live instrumentation instead of electronic settings, they also recalled the moment punk found its hips.

Repetition was the key to the sound, as the band sought the exact point where the repetition of minimalist art music could fuse with the different, though related, repetition of dance pop. Flea often led the way, tightening the approach he takes with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and upping the energy on nearly every song. He also played a mean melodica.

Another sonic layer came from Radiohead's longtime producer, Nigel Godrich, whose keyboard and guitar playing sometimes gave the music an ambient feel, akin to some of the work of Brian Eno. Yorke himself occasionally added insistent piano lines or shivery guitar parts, as well as deploying his remarkable falsetto.

It wouldn't be fair to call this music Radiohead Lite, because it wasn't light at all. But it was more concentrated and, in some ways, more graspable than that group's work. By appealing to the lower body, Yorke and his band dictated the audience's focus in ways that Radiohead's performances don't.

Revamping his older songs and performing a few new ones, Yorke still worked on articulating his obsessions. His great theme (so far) is how anxiety or even pain can turn into a form of rapture, whether through psychic alienation, physical affliction or, more frequently lately, sexual desire. (This is a guy prone to song titles like "Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses.") That's a natural fit for dance music, which offers ecstasy through bodily entanglement and exhaustion.

Yorke acted out the passion of the disco onstage, grinding and swaying and wobbling madly as the crowd cheered every contortion. His dancing was so zealous that it brought to mind the punk forebear Iggy Pop, who's always approached the art as half visionary trance, half pro wrestler-style peacocking.

At certain points, Yorke stopped his happy writhing to deliver a song in a more subdued, almost soft-rock style. Then, the strange lushness of his compositions and his voice dominated, revealing Yorke's secret vice: an addiction to beauty.

Quickly, though, Flea would return to slap his bass, the rhythm section would kick in, and the quest for that funky groove would resume. It's not just a side interest for Yorke; it's a fundamental that he's sharpening. It's all part of one of rock's most ambitious guys doing the best he can.

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Related: Live review: Thom Yorke at the Echoplex

Photo credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / Los Angeles Times

*Updated: An earlier version of this post referred to bassist Colin Greenwood rather than multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood.

 
Comments () | Archives (5)

"...as on Yorke's woozy melodies and Colin Greenwood's thickets of effects." -- I believe you mean Jonny Greenwood, Colin's the bassist. While he is still a nasty bassist, his younger brother is the maniacal sound engineer... for the most part.

Having listened to some of the songs played at these LA shows, I will say that Flea does add something adleast listenable to Yorke's sound. Of course, the repetition and lack of musical depth still abides. And by the way any critics of my analysis, my musical background is alot more than discovering Radiohead out of the melange of grunge in the 1990's. Maybe those who think Yorke and Radiohead are geniuses should branch out in there musical appreciation.

Anyway to delete the comment above? It just bugs me.

Dearest Mr. Harper,

You should let your musical background out of that air tight container and let it breathe a bit.

I Love Mr. Yorke and all his projects, but no matter how great the any sort of "funk" is, it definitely dilutes the beauty and ambience of music. Driving rhythms become repetitious, whacking bongos turns tribal, and stretched out songs fade my interest. Thom needs to follow and deepen his natural abilities to write melodically, it's his forte and I enjoy it most. It's gorgeous...says the audiophile. Of course, this is only my opinion, as all music taste lends itself to be.


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