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Live review: Thom Yorke at the Echoplex

October 3, 2009 |  9:21 am

Thom Yorke is a great dancer. This talent doesn't come up too often in his day job fronting the transcendently dispirited quintet Radiohead, where long, simmering songs tend to cover topics like wolves at one's door, impending ice ages and God being unamused by a videotape of your life.

But at Friday night's debut of his still-unnamed solo-project/ensemble at the Echoplex, he moved like Busby Berkeley at the end of days -- jerky robot twitches, stoned head-rolls, teenage sock-hop bouncing. For a man who leads what's likely to be the last rock band considered the best and best-selling at the same time, there was a sense of a previously untapped emotion in the onstage performance: Joy. For the few hundred vigilant souls at the Echoplex who managed to sneak onto Ticketweb before it exploded Friday, the feeling was absolutely mutual.

YorkebandYorke formed the new project -- with Flea, Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco -- to play out material from Yorke's 2006 glitchy laptop-pop solo debut "The Eraser" and a few new and rare tunes. Yorke billed it as a "rehearsal" onstage, but the set was a flawless performance. Though it will break the heart of everyone in the line that stretched to Echo Park Lake outside, there was standing room aplenty next to Zack de la Rocha, Kim Gordon and, we hear, Daft Punk and Rick Rubin in there.

First, it must be said that casting Flea on bass was a devilish and particularly brilliant move for this ensemble. There might not be another rock musician with a better sense of syncopation, and his drill-bit-precise computer-funk bass lines made the songs swing in a way that Radiohead rarely gets at on record.

Opening with the title track from "The Eraser," it was instantly apparent the group was up to something entirely different. Phil Selway is a fine drummer in Radiohead, but this material veered much closer to the kind of drum-and-bass and old-rave percussion that's percolated into Radiohead's arrangements but never really stood up front. Maybe I just have this sound on the brain lately, but a lot of it moved like dubstep and what you'd find at Low End Theory. "The Clock" and "Skip Divided" were revelatory this way -- the edge-of-your-seat beats with Yorke's ever-reaching falsetto and a melodica turn by Flea added up to something uncannily pretty yet completely swaggering and kinetic.

There were more handmade and intimate takes on "Eraser" tracks like "Atoms For Peace,"  with its particularly fiendish off-time bass runs, and the piano-centric "Black Swan," but the band seemed to know they worked best when playing as a kind of post-apocalyptic version of the Time. The menacing punk-funk murder ballad of "Harrowdown Hill" practically dripped blood, and when Yorke sang lines like "Did I fall or was I pushed? / Don't ask me, ask the Ministry," it felt less mournful and more like a promise to haunt the heck out of whoever did the deed.

Though the set was very much about the interplay within the new group, Radiohead obsessives had plenty to mull over. During an encore/interlude at the piano, Yorke played unreleased songs (known to the encyclopedic fansite At Ease Web as "Skirting on the Surface," "Lotus Flower," "Judge, Jury and Executioner" and "Open The Floodgates"), some of which have reportedly been in the Radiohead orbit for a few years. It's unclear if Yorke has now claimed them as solo material or was using them to fill the set out.

But Yorke's self-deprecating wisecracks about how little material the band had was totally unfounded. By the time they veered from a sprawling 7/8 workout jam into the splintery new cut "FeelingPulledApartByHorses," Yorke and his band were on their toes again, flailing like teenage garage-band savants who just discovered the physical pleasures of playing together. If you have Orpheum tickets, these shows will both confirm and upend a lot of what you think about Radiohead and Yorke as a writer-arranger. He's still nudging the outer limits of what a rock band is capable of today, but by turning to some basic, downright sexy beat-making and gleeful witch-doctor arrangements. The lines around the Orpheum this weekend will be intimidating. Make sure you're in one. 

-- August Brown

Photo courtesy radiohead.com. Video by lamofo.