Live review: Thom Yorke at the Orpheum Theatre*
With Flea driving the groove, Radiohead's frontman funks it up.
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.
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.
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.