Thom Yorke wants us to dance.
Unfortunately that's not really possible in London’s Roundhouse or Manchester’s Palace theatre - the two venues on the English leg of his current tour, sans-Radiohead. The standing area of the Roundhouse is crammed with bodies, while the Palace show is an entirely seated gig - and given how high the Grand Circle is and how steep the steps only the very brave would risk more than an enthusiastic shuffle in their seats, lest they plummet to their doom.
I digress - still, it's a shame. More so than ever before, Yorke’s live show is aimed at making people move. If 'The Eraser' sounded of a piece with Radiohead’s 'Kid A' and 'Amnesiac' - synths over guitars, sure, but still firmly in the sonic world the band established at the turn of the century - then 'Tomorrow's Modern Boxes’ embrace of post-dubstep bass music saw a marked evolution in both Yorke’s production skills and his interest in groove.
He's carried that over here into a show that's thrillingly physical. The bass is bowel-wobbling, the beats legitimately funky - and he appears to be having the time of his life, twitching and flexing across the stage or prowling with his bass on 'Black Swan' - a song that really booms live (even if, at the Manchester show, it slips distractingly out of time).
Not that Yorke has turned his back on the quieter moments, of course. 'Interference' opens both shows with a sparse, skeletal arrangement - a curiously downbeat opener that's then flipped on its head by 'Brain In A Bottle’s throb. 'Nose Grows Some' sounds genuinely haunted and weird.
Best of all is 'Truth Ray', sexy in its own gloomy way, but also lyrically devastating with its despairing plea, “Have you no mercy?” Here Yorke sounds bereft and desolate and his relative isolation on these big, empty stages makes him seem keenly vulnerable - a striking contrast to his dance moves (the fella sure can move) and rock star theatrics.
He's not alone of course. While the stage does feel notably empty without Colin Greenwood roaming up and down with his bass or Jonny hunching over a synth, he's accompanied by regular producer - and Atoms For Peace bandmate - Nigel Godrich, bobbing up and down behind banks of gear and occasionally grabbing a guitar, while artist Tarik Barri controls the shows’ visuals. Generated live across five screens, he dazzles the audience with rapidly evolving shards of light, swirling digital inkblots and rainbow blasts of colour. It’s a startlingly beautiful backdrop that seems to nod to artist Stanley Donwood's album covers while also doing his own thing.
Yorke, almost pointedly at this point, hasn’t announced a new album but something is clearly on the way. There's a brace of new (or, if you've been following his ongoing collaboration with fashion house Rag & Bone, new-ish) songs played on the tour.
'Two Feet Off The Ground' is the most exciting of these - a gorgeous, gently-pattering synth-line that gives way to crunching drums and a wistful vocal that's sounds like Yorke's take on dream pop. 'The Axe', which opens the first encore for both shows, is a snarling bass monster that will go down great in clubs, while 'Not The News' and especially the slinky 'I Am A Very Rude Person' hint at good things for LP3 - whenever it arrives.
But, naturally, it's the familiar tracks that really go off here. 'Atoms For Peace', with its “no more talk about the old days, it's time for something great” feels like a powerful statement of intent, while encore closer 'Default' - a decent enough cut from AMOK - sounds thrilling and huge live, the searing synth line throbbing with menace.
"Thank you," Yorke mumbles. "You've been fucking brilliant."
There is one final song - a solo piano rendition of 'Spectre' (“for Jonny and Colin from Radiohead”) against a simple starfield backdrop. Where the original, string-led version soars, this is hushed and still. The screams and applause stop, the room falls silent. Thom Yorke wants us to dance - but he hasn't forgotten how to make us cry.
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Words: Will Salmon
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