Neither a fan of support act Asian Dub Foundation, nor especially Radiohead, I was at tonight's event in partner mode and on a free ticket. Although we only caught the last ten minutes or so of ADF's act I have to say, with some amount of surprise, that they were quite convincing. Despite the cavernous venue (probably the largest indoor event I'd ever attended) the band's non-stop bouncing around the stage managed to generate some energy across the vast divide between them and our seats high up at the rear of the arena. Still the vocal style does little for me but the muscular bass sound and funky-drummer stylee drums were pretty impressive.
The Ant Zen-like rumblings and bleeps between support and headline act hinted, I hoped, at was was to come. As much as I might have admired their anti-establishment sonic approach to early releases, it was only with the release of Kid A that Radiohead cut through the mass of artists vying for my attention. But tonight was a broad and wide-ranging journey through Radiohead's impressive career, with songs from the first album through to their latest.
What struck me most first of all was the short duration of most of the songs - many coming in comfortably within the three to four minute mark. Curious for a band that strives for the unconventional. Lead vocalist Thom Yorke's jiggery stage moves (I guess you could call it dancing) elicited cheers from the audience, but looked faintly daft to me. The unsubtle stage lighting was a cheesy neon Close Encounters firework display failing to create any kind of atmosphere, but the multiple stage cameras helped relay the finer performance details via multiple screens to those of us seated in the neighbouring borough.
The first thirty minutes passed easily enough but already my arse was aching from the wooden seating (presumably a remnant from the building's original 1937 interior). But, with some judicious butt shifting, I managed to get through the nearly two hour, two encore set with relative ease.
Hit singles peppered throughout the set kept the mainstream contingent pleased - providing them with several opportunities for a good old sing-along and the occasional lighter wave. But to a relative outsider like myself the set seemed unbalanced, constantly changing pace and tone from number to number. Clearly, the band could have given the set more structure if they felt like it but this must have been a conscious decision to do otherwise. Although I was, very probably, in the significant minority in my take on this (with tickets at £25 a go you weren't going to get many casual viewers), I thought this worked mostly against the Yorke and co. There was no sense of build, direction or crescendo. Only during one song did I find myself really getting carried along by the music rather than feel like a distant (if nonetheless willing) observer.
Tonight was the first time I'd ever sat through more than a handful of Radiohead songs in succession, and what struck more more than anything else was the incredibly diverse range of stylistic influences that are reflected in their music. There's everyone from Hendrix, through the Stones, and even Kraftwerk in there at times, and the spirit of punk, jazz, krautrock and blues were all evident. I'd never really understood why Radiohead were so popular - they just seemed too arthouse to be topping the charts so often. Now I can see that what they have managed to pull off - they are all things to all men. Yet, somehow, they remain unique.