Open air summer gigs are not top on my 'must do' lists in any year. But with my Radiohead fan wife offering to buy the ticket and the faint hope that an evening in late June might just produce something akin to summer weather, and the curiosity of seeing Victoria Park in East London for this first time as a venue, I decided to sample Radiohead for only the second time.
Bat For Lashes turned out to be a good choice for support act. Better, more serious songwriting and less theatrics than I anticipated, focusing more on simply doing the songs justice which, musically at least, they did. Natasha Khan's sometimes vulnerable voice does insist on Bjork comparisons, though the range and ability aren't a match for the Icelander. Surprisingly, given the neverending, open air location, I was just thinking it was just a touch too loud when the PA broke - halfway into the set.
Ten minutes later, and apparently unflustered, "It's all very exciting today!" she quipped nochalantly and playfully, and they were quickly back in their groove. If she was either pissed or stressed by the failure - you'd never have known. Bat For Lashes' various styles bring a combination of Goldfrapp, Beth Orton and The Wicker Man to mind. An enjoyable if ocassionally dark combination resulting in sometimes John Barryesque electro folk.
As when I saw them five years before, before Radiohead took to the stage, there was more obscure (but welcome) instrumental electronic noise for 45 minutes. Can't let some renta-DJ screw up the pre-performance vibe by playing Kylie's latest hit. 'Did they write this I wonder?' was one thought that crossed my mind. Quickly followed by 'What was I thinking not bringing a jacket?!' as a typical English summer evening cooled rapidly once the sun disappeared over the horizon.
"Hi!" said a decidedly un-angst-ridden Thom Yorke as he chirpily walked onto the vast Victoria Park stage. Bat For Lashes had been largely consigned to one side of the ludicriously huge peformance area, and almost lost as a result. The four members of Radiohead were strategically spread out in a futile attempt at filling out the same vast space. The video screens either side of this incredible feat of temporary construction should have helped with seeing what was happening on stage but due to some poor artistic choices the already not so big screens were each divided up, showing four smaller images throughout the entire performance. The projections failed to provide the thousands and thousands of people filling the park with a decent view of what the band members were all doing. Instead, the designers plumped for an endless barrage of oddly angled closeups of bits of body parts or instruments (often not the bits of the instruments actually being played). Artistic but pretty useless when 95% of the audience would otherwise have had difficulty actually spotting the band on the stage.
Then, there were the mad lights above them, looking like some vast Japanese pachinko parlor relocated to a Las Vegas strip club. I can imagine the band sitting down with the stage designers saying "They won't be expecting that. Let's do that." The effect was probably designed to be ironic but was just too much of a jarring juxtaposition with the sounds that it only ever detracted from rather than enhanced the music. Such concerns were obviously not troubling our front man though who continued with his quips throughout the performance. "This is a bitching number!" Yorke said as if a Hollywood script writing had been employed by the elfin one to shake off his introvert oddball image. He admitted to sometimes forgetting lyrics, but went on to say it didn't matter as "They're nonsense" anyway. Then it was "We love you too, darling!" said in response to a female fan's calls from somewhere far below the mile-high stage. The truth behind Yorke's frivolity was perhaps more mundane as he confessed to being "Fucking terrified" by the prospect of playing front of so many people and thanks the audience for providing him and his fellow troubadours with a 'good vibe'.
The unpredictability of being outside resulted in a Chinook helicopter flying over during one of the quieter numbers. It not only looked cool but the whoop, whoop of its rotorblades added a briefly surreal (if out of time) percussive moment; as if the ghost of Stanley Kubrick from the set of Full Metal Jacket suddenly remixed the song from above. Big crowd pleasers like Just (You Do It To Yourself) seem routine in comparison to some of Radiohead's more experimental work, safe even. Some weird phasing of the sound between the speaker stacks threatened to ruin the sound at times and reminded me from time to time why such huge outdoor events are not a great idea. Yorke fiddling with a modular patch synth fleetingly was an electronic music fans highpoint. The chants of "Free Tibet!" which rose spontaneously from the hardcore down the front (and briefly picked up by Yorke) sounded like a futile and pointless middleclass gesture as the evening wore on. And time really must be moving on for the band as there was no Karma Police this time around. Whilst I'm sure some were disappointed by the absence, clearly most went home satisfied. 7/10