It’s the people sitting down I pity. But then how were they to know that this would be so kinetic, so urgent a show? None of us knew, did we, that these songs – so misanthropic and guarded and insular on record – could be brought so writhingly, compulsively alive onstage.
When The Eraser emerged in 2006 we knew it immediately for the work of Thom Yorke. Twitchy and paranoid it glitched in binary, the world it evoked as suffocating as the rising waters of its artwork and as alluring as sirens on the rocks. This year’s AMOK progressed the template slightly, the synths more fevered and the arrangements more dense, but despite the credits roll it still felt more like a second Yorke solo effort than a collaboration, the contributions of Flea, of Beck’s Joey Waronker and the Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco seeming more like marketing than artistic influence.
Not live though. The cameraphones might be shakily trained upon Yorke but the core of Atoms For Peace is behind him, in the beats and textures and ceaseless experiment of the rhythm section. Familiar songs become almost alien beneath the rhythms, the setlist, pored over in the aftermath, a surprise. Whole tracks go by unclocked, lost within the sweat and the noise and the dancing – who’d have thought we’d be dancing so much? Clearly not the women in heels or the men in suits, their ties loosened and then discarded, flung to the ground alongside any notion that Yorke and fun might not coexist.
The Radiohead frontman hasn’t looked so at ease on a stage in all the times I’ve seen him, clad in a vest top with his hair tied back and his skin glistening in the heat. He spends more time mobile than at his microphone, much of his between-song communication mere noises, warped and reverbed and almost feral, whilst Flea stalks the stage beside him, his eyes malevolent and his body poised and more Keith Flint than Chili Pepper. The restless lighting illuminates them both like Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka in the tunnel, terrifying yet compelling.
The set draws more from Yorke’s back catalogue than from AMOK, with the evening’s biggest response greeting a reworked Rabbit In Your Headlights from his collaboration with Unkle in the late 90s, one of the few points at which the focus gets thrown onto the vocals. It’s beautiful and haunting if ever so, ever so slightly jarring in a performance that’s more about dynamism than melody, and Yorke himself does seem happier when out of that spotlight. The only nod to his day job comes in the second encore, with Radiohead’s Paperbag Writer getting a dedication to Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway, somewhere in the crowd, whilst Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses is almost unrecognisable in its full-band version, primal and dense and wracked with menace.
There’s highpoints of course, in the claustrophobic singalong of Harrowdown Hill and the punishing bass surges of And It Rained All Night, and in the percussive innovation of Stuck Together Pieces, Refosco wearing a chainmail that he scrapes for texture. There’s highpoints everywhere, actually, and nothing to break them up. Sure, it’s a set that’s pretty one-note in its pleasures, in its relentless build from murky riffs to massive beats – but man, what a note that is. And by the close, after seventeen songs with barely any let-up in their intensity, their impact and the sheer, evident enjoyment of all involved in making them – well, suddenly this doesn’t seem like a side-project anymore.