By Jim Schutze
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It hardly seems possible that Radiohead's latest album, Amnesiac, has managed to confound the masses even more than last year's Kid A. Touted by the less imaginative as Kid B, the miserable brother of Kid A, Amnesiac has split Radiohead fans into two distinct camps: the faithful obsessives and the disillusioned who believe that Radiohead has become art rock, where art rock = boring. Upon first listen, Amnesiac does sound, well, self-indulgent and alienating. Radiohead arrived in Houston on June 18, at the first stop of its North American tour, to prove just the opposite. The sold-out performance at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands unlocked the significance of Amnesiac, even for those confused by its exoticness. Songs that sounded like songwriter Thom Yorke's nightmares filtered through electronics took on a new beauty in this setting. Nightmares were transformed into lovely dreams--ripe, bright and hopeful. Every track performed from Amnesiac sparkled with life; the new electronic direction the band has taken even inspired dancing. And as to be expected, the songs from OK Computer (easily the group's best album) eclipsed all else.
The climax of the evening was "Paranoid Android," buried in the middle of the set, but coming off as nothing short of the greatest rock epic this side of The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" or Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." But Radiohead is one of the few rock bands whose slow dirges excite the crowd just as much as the feverish, fast songs. During "Exit Music (For a Film)" and the underrated "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" (from The Bends), Yorke's ethereal voice soared effortlessly, scaling the heights of the oversized amphitheater. The singer introduced "Street Spirit" as a song for people who have "ever walked down the street and seen figures that weren't strictly there as such." "How to Disappear Completely," with Yorke on acoustic guitar, was a breathtaking cap on the first encore.
Yorke and company were genuinely, and surprisingly, enthusiastic performers. Sure, Yorke is known to flail around when performing, doing his trademark "Gumby" dance and generally acting schizophrenic. This time, however, he shocked and delighted the crowd with his jovial interactivity. In good spirits, Yorke and rhythm guitarist Ed O'Brien eagerly flirted with the ecstatic audience, while whiz lead guitarist-keyboardist Jonny Greenwood remained dutifully hunched over his corner of wired gadgetry emitting sounds from all things electronic, including samplers and a transistor radio. Meanwhile, Yorke relished the crowd's exaggerated adoration like a kid in a candy store. Impish and playful, the singer, with a wave of his hand, manipulated the audience during the otherwise serious waltz, "You and Whose Army?" At the piano with his back to the crowd, Yorke repeatedly gestured for audience noise, called for an abrupt end to it, then, as if realizing the pure absurdity of his power, snickered into the mike before regaining composure. He actually seemed to be soaking up the glory of stardom, later strutting the stage and pumping his fists in the air. Once the easy poster child for neurotic, tortured musicians, Yorke suddenly seemed an extrovert--just as enamored with the audience as it was with him.
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