I hope you took the ferry to this All Points West thing: a lovely meander down the East River, a soft breeze denoting the remarkably non- oppressive weather, the seafaring views lushly spectacular, even temporarily justifying all this “Waterfalls” bullshit. You are dumped in New Jersey (Liberty State Park, precisely), and for once, this does not upset you. You saunter up a long trail along the shoreline, sneaking behind the Statue of Liberty’s back, the hapless scratches of some DJ twinkling in the distance, and you think: “In a few hours, I’m gonna be tearing ass back down this path to avoid the horrifying line to get on a ferry back home.” But that won’t be so terrible, actually, and, in the interim, Radiohead.
All Points West raged all day and all night Friday through Sunday, headlined by Radiohead the first two nights. Other bands played that were (are) not as good. Saturday night, as the appointed hour approaches, the previously aloof and nonchalant crowd squishes en masse into a densely packed British soccer-match throng that inches closer and closer to the main stage, vying for oxygen and an unobstructed view of the band’s super-bitchin’ and allegedly eco-friendly laser-light rig, which splendidly evokes a malfunctioning Ms. Pac-Man machine. They open with “Reckoner,” among their quietest, eeriest, least fist-pumping of numbers, the polar opposite of “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “Thunderstruck” or whatever song other bands of Radiohead’s size customarily select to begin shows observed by other crowds of our size. The choice is appropriate, of course, and doubly so because the sound is almost absurdly pristine, given what you can usually expect at 10,000-band super-festival clusterfucks like this one. Every note of every instrument rings strong and clear and unmuddled, the bangs and clanks and shakers that drive “Reckoner” fuller and sharper and more dominant than when you’re blasting In Rainbows through headphones back home; when all that nervous percussion drops out, leaving Thom Yorke to warble alone in his still-unearthly falsetto, the impact is soft but devastating.
Ah, Thom: At certain points this evening, it’s like you can understand what he’s actually singing for the first time. “Standing in the shadows at the end of my bed,” he mutters on “Kid A,” before grabbing a tambourine and doing that stupendously appealing spastic dance of his. Tonight, we will hear every single track off last year’s In Rainbows, and with few exceptions (“Faust Arp” and “House of Cards” are still duds; golden oldies “Pyramid Song” and “The Bends” and “No Surprises” are still glorious), the new stuff is actually better than the surlier, more bombastic back catalog we’re all supposed to be hungering for. “Nude” has never done anything for me on record, too docile and sleepy and inert, but tonight Thom delivers it with a controlled, commanding roar that barely rises above a whisper; that wordless, heartbreaking upward flourish that closes it out is a killer. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is faster but not much louder, and when guitarist Ed O’Brien steps up to deliver those wayyyy-eh-eh backing vocals—my favorite moment on Rainbows, and perhaps of all the music released in 2007 save the “hooba jooba” on Ween’s “With My Own Bare Hands”—I just want to lie down, if doing so wouldn’t result in my crushing, like, 50 people. (“EMS! EMS!” a small throng behind me started chanting at some point, which struck me as an awfully confusing thing to yell at Radiohead until I realized that somebody back there needed an ambulance.)
The immaculate mix favors the delicate ballads, I suppose: “The National Anthem” thrashes about impressively but doesn’t have much impact, and “All I Need,” Rainbows‘ most cathartic, arena-worthy moment, is similarly blunted. And “Videotape” is still a goddamn shame. Back in 2006, when Radiohead was last touring heavily and testing out the jams that would come to constitute their new record, “Videotape” was easily the most promising, perfectly bridging the band’s talents for soft lullaby catharsis and towering, momentous thrash. But the Rainbows version robbed the song of its elegant, sustained crescendo, dissolving into a shrug of drum-machine clatter instead of bursting into flames; the wrong version is now dragged out onstage.
But stand around bitching about this sort of thing and you’ll miss “Fake Plastic Trees.” Back on the late-’90s collegiate-coffeehouse open-mic circuit, this was the ultimate sensitive-guy jam, everyone straining for high notes (“If I could beeee“) that weren’t quite accessible. The joy of concerts like this is the songs you’ve completely forgotten; “Fake Plastic Trees” had slipped my mind, and as I inch nonchalantly toward extreme-edge stage left in preparation for the Great Post-Encore Dash to the Ferry Line (which feels like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, from the bulls’ perspective), it’s a trip to regard Jonny Greenwood on the JumboTron, finally fully unleashed, bashing at his guitar with full-extension windmills. The mix has gone to hell, and just in time, too, sudden jarring bursts of treble interrupting the reverie. “There There” is similarly nasty and brutish, and we end on “Idioteque” (was this an uncouth slap at U2’s “Discotheque,” or am I making that up?), which is like the frantic, desperate inverse of “Reckoner,” where we’d begun, all shakers and percussive clamor and nervous energy. The show ends, and we run like hell. But when the hysteria subsides and we’re on a ferry puttering back toward home, the dread and beauty of “Nude” comes creeping back. Those waterfalls don’t look like bullshit at all.