Radiohead elected to end two years of the intermittent tour for their ninth album, “A Moon Shaped Pool” with a barn-burning two-night stint at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. The band brilliantly wove their latest works in with satisfying live concert classics and surprising deep track picks. The awe-inspiring light and graphics show by itself justified the price of admission. Radiohead throughout the night displayed why they stand at the forefront of the Alternative/Rock music world as they effortlessly stunned the crowd with various concert rarities. The band masterfully reproduced with almost perfect veracity their studio album sonics all the while showing off the beauty of “A Moon Shaped Pool” tracks.
Not to be overlooked were the enthusiastic opening performers, Shye Ben-Tzur and the Rajasthan Express, who along with Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood released their Junun album in 2015. The release which was a blending of Greenwood’s sonic sensibilities, Ben-Tzur’s inspired compositions and the Express’s musical virtuosity. The music from the album became even more addictive when played live and was something to witness and appreciate. It was a thrill to see this act get to perform in such a large venue. Additionally, credit should be given to Jonny Greenwood for committing to play for almost three hours at each concert, first with the presentation of Junun and then with Radiohead, he is truly the marathon man.
Philly’s first night began with the established setlist triad, Daydreaming, Desert Island Disk and Ful Stop all off of A Moon Shaped Pool. The light show for Daydreaming was breathtaking and a perfect companion to the evocative track making it, if possible more beloved. Ful Stop was a song I had hoped to hear live and it was just as stunning as when I first hear it on A Moon Shaped Pool. What struck me throughout both evenings was how intensively the crowd was listening. The audience after explosive applause would calm, straining to catch the first notes of the next song to see what treat was going to be revealed. On this night Radiohead proceeded to crank out 2+2=5 and The Gloaming from 2003’s Hail to the Thief. They then proceeded to jump between In Rainbows with the delightful All I Need to Amnesiac’s luminous Pyramid Song and then reach back to OK Computer with No Surprises, which from the response of the crowd was exactly the opposite. And if No Surprises didn’t floor the fans, Airbag did as excitement abounded. It was heartening to see Radiohead select the excellent songs Separator and Bloom from the sometimes undervalued The King of Limbs era.
Radiohead continued to deliver their own special kind of shock and awe with I Might Be Wrong and for the pleasure of many a Radiohead fanatic the white whale, Talk Show Host from the OK Computer era. The band then returned back to In Rainbows delivering a sublime rendition of Nude before allowing me to personally cross off my bucket list Kid A’s The National Anthem, where I will admit I probably screamed so loud only dogs could hear me as it began. Radiohead closes the song with a snippet of Hunting Bears. The final song before the intermission was the ever amazing crowd pleaser Idioteque.
For the two encores, Radiohead would continue to toss out spellbinding picks including fervent fan favourite Decks Dark from the latest album. The rarely played A Wolf at the Door was followed by rousing renditions of Bodysnatchers, Feral and another rarity Fake Plastic Trees which brought the crowd to their feet in ecstasy.
The final encore trio began with Moon Shaped Pool’s glorious Present Tense and OK Computer’s classic Paranoid Android. The final song of the evening proved to be another bucket list live track, the evocative Street Spirit (Fade Out) which brought an emotional close to a superlative evening. My takeaway from the first night was that Radiohead delivered a flawless setlist that was an enlightened combination of the familiar, the rare and the inspired. It was a departure from many bands’ approach to the first night of a two-night stand, in that it opted to please the fervent long-time fan over the more casual “greatest hits seeking” concert audience. The setlist was so good I pondered whether the peak had been reached and how in the world Radiohead would top the first night. When will I learn, I should never doubt Radiohead?
The second night was equally the rival of the prior night. Once again the first three songs were sensational live renditions, which conveyed all the power of their original studio versions. Even more evident was the crowd’s anticipation for what would be played next. Frontman Thom Yorke later in the show would cite the end of the tour and his privilege to play to an audience that was so dialled into the dips and curves the band were serving up in the set list. The fun commenced with a hearty rendition of 15 Step off of In Rainbows followed by a rare but all time live favourite of mine Lucky from Ok Computer. Like they were reading my dream list of live Radiohead songs, Kid A followed. The audience enthused with the gripping rendition of In Rainbow’s album closer, Videotape. Radiohead then surprised with a second-night inclusion of Decks Dark. The band kicked things up a notch with the shimmering Let Down once again off of Ok Computer, along with Everything In Its Right Place off Kid A sending the place reeling followed by a second night return of Bloom from King of Limbs. The triple shot of spectacular tracks Reckoner, Lotus Flower and House of Cards again elated the crowd.
Radiohead would kick off a triple from Kid A as Thom Yorke introduced the live rarity Optimistic with a nod to difficult times we find ourselves within. This selection was followed by another scintillating scoop of Idioteque which never disappoints as once again the band surprised the audience with the brilliant How to Disappear Completely.
The first encore would start with the foolishly “rejected” James Bond movie soundtrack offering Spectre. This live rendition displayed how gifted the band is in distilling the essence of the initial song that was laden with tons of strings. They converted it into an evocative piano and bass composition with Yorke providing all the drama of the track with his vocal. Spectre was simply brilliant and a concert highlight in a virtual pool of such moments. This was followed by the infrequently played but feisty Myxomatosis, knock another one off of my live bucket list, along with Exit Music (for a Film) which brought a universal sigh from the audience. The concert continued with a band and audience favourite, the percussion-filled There There, and another rarity The Tourist off Ok Computer. This song brought to a close to the first encore with a magnificently realistic graphic image of a moon that had to be seen to be fully appreciated.
The anticipation for the final encore was palpable as it seemed both Radiohead and the audience realized this was the last encore of the US tour and most likely the Moon Shaped Pool tour. Yorke would thank the audience profusely; his fellow bandmates and Junun for the privilege to play and stress how much he enjoyed the evening. Then Radiohead proceeded to crank out The Bends which sent the audience to their feet. As a Radiohead fan, I could not imagine it getting much better than what had transpired. I then noticed with breath held that Ed O’ Brien, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenway were standing close together intensely watching each other’s guitar as they counted into the mind-blowing Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. There were a few moments after that selection when everyone in the building knew this was it the last song. Radiohead again picked perfectly as the magnificent Karma Police launched. Yorke wanted to continue after the original version to add the extended outré but the Philly crowd brought the song to a standstill with a standing ovation that would not abate. When the final notes were eventually allowed to continue an emotional band and crowd brought the momentous night to a close with a sing-along.
I have seen Radiohead a number of times over the years and each time they have inspired me with their amazing performances and nuanced setlists. But without resorting to hyperbole I have to say both evenings of the A Moon Shaped Pool tour in Philadelphia were setlist masterpieces. The balance of new to old was excellent and as with every setlist throughout the tour, the band seemed effortless to weave in and out of albums unafraid to dust off and perform many of the bijou gems in their discography. For a band of their renown to be so flexible is almost unheard. This is especially true when compared to many of their peer bands who often times opt for almost cookie cutter setlists. This is often due to those bands being shackled to their light show cues and graphics limiting setlist flexibility. Thankfully this is not so for Radiohead and that flexibility pays off in exceptional concerts. After the last two nights, I am flummoxed at how Radiohead can improve on this run of shows, but a little voice inside my head reminds me that they undoubtedly will! Glory be!