If there’s a mission statement for the groove-heavy side-project/supergroup Atoms for Peace, it was delivered rather gently in a near singalong at the end of the band’s at times frantic show at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night. “No more talk about the old days,” Thom Yorke cooed, his voice gliding over a bright bass melody from his high-profile collaborator, Flea. “It’s time for something great.”
Not that greatness would be some big departure for Yorke, who has spent most of his career fronting the innovative and wildly acclaimed Radiohead. But it’s telling that Yorke chose that song, which appears on his underrated 2006 solo album “The Eraser,” to name his resulting new group, which first came together in 2009 as he attempted to translate “The Eraser” into a live performance. Now a full-fledged band, the group released its first album, “Amok,” earlier this year.
And there was some symmetry at work with Atoms for Peace performing at the Bowl, which was also home to a headlining show by Radiohead in 2008. Although that concert (and the group’s later trajectory) showcased an ever-increasing fascination with electronic music and its structures, it also was still required to service the band’s prior hits. In an inspired, boundary-pushing set Wednesday night, Atoms for Peace was hardly subservient to “the old days,” and you could feel the freedom and sense of out-and-out fun in Yorke and his bandmates as a result.
Although “Amok” can feel compressed under knotted electronic structures on record, the songs have far more room to breathe when translated to live instruments. With an insistent, trebly guitar from Yorke, “Before Your Very Eyes” opened the show with a driving Afrobeat pulse atop a thick bassline from Flea, whose considerable talents were being pushed many directions removed from his typical role with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (though his manic energy was gratefully well intact).
The sinister “Default” transformed the Bowl into a sort of apocalyptic disco, and a slowed-down “Ingenue” was stripped of its sliding synthesizer hook and recast as a piano ballad, revealing the song as a sort of electro-soul number. “Unless” rose into a haunting, trancey knot of rhythms from the band’s dual drummers, session vet Joey Waronker and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco, and “Dropped” was shifted into furious dance-punk atop Yorke’s howling vocal and a fuzzed-out bassline from Flea.
And though Atoms for Peace is unburdened by any “classic” hits, some of Yorke’s older songs were the most striking. Part of a 2009 single released under Yorke’s name, “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses” ascended from a futuristic take on ‘70s funk into a wash of big beat and psychedelic chaos, a next-level extension of the anthemic charge of the Chemical Brothers from another time rock freely blended with electronica.
“The Clock” grew into furiously paced guitar rock amid a panic of red lights, and the tense “Harrowdown Hill” -- inspired by the death of an investigator looking into the U.K.'s run-up to the Iraq war -- sped atop a hitchy, popping bassline from a high-stepping Flea that gathered menace until a flash of noise briefly slammed it closed as Yorke sneered, “There are too many of us so you can’t count.”
The spooky Radiohead B-side “Paperbag Writer” inspired a rubber-limbed mid-stage dance-off between Flea and Yorke, and a return to one of Yorke’s earliest ventures outside his day job spurred one of the night’s most intimate moments. Drawn from a 1998 collaboration with the electronic duo U.N.K.L.E., “Rabbit in Your Headlights” featured a brief vocal turn from Flea, who recited the song’s key sample from the 1990 thriller “Jacob’s Ladder.”
“I’m a rabbit in your headlights, scared of the spotlight,” Yorke sang from, of course, a lone spotlight as he hunched over the piano. What may have been true of Yorke some 15 years ago seemed miles away now.