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Review: Radiohead reflects on a timeless body of work at the Shrine

Radiohead
Radiohead, in town for two shows at the Shrine Auditorium, continues to surprise deep into the band’s career.
(Dillon Deaton / Los Angeles Times)

Apart from a few more gray hairs here and there, the buzzing crowd outside the Shrine Auditorium on Thursday night could have been the same vaguely impatient mass at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008.

Or one could even reach as far back as the Greek Theatre in 2000, when Radiohead fans were just weeks removed from first hearing “Kid A,” an album that propelled the group from restless if reluctant heir to Pink Floyd and into something akin to sonic revolutionary.

This show, the first of two nights in L.A. that bookend the band’s appearance at the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco this weekend, is part of a mini-tour of just seven cities in North America. They also mark Radiohead’s first area appearance since Coachella in 2012.

That kind of scarcity, coupled with a reluctance to expand its audience to stadium-size venues, led to another in a long line of Radiohead concerts that wasn’t just sold out, but something akin to winning a random drawing. (When tickets were gone minutes after they came on sale back in March,  bandleader Thom Yorke took to Twitter and claimed to be as mad as anyone else, saying he was “only human.”)

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Of course, there are worse problems for an artist to have in 2016.

But how does Radiohead, a band now almost 20 years removed from what many regard as its peak statement in 1997’s “OK Computer,” manage to escape a march of time that inevitably pushes its contemporaries toward nostalgia tours and increasingly perfunctory new albums? Even Radiohead’s latest work, the excellent and intimately drawn “A Moon Shaped Pool,” continues to add surprising new elements to the band’s distinctive palette.

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At the Shrine on Thursday, that out-of-time quality was difficult to escape.

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After opening with the first five tracks from “Pool” — a gesture that for just about any other long-running band would seem combative, but here seemed a matter of course — Radiohead offered a sampling from each album other than its mostly disowned debut, “Pablo Honey.” The result felt less like whistle-stop crowd service and more of a testimony to how Radiohead’s music, for all its restless reinvention, still fuses together as a collective statement live.

The haunted-house internal monologue of “Climbing Up the Walls” from “OK Computer” fit snugly against the plaintive “In Rainbows” track “Nude” from 2007 and its despairing, echoed assurance, “don’t get any big ideas, they’re not going to happen.”

The growling electro-rock chaos of “Myxomatosis” holds a fun-house mirror to the motorik-beat panic of track “Ful Stop” from “A Moon Shaped Pool” and longtime live staple “Idioteque,” which in the years since “Kid A” has acquired a lacerating blast of noise through its latter half that sounds as if the song itself is being corrupted by digital decay.

Part of Radiohead’s ability to remain untethered to one era is Yorke’s lyrical fixations, which typically set aside the usual pop music themes of heartache and loss. Instead, they remain steeped with an isolation, alienation and suspicion in modern life that has arguably only grown more culturally relevant since “OK Computer.”

Other tracks, like Thursday highlights “Let Down” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” testify to the transcendence in escape, with the former’s keening promise that “one day, I am going to grow wings” still sounding more like an act of heroism than surrender.

“I’ve got a great idea,” Yorke said before “No Surprises,” one of the few moments he clearly addressed the crowd. “Let’s put an unhinged, paranoid megalomaniac in charge.”

Given the band’s predilection for reinventing or abandoning rock sounds and structures in the studio, hearing Radiohead adapt its recordings to the stage opens its music even further. Forced to set aside its churning strings, “Burn the Witch” gained a new serrated edge fueled by the guitars of Yorke along with Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood, who attacked his instrument with a bow as the song surged forward. Other new tracks, like the folk-leaning “Desert Island Disk” and “Present Tense,” sounded disarmingly delicate and straightforward as compared with the set’s more unhinged moments.

Even tracks from 2011’s “King of Limbs,” a hard-to-love album with sounds and structures so in the thrall of electronic music it seemed intent on erasing its own human fingerprints, gained a flesh-and-blood heart that could be heard through the sinewy “Lotus Flower” and “Bloom,” which found Greenwood as a third drummer with Phil Selway and tour addition Clive Deamer to puzzle out the track’s odd-angled beat.

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The band returns to the Shrine on Monday but from there, given Yorke’s solo projects, Greenwood’s soundtrack work and the longer gaps that have grown between Radiohead being Radiohead, it’s anyone’s guess when the band will return.

When and if Radiohead does, it will be exactly the right time.

Follow me over here @chrisbarton.


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