Upon arriving at the Prudential Center in Newark early in the evening on Thursday, May 31st, I knew I was in for a profoundly different concert experience than the one I was used to. As I lined up in Champions Plaza, replete with a gigantic colossus of a hockey statue and Stanley Cup Finals banners festooning the area celebrating the New Jersey Devils’ recent Eastern Conference Championship, I became aware of the fact that I was hearing more conversations in foreign languages than I was in English. I had been acutely aware of the fact that Radiohead had major international appeal, but I certainly did not expect the European chapters of the Radiohead fan club to descend on Brick City in full force as they did. The lines stretched across the square, reaching back towards the temporarily abandoned NHL Tonight set waiting to be used for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals the next night.
As I finally made my way into the building and up to the concourse, I heard what I thought was piped-in Radiohead music, but it was really the opening act for the night, Caribou. The band was clearly influenced early in their careers by the transcendent sounds of the night’s main event; at times it sounded like they were emulating Radiohead a little too closely. The set was played to a half-full (if that), mostly unresponsive audience. It is a thankless job opening for a major act, and Caribou did the best they could with their surroundings, playing a short but lively set to warm up the crowd.
At approximately 8:50 PM, Radiohead made their way onto the stage backed by the soundtrack of droning monks – front man Thom Yorke has always been a bit different than your average rocker. As the syncopated rhythms of dual drummers Phil Selway and Clive Deamer kicked into the night’s opener, “Bloom” from the 2011 album King of Limbs, the band set the tone for a night that would be marked not by traditional Radiohead fan favorites, but by newer tunes that had not yet had their fair-share of turns in the rotation of the band’s setlists. It appeared that many in the crowd were not particularly familiar with “Bloom” – whereas I expected to be on my feet and dancing with the other 17,625 in attendance at the sold-out first night of the two night run, many remained seated and only slightly nodded their heads in a mixture of approval and apparent confusion.
A good leader never leaves his loyal following waiting long, though, and as the band dropped into “15 Step,” off of 2008’s In Rainbows, the crowd suddenly came to life. It was a massive game of Simon Says, as Yorke began to gyrate wildly all over the stage, a Tasmanian Devil-like series of movements that found his arms and legs flailing uncontrollably, the audience all too happy to soak in his uncontainable energy.
Against a visually stunning backdrop that featured multiple video screens that rearranged their configuration before each song (including a staircase formation, appropriately, before the band played “Staircase”), the band played a set that was mostly made up of their last two albums, the aforementioned King of Limbs and In Rainbows. While the diehard Radiohead fans were quite pleased to hear songs that had not been played time and time again over the years, there was a sizable faction that was obviously disappointed with how the night was playing out setlist-wise. “We’re not ready for the greatest hits,” Yorke declared, seemingly picking up on the vibe of discontent. “They’ll be out a little later.” Instead of a setlist littered with classics like “Paranoid Android,” “Just,” and “The Bends,” the Prudential Center patrons were instead treated to songs like “Bodysnatchers,” “Morning Mr. Magpie,” and their latest release, a single entitled “The Daily Mail.” Fans of the classics did not go entirely wanting, as the band threw the masses a bone with OK Computer favorite “Karma Police,” as well as other fan favorites “Idioteque” and “Everything In Its Right Place.”
While some fans viewed the setlist as something to be lamented, in actuality, it was something to be commended. All too often bands get caught up in the trap of trying to balance new songs that seemingly nobody comes to hear with a number of greatest hits. Yes, the arena comes to life when the opening notes of fan favorites like “Karma Police” are played, but surely this feels like a cheap pop to the band. Radiohead is not a band that considers themselves a nostalgia act by any means. They are an active band that is always evolving and turning out new music. They refuse to play the game of acting like a jukebox, all too happy to accept a fresh dollar bill (or several hundred thousand) and cue up “Fake Plastic Trees” one more time. When Radiohead tours, they promote their new music. When the band plays eleven combined songs from their two most recent albums, nobody should be surprised. It would be a slap in the face of everything Radiohead stands for to expect otherwise. They have never been a band that played by conventional rules, and their true fans love them unconditionally for it.
The night concluded with a double encore, once again juxtaposing new songs like “Supercollider” with old reliables like “The National Anthem.” For not knowing at all what I was getting into when I was walking into the building, I left thoroughly impressed. Radiohead is undeniably one of the best live bands touring the world today – there’s a reason all those Europeans descended on Newark for a glimpse of Yorke and company. Even on nights such as tonight when the vibe was decidedly more electronic-dance than rock and roll, more about Yorke’s vocals and the dual drummers than the guitar and bass, the band proved that they are in a league of their own. Radiohead is blessed – or is it cursed? – with the musical Midas touch. Every song played, every string strummed, every idea formed turns to gold. No matter which direction the band takes from album to album, their following only seems to grow stronger. How many bands willingly alter their sound to stay current, and stay universally beloved while doing it? This is a band that can do no wrong. Forgive Mr. Yorke if he’d rather push the musical envelope and give the fans a reason to keep seeing Radiohead shows instead of reliving the past night after night.