Thom Yorke, with Andrea Belfi.
Scotiabank Arena, Friday, Sept. 27
There was a time not that long ago when I had two separate camps of “rock” and “rave” friends, there being the lingering sentiment on the rock side that electronic music was not “real” music.
Thom Yorke and Radiohead did a lot to unite those tribes with their sudden shift towards oblique techno-experimentalism on the turn-of-the-millennium classics Kid A and Amnesiac. The music itself might have been strange but it was definitely “real,” even to the doubters, and suddenly rock and electronic music didn’t seem such strange bedfellows to the uninitiated anymore. The doors were opened towards a harmonious new age where electric guitars and electronically manipulated beats and loops could live harmoniously together on record and even onstage. The rockers and the ravers had found common ground.
It’s still an uneasy alliance, however, as demonstrated by Yorke’s solo stop in Toronto at the Scotiabank Arena on Friday night.
The crowd on hand for this bloodyminded two-hour deconstructionist-techno head trip presided over by just Yorke and longtime right-hand man/producer Nigel Godrich working the gear and trading off on guitar and bass here and there, while a chap named Tarik Barri mixing live visuals to the music was considerably smaller than it was for Radiohead’s two breathtaking gigs in the same room last summer — the stage had been moved nearly halfway down the bowl, the upper rows were noticeably barren and the mood was rather more recital-hall subdued (and maybe more baffled) than usual for a big weekend gig in an NHL hockey rink — and clearly divided between those who knew what they were getting into and those who probably knew, too, but still harboured the vague hope that they might hear “Fake Plastic Trees” at some point. They did not.
This was not a Radiohead show, nor even an arena-rock show, by any means. Ideally, the show wouldn’t have been in an arena at all; the perfect place for this brainy multimedia assault would have been late at night in a field or well-appointed club at MUTEK or SONAR or some other festival that prizes thoughtful electronic music and digital psychedelia, where those who wanted to dance at the moments when there was something to dance to — and there were definitely moments when there was stuff to dance to — would have felt comfortable dancing. Where someone like James Holden or Max Cooper could have rode in afterwards to provide a semblance of relief towards dawn after all the numbing end-of-the-world gloom that had come before. Or at least an occasional, straight-up 4/4 beat to ease the tension.
Not so on Friday. Yorke came in grim and vague with the wafting “Interference” off Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes — the 2014 album after which, with typical Yorke-ian mystery, this tour is named despite being ostensibly mounted in support of last June’s excellent Anima — and departed after 125 further minutes of grim vagueness deployed with the aid of a punishingly pristine and bass-forward sound system and his (ahem) “idiotetic” dance moves with the slightly less grim and vague piano ballad “Suspirium,” from his soundtrack to last year’s horror remake Suspiria, as a fairly generous-in-context second encore.
The closest to consensus “hits” Friday’s set would get were a handful of tracks off Yorke’s apocalyptic 2006 solo debut, The Eraser: a heart-quickeningly urgent, guitar-gilded run at “The Clock”; a bleak, tangled “Harrowdown Hill”; the skittery “Cymbal Rush”; and the hopeless-but-catchy “Black Swan.” One suspects, however, they were the hits mainly because most of the casual fans of Thom Yorke’s solo work in the room learned they were casual fans of Thom Yorke’s solo work upon hearing The Eraser and subsequently checked out until the present with nothing else to recognize.
For most of the night, you really couldn’t tell if the hushed room was confused or enthralled or maybe caught in some magic, speechless spot between both poles. As “Black Swan” and its resigned chorus of “Coz this is f—-ed up / F—-ed up” faded away just four songs into the set, the guy behind me was moved to remark loudly to his seatmate: “Man, this is f—-ed up.” The two classic-rock radio professionals to my left, meanwhile, kept giggling and miming twiddling knobs and pushing buttons when Yorke and Godrich pushed things into proper rhythmic-tumbledown territory, but they didn’t leave like so many others did — oh, yes, there were walkouts — and seemed suitably awestruck when Anima beasts like “Not the News,” the invitingly trance-y “Twist” and the camouflaged big-room banger “Traffic” started putting the sound system through its paces towards the encore.
As well they should have been. It made you wait, but when this gig got good, it got really good. And it always sounded exactly as amazing as you would expect a gig where an uber-producer Nigel Godrich is actually the “band” onstage to sound.
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Uncompromising to the point of self-indulgent, then? You bet. Had Yorke and Godrich trimmed just 20 minutes of the quieter and more directionless material where you could hear the mostly rapt crowd burbling to restless life over the mix from the set list and subbed in a bit more “fun” like the wiggly dub banger “Impossible Knots” or the Atoms for Peace keeper “Default” Friday’s show would have been perfect — at least if you’re into Yorke’s uncompromising and self-indulgent solo material, as I happen to be — but there was definitely some “testing the room” afoot. Even after throwing the battered crowd a bone for the encore with an unexpectedly straightforward, electric-piano rendition of Anima’s shattering “Dawn Chorus,” for instance, Yorke couldn’t resist taking the most Radiohead-like tune on Anima, “Runwayaway,” and turning it into a tuneless, acid-house splattered test of patience during which he repeatedly intoned “This is where you tell who your real friends are” as people made for the exits.
“Not those guys,” Yorke quipped mid-tune as two gents at stage left immediately picked up their jackets and ran. Dark as he gets, he knows what he’s doing and he’s in on the joke, whatever the joke might be. You’ve seen him dance. It doesn’t always have to be easy. Thom Yorke doesn’t make it easy. That’s why we stick around to see what Thom Yorke does next.