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Radiohead/Sparklehorse, Le Zenith, Paris
by Sharon O'Connell

THEY begin softly, imperceptibly, even, padding in like a cat through fog. And the stately, almost funereal introductory pace of “Weird Sisters” serves as a reminder of how fantastically lucky we are to have Mark Linkous and his talent back. It’s great to see him walking unaided again so long after The Accident, fronting a radically renewed SPARKLEHORSE and feeling confident enough to do away with the funny-hat-as-psychic-prop.
Tonight Linkous leads his band in a frustrating battle against appalling sound, but they still manage to shine like halogen halos in Hades. New country is their thing (to hell with you, Garth Brooks) and they pump great lungs full of clean air into what has long since become a wheezy, cheesy, knackered old beast.
Sparklehorse have way more of a Nineties swing in their tail than soul mates Lambchop and Palace, even if – judging by the brace of new tunes showcased tonight – they’re ditching the heads-down rock in favour of the gentle roll. The tobacco-stained timbre of “St Mary”, with Sophie Michalitsianos on gorgeously mournful cello, recalls Tindersticks’ more lugubrious moments, but sounds not so much like a fully-formed song as a fragment and is all the more perfect for that, while “Happy Place” is warm and mellow as a shot of matt whisky in a pre-dawn cuppa.
“Tears On Fresh Fruit” still tears up the turf, though, and “Hammering The Cramps” is welcomed like a boisterous old friend, while the blood-heavy swing of “Waiting For Nothing” underlines Linkous’ affection for Neil Young and The Replacements. They bow graciously off after all too brief a reacquaintance. Linkous’ affectingly fractured guitar trailing in their wake, emotions left hanging hesitantly in the air like cigarette smoke.
Uncertainty, though, is about to get its lights punched clean out. By the time half an hour has passed, expectation is crackling in the air like a pair of nylon knickers in a thunderstorm. A roar that would do 10,000 wounded bull elephants proud goes up and, with all the brutal certitude of a cornered Prince Naseem, RADIOHEAD come on and proceed to pin all our unspoken shared anxieties in the white light of their expression.
They are the only band who make tiptoeing politely around hyperbole a pointless exercise, so to hell with it. Radiohead are simply the most thrilling, emotionally astute rock band this country has and, along with The Verve, they’ve made rock meaningful again. Live, the windtunnel of their feeling is almost overwhelming, but Thom Yorke, who’s at the eye of this hurricane, understands the need to balance the fierce with the frail if either is to hit home. Somehow, he puts the finger on our collective accumulated hurt and presses. Hard. It’s loathing and love pumped out in equal measure, always personal, never particular, mostly paranoid yet impressively unafraid, the sound of a band who know the “secret” to the sinkhole of this existence is not a question of believing in something bigger than yourself, or something better, but simply believing in SOMETHING.
They come on to that creepy “fitter, happier” android voice, then blast away with “Airbag”, all liquid, trembling guitar against crisp, military drums. Thom wailing half in pain, half in the wracked rapture of performance, “against the wall” his first terrible words. From high to higher they go – no fat, no fill, every song staggeringly focused – through a sleazy, slow-drawled “Karma Police”; the quasi-operatic synths and spooky outerworld noises that surge through the icy “Exit Music”, in which Thom takes desolation and fills it to the brim; his cheekily leading the hand-dapping to “My Iron lung”, where an isolated strobe dissolves the right side of his body in what looks like a blur of speed; a still-triumphant “Creep”. Thom punching the air and thrusting his groin (cue involuntary girly shiver) perfectly in time to THAT guitar crunch and accompanying while light blast, an utterly panic-stricken “Paranoid Android”; and, peak of a range of Olympian sonic peaks, the gorgeous, planning “Climbing Up The Wells”, where Thom howls like one of Francis Bacon’s terrified, suffocating figures end the band, bathed first in gangrenous green light then flooded with nuclear orange, flash genuine funk by dipping into dark, dubby atmospherics.
Two encores – one four songs, the other two – and it’s still not enough. Radiohead have fine-tuned the sounds of doubt and despair, amplified them and hoisted them up higher than the sun. Sadness never felt so warm.