Radiohead - Oxford, South Park
All back to their place – local boys done good return to their (grass) roots
IF IT isn't quite the summer garden party it should have been, Radiohead's big homecoming bash is mostly (and moistly) magnificent. Thick cloud occasionally spills rain onto the thousands assembled for the band's first UK show since the release of Amnesiac, but the dark gloom of the day never dampens the spirits.
Nor, for that matter, the enjoyment of South Park's eclectic array of support acts. From the septuagenarian swing of Amnesiac sessioneer Humphrey Lyttelton to the lugubrious troubadaurism of a New Acoustic Beck, the day suggests all is healthy at the arty end of the alterno-rock spectrum.
A mite precious Sigur Ros might be, but their conflation of Cocteaus dreampop and Talk Talk troncemuzak remains a magical sonic signature, Jonsi Birgisson's bowed Les Paul and unearthly falsetto arching over exquisite piano arpeggios. Not that many here seem particularly gripped. The bored bellyachers are swiftly appeased by Supergrass, whose dependably ramshackle Britrock provides immediate, nostalgic, relief. By Caught By The Fuzz, we're back to the exuberant summer of '95; local joy is unconfined.
Then again, no cheesy R&B routines from Beck, who's settling instead for an acoustic set largely derived from Mutations that, on a golden summer evening, would be the perfect apéritif to Radioheod. That his career has flipped so adroitly from Hank WiIliams to Hollywood Freaks doesn't change the fact that ballads like Nobody's Fault But My Own work better in a club than at festivals.
At 8.50pm, amid billowing dry ice and riots of red and orange light, the grunge-fuzz blowout that is The National Anthem heralds the arrival of the party's five principal boys. A nervous Thom Yorke compensates by losing himself in demented repetition of "all I wanna do", his head wobbling fit to fall off. Nor does Airbag sound right: with the main guitar melody missing from the on-stage mix, the performance is tantamount to a crazed dub version of the song. Will South Park confirm what the underwhelming Amnesiac suggests: that Radiohead don't actually matter that much any more?
But something happens during the slow-bum majesty of Lucky: midway, Yorke sustains a high note so pure and intense it's as if in that moment he finds himself. And when Thom stops doubting his own sincerity and gives in to the beauty of his voice, Radiohead's music breaks free. Similarly, when the band stop fretting over whether they're secretly the Pink Floyd of Knobworth ‘75 reborn and just let those liquid Gilmour lines stream into the night, they suddenly make sense as rock's last great white hope.
Encouragingly, almost all the Amnesiac songs sound better than on record. The coiled, coruscating I Might Be Wrong almost verges on funk, Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien's guitars firing off each other superbly. Pyramid Song, with upright bass and upright piano, is gorgeous ambient torch bop. Even the tepid Dollars And Cents comes alive tonight. Slowly it becomes clear that South Pork (a stone's throw from the pub where the band got their first break as On A Friday) is primarily about two things: Radiohead reasserting themselves as a band, and for the first time braiding their past and present in a cohesive way. When Idioteque erupts out of a blazing Paranoid Android, there's no sense of unlike objects being forced awkwardly together.
If there's no Travis-like invocation when Yorke croons, "Rain down on me/From a great height", the heavens do finally open with fourth encore How To Disappear Completely. The band nonetheless reappear twice more, first for Talk Show Host and The Bends, and finally for a Motion Picture Soundtrack that's aborted in favour of Creep. For Yorke to sing that song should tell you how at peace he must be with his musical past. Truly a great day out.