The English composers Radiohead are briefly in residence in New York. On Saturday Night Live last night, with Clive Deamer as guest second drummer, they played "Lotus Flower" and a dreamily potent new song called "Staircase"; you can watch videos here. Thanks to a bass-playing friend, I got to watch from the audience at Rockefeller Center; it was my first time in Studio 8H, the historic Toscanini venue. Photos of the great man still hang in the corridors, mingling oddly with pictures of Sprockets, the Coneheads, and the like. (There's a common link, though: Alec Baldwin, who hosted the show, is the announcer for the New York Philharmonic's radio broadcasts, and serves generally as classical music's chief celebrity spokesperson.) Anyway, Radiohead will appear tomorrow on the Colbert Report, and on Wednesday and Thursday they'll play at Roseland. Tickets for the shows go on sale tomorrow at 10AM, and will probably be gone a minute or two later.
I first heard Radiohead at the Hammerstein Ballroom in 1997, during their OK Computer tour. The second song on the setlist was "Just," with its octatonic scale spiraling gigantically upward; I was converted. I wrote at the time:
OK Computer has fewer stately airs than The Bends, but it adds layer upon layer of weird beauty. The sound is somehow tall: ideas unwind in every register. "Paranoid Android" is a symphony in six minutes, moving from a shuffling introduction to a hardcore scherzo, then from a slow chorale on the words "From a great height" to a hammering coda. Throughout the album, contrasts of mood and style are extreme: a couple of the songs could almost have been sung by Sinatra (or so it's fun to imagine), while a couple of others, rescored for bass clarinets, might win appreciative shrugs from new-music cognoscenti at the Knitting Factory. This band has pulled off one of the great art-pop balancing acts in the history of rock.
My 2001 profile of Radiohead is in my book Listen to This. As I've said before on this blog, chronicling the band's European and American tour was one of the great experiences of my life. Having given up pretensions of writing about non-classical music, for the most part, I'm happy now to experience them as a fan rather than as a critic. The photo above was taken at Red Rocks in Colorado.