News just broke that Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame 2018 nominees have just been elected, and Radiohead didn’t make the cut. Bon Jovi did, however. It’s shocking and frankly an embarrassment, but anyone who was at the Fonda Theater in Hollywood Tuesday night understands that such earthly rewards couldn’t begin to concern an aesthetic oracle like Thom Yorke. With right-hand producer Nigel Godrich and audiovisual artist Tarik Barri bookending him onstage, he brought the audience to a realm even more alien than Radiohead offers live.
It was an elegant affair, the theater’s Spanish Colonial Revival architecture surrounding their minimal stage plot, no opener, just three rugged men arriving quietly in tucked-in black tees. Standing in front of a tri-panel screen bathed in projections that were actually controlled by Barri’s unique custom visualization software, the music was synced in real time with swirling ink blots, flashing orbs and dancing tetrahedrons of full-spectral color accompanying the pops and gulps of Yorke’s lush sonics. He eyed the screen constantly, pushing and turning his various controls to manipulate the landscape, none of which I could understand the mechanics of. Barri uses a software he built in Max/MSP that algorithmically programs graphics to certain sounds, an approach to live music one could call uncommon.
As Yorke entered the stage to maniacal cheers, he grabbed his microphone to say “I haven’t done anything yet!” to doubly enamored laughter. While the electronic/rock deity’s solo material has received mixed reception over the years, he proved at the Fonda that it can only truly be understood in a live setting, its ad-nauseum, creepy-crawly polyrhythms evoking a feeling equal parts techno in a Düsseldorf warehouse, and intergalactic funk. Most of the instrumentals were triggered from tables, though Yorke occasionally handled guitar duties, and Godrich proved his seasoning as a bassist on a brand new, never before heard song that Yorke slowly introduced as “I Am a Very Rude Person.” It was a set highlight, along with a moment during “Brain in a Bottle” where Yorke came in at the wrong point in the song, abruptly stopped himself, and flashed the crowd a long, sarcastic shrug-bow. When the song was finished, he gave an entire routine, repeating the phrase “You say to yourself ‘I’ve got this’” and parodying himself with an oafish walk. His unflinching sense of humor here is all but expected between such dead-serious music, but that’s just more of the man’s famous versatility at work.
In addition to several cuts from Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and The Eraser, new song “Saturday” also had its world premiere that night, not to mention the live debut of “Two Feet Off the Ground.” And it’s not a Fonda Theater show without everyone on the floor looking up behind them at celebrities on the balcony, and this time Flea could be seen watching from the hilt. Brad Pitt was also said to be among us somewhere. Indeed, there was an air that tonight was one for artists’ artists.
The magnitude of Barri’s inclusion—a member of a live band contributing visuals exclusively—cannot be underestimated. As the scope of live music rapidly transitions from organic instrumentation to preprogrammed sequences and relies increasingly on lighting and video content, a standstill is emerging where “live” doesn’t actually mean live at all; but leave it to a Thom Yorke project to set the standard for a solution at last. And to think some years ago he and Godrich were making Britpop.
Words: Jamie Lawlor