The train pulls up at Central. I’ve got my ticket bulldog-clipped to the inside cover of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids; harder to lose a book than a strip of card, by my reckoning. Outside, the day is dimming and the heavy Queensland air is breaking into cool splashes of rain. I climb into the carriage.
The Brisbane Entertainment Centre sits, quite counter-intuitively, a long way out of the Brisbane city centre – nestled amid bushland in the suburb of Boondall, formerly Cabbage Tree Creek. The train doors ding and we spill out into the quiet drizzle; the station is flanked by unassuming tropical bungalows. Time-worn signs usher us along a tree-lined path, which opens up onto a big pond with a roundhouse, grassy grounds, and more imposingly, the austere 1980s architecture of the Entertainment Centre. Some friends are heading up the path from the train after mine. I meet them for a G&T by the pond, though it’s a rendezvous that’s truncated by law enforcement officials. So: into the foyer, for some of that great Queensland beverage – bundy and coke.
Slowly, the thousands of bodies filter in, so that you almost don’t notice the vast arena filling up with excited eyes and sharp-toothed-bear t-shirts. It seems a bunch of people didn’t make it inside the main space in due time to notice NZ act Connan Mockasin, either, which is their loss. The band appear on stage to enthusiastic but guarded applause. Who is this “Connan Mockasin”? Is it a soloist with other dudes playing along? Sure seems like it’s going to proper band. Expectations are vague, but nevertheless high; this is Radiohead’s support act, so they had better be good (think of how many aspiring indie rockers who would have betrayed their own mothers for a crack at that slot. A veritable buttload). The front-and-centre guy, presumably Connan himself, slings one of those teardrop-shaped Ian Curtis guitars over his shoulder (well, not quite: it’s a statocaster reshaped to look like a Vox Phantom, for those of you playing at home) and steers his ensemble through a set of high-quality pop. There are those chorusey, 80s guitar tones which were put to great use in New Zealand back in the day, there are swelling washed out textures, shoegazey moments and the addition of a kaftan-wearing percussionist. They’re a good choice; sounding enough like the headline act to be a safe bet with attendees, meanwhile presenting a certain antipodean flavour and hints of other influences that run parallel to Radiohead but don’t quite intersect them. There are Pink Floydy moments smattered with organ, indie-prog epics that span many tempos and grooves, and whiffs of jazz and lo-fi weirdo pop. The set ends prematurely, apparently – “my guitar’s broken so we have to stop now” – but it’s a pretty apt ending time, drawing plenty of ears in but wearing none of them out.
The next fifteen minutes last a long time, even with really excellent break music (underground EDM, minimal house, squelchy bass and glitchy breaks) to keep our ears busy. I’ve never flown 3,614km just to see one band before. Getting to this point, to this fifteen-minute pre-set lull, has taken several days and plenty of History Channel documentaries on a tiny headrest screen. Not to mention an otherwise unjustifiable portion of hard-earned cashmoneys. This is the bit where I find out if it was worth it – but not just that. This is the bit where I find out if this band I’ve been listening to since I was 13 is as good in the flesh, and on the stage, as it’s been in my mind and in my ears all those years. For better or worse, Radiohead shaped a lot of my tastes back then. The other night I watched a film called Dingo where an aspiring West Aussie trumpeter played by Colin Friels travels to Paris to track down the musician who inspired him to start playing, portrayed by a gloriously coiffed, aging Miles Davis. I guess this is a bit like that, though Thom Yorke’s hair is looking pretty nasty these days. Anyway: a daunting moment.
The band appears in the dark to an eruption of cheers and without so much as a “hello” we’re in. ‘Lotus Flower’ is the departure point. Which works brilliantly – it’s probably the best track from last year’s King of Limbs album, encompassing many of the things that are excellent about the band: dense, driving drum patterns, ethereal vocal melodies, deft goo bass, understated beauty, textural adventurousness, a sense of gentle British neurosis. They chase it with ‘Bloom’ – keeping newer tunes up front – before rewinding to “OK Computer” with a slightly revamped ‘Airbag.’ ‘The Daily Mail’ offered the night’s first glimpse of Yorke in intimate piano+vocal mode, as well as his lesser known sense of humour, teasing hecklers and aping cockney accents. ‘Myxomatosis’ was a veritable explosion, that off-kilter bassline pulsing through 13,000 torsos present in the great hall, eliciting foot jitters while Thom shows off some particularly good dance moves (yes, proper good!) amid a flurry of green lights.
Every tune is delivered with utmost precision, deftness and – moreover – gusto, what seems like genuine excitement on the part of the band. They’re in high spirits, having not toured “King Of Limbs” material before this year – it’s an album which erupts into a totally new realm in the live setting, especially with the addition of extra drummer Clive Dreamer adding another layer atop Phil Selway’s already complex, game-changing beats. Tunes crop up from “Hail to the Thief” (‘The Gloaming’, ‘There There’) Amnesiac (the spectacular ‘You And Whose Army?’) Kid A (‘The National Anthem’) In Rainbows (‘Reckoner,’ ‘Nude,’ ‘Bodysnatchers’) and brand new material (surprise highlight ‘Staircase’) though the band’s first three albums are largely ignored in the ‘set proper.’ Of course, they return for an encore, with the remarkable ‘Pyramid Song’ a bewildering highlight, new life breathed into ‘Morning Mr. Magpie,’ and undeniable ‘Paranoid Android.’ After the inclusion of ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ (which feels a little flat, don’t ask me why), they disappear again, but presumably only to drink a few litres of water. They’re back for a triptych of brilliance: ’15 Step,’ one of the best songs in 5/4 of all time, the mysteriously superb ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ with a false-intro bluff, and ‘Idioteque’ – a song which, in hindsight, kind of forms a pivot-point for their entire career to date, and rushes into hitherto unseen levels of intensity.
Has the tyranny of time and aging wearied Radiohead? Has the privelige of fame and legions of worshipping fans made them slack? Somehow, their live show sounds better than it ever has. It’s slick, but palpably still the machinations of a rock band comprising human beings, who do make mistakes and go into capricious tangents from time to time. This is no pre-fab stadium rock bullshit, and thankfully, the group has retained their idiosyncratic sense of personality. Johnny Greenwood, the quiet(?) achiever, is now tinkering with more instruments than ever, their expansion across genres shows no signs of slowing down, but in the two-hour-plus set than spans years of work, nothing jars stylistically. I say so because it’s remarkable, not because it comes as a surprise. Anyone who’s seen the groups ‘Live at the Basement’ video sessions knows that Radiohead’s powers have hardly waned in recent times, and any casual fan knows their output has been both eclectic and impressively consistent.
I expected Radiohead to be “amazing” and all that. I expected them to play lots of great songs. But I also half-expected them to seem somewhat jaded, somewhat bored. But – and granted, Yorke mentioned that they “have to play new songs so they don’t go mad,” – one really didn’t get the sense that these five/six guys are touring out of any kind of obligation. If anything, they almost seemed surprised at how great all their songs still sounded. It seems good to be true – after twenty years, something ought to have gone horrible wrong. They should have released at least one stinker album or at least gotten visibly bored of playing shows. But Radiohead are one of those rare acts that defy the odds.
As they finally leave the stage, surely exhausted, I ask myself: is this a farewell of sorts? Will Radiohead soon throw in the touring towel, focusing on studio work, solo efforts and the ever-expanding constellation of remixes that accompany their releases? One could be forgiven for suspecting it, but there are no signs. Haters will continue to hate, but witnessing the performance, it’s almost impossible to fault. As far as I’m concerned, they’re a group at the peak of their powers. And that peak can only be described as magic.