Radiohead Revitalized

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Thom Yorke, lead singer for Radiohead, performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival

"We love you too!" Radiohead's Thom Yorke confided to the audience at the fifth annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on Saturday night. Such effusiveness from the English art-rock band's notoriously introspective lead singer was unusual, but then so was the setting: a 700-acre farm outside of Manchester, Tennessee, where 80,000 people had convened for four days of non-stop music, mingling and merriment. Radiohead's appearance was the centerpiece and high point of a wide-ranging festival that included satisfying sets from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Elvis Costello, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, My Morning Jacket, Dr. John and Beck, among many others.

The band's only U.S. festival appearance was significant in several ways, not the least because the band is touring this summer without a new album to promote or a record label to prod them. Instead, Yorke has surprised fans by releasing a solo work, The Eraser, that predictably triggered rumors that Radiohead was on the rocks. Partly to squelch such speculation and partly to test out new songs that the group recorded over the past year, Radiohead has for the past few months been touring and playing a lively mix of old and new material at smaller venues in Europe and the U.S.

Radiohead's appearance at Bonnaroo, known as a mecca for roots rockers, tested the range of Radiohead's appeal. Could a politically charged European band get a groove going with Southern fried hippies who worship Phish and the Grateful Dead? The answer came early in the set, as the crowd cheered and danced to "There, There," from the group's last album, Hail to the Thief, and later too, as the sea of listeners lustily sang along to Radiohead classics like "Karma Police" and "Fake Plastic Trees."

The only moment of apparent disconnect came during "You and Whose Army?" As Yorke eyed the crowd through the oversized projector screens like a scientist peering at bugs through a microscope, he mocked superpower military swagger, singing "Come on, come on, Holy Roman Empire/ C'mon, if you think you can take us all." The ensuing laughter was more nervous than knowing. There was also a bit of a slump at the end of the elegiac "How to Disappear Completely," when the audience stood in near silence for a couple of minutes before realizing that the set was over. Eventually, though, the crowd came around to what had just happened and brought the band back for two rousing encores, including a foot-stomping version of "Everything in It's Right Place." Several new songs, including "Bangers n' Mash" which featured Yorke for a short bit on drums, and the superb "Bodysnatchers," were also well received. If the band felt any pressure they didn't show it. Several times during the show, Yorke, making quips in pseudo-French, bared his inner nerd, dancing a spastic jig that was simultaneously geeky and cool.

"This might be the best rock band in the world," observed Rich, a forty-ish owner of a Nashville construction equipment company who had braved the crowds and the heat to get close enough to watch the band without binoculars. "This is the best thing going on in the U.S. this weekend." As for the notion that Radiohead was too highfalutin' for a festival that was famous for tie-dyed jam-band fans, he said, "I hear their new album is kind of a jam band record — most people don't know that."

In fact, unauthorized copies of several new songs have been bouncing around the Internet for weeks, mostly in the form of videos surreptitiously recorded at the band's European gigs. Radiohead seems to understand that staunching the flow is hopeless. If anything, the quality of the new material has stoked anticipation for the band's next disc. The sprouting grassroots black market for bootleg Radiohead clips, ironically, also connects them— spiritually if not technologically — to The Grateful Dead, whose aura still wafts through Bonnaroo like patchouli incense.

Still, even before news that Radiohead's appearance had shifted the event's demographics, with a larger slice of tickets going to New Yorkers than previous years, the Web was burning with a heated debate on the pros and cons of expanding the event's core mission. On the North Mississippi All Stars Message Board, "wdsmith" fumed: "The lineup for this year's Bonnaroo is a joke." Countered "Hipman": "Radiohead is amazing live, I think they fit in pretty good at Bannaroo really."

As Hipman knows, being a Radiohead fan isn't always been easy. "Fake Plastic Trees," from the bands 1995 record, The Bends, may be one of the most poignant love ballads ever written, but Radiohead has never been a band for the faint of heart. Among the subjects Radiohead has tackled head-on are alien abduction ("Subterranean Homesick Alien"), the dangers of political apathy ("2+2=5') and death ("Pyramid Song"). For a few short years in the early '90s it was possible to love the British quintet without a shred of guilt or defensiveness. On "Creep," the band's searing 1992 hit single, a self-described "weirdo" strips his psyche bare. "I want a perfect body, I want a perfect soul," he laments, Yorke's fallen angel voice almost choking with unrequited love. But by the time Jonny Greenwood's buzz-saw guitar cuts through the pathos on the chorus, Yorke's declaration of creepdom has a become a defiant anthem for anyone who has ever wanted someone or something they can't have.

Then came 1997s OK Computer, a bracingly original record that put Radiohead on the map and catapulted them into the progressive pantheon. Suddenly, in the media at least, Radiohead was no longer just a stunningly talented rock band; they were the saviors of rock and roll, self-styled apostles of the Beatles who dared to break the mold with their prophetic, dark parables about apocalypse, aliens and alienation. With its cutting-edge arrangements, spaced-out electronics and Orwellian edge, OK Computer tapped into the nebulous state of the union and anticipated the post-9/11 era of anxiety. It also burdened the band with the albatross of expectation. For Radiohead fans, the pride of seeing their favorite artists explode onto the global stage was tempered by a shudder of apprehension.

Kid A, released in 2000, and its follow-up, Amnesiac, only made matters worse. On many songs, the lyrics were distorted or unintelligible; the brilliant rock guitarwork was largely replaced with electronic blips and keyboard-driven sound poems. Detractors harped that Radiohead had become pretentious and preening — more style than substance. But, to those who were listening closely, including a fair number of influential rock critics, the music was groundbreaking and sublime.

Hail to the Thief, a turbulent, at times angry work released three years after Amnesiac, was greeted as a return to the band's guitar-driven roots and a reconciliation between its intellectual electronic side and its earlier, more guitar-based work. It was really more of a detante — the band's two musical tendencies rallying around a not-so-cryptic political stance. But in the new songs, perhaps because Yorke now has a separate outlet for his more personal yearnings, the fusion of urgency and detachment feels organic, unforced and fertile. Like Bonnaroo, Radiohead is bigger than ever and poised to reach audiences far beyond its core constituency. The band sounds reorganized and reenergized, ready to plant the seeds of what will come next.

Midway through Saturday's show, the group gave a rare public performance of the title track of Kid A, a levitating lullaby about the double-edged knife of celebrity. "Rats and children follow me out of town/ Rats and children follow me out of their homes — C'mon, kids!," Yorke sang as he beckoned to the crowd, exhorting them like a post-modern Pied Piper to follow him away from flawed dreams and broken hopes, away from oppression and fear, away from the dying planet Earth. And for a couple of transcendent hours, they did.