“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me,” Nina Simone’s voice blared throughout Chicago’s United Center. “No fear.”
As the brief voiceover played, Radiohead settled on stage while frontman Thom Yorke took a pleased look around the sold-out arena, feeling right at home.
For the next two hours and 17 minutes (including the set’s double encore), Yorke embodied what it means to be fearless as he writhed about the stage with such intention that it made his 5’5” frame seem taller. Meanwhile, the five-piece band — consisting of drummer Phil Selway, bassist Colin Greenwood, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien and tour percussionist Clive Deamer — were the ringmasters of a sonic circus, each trading off tricks and collectively building a landscape of experimental sounds complete with looped maniacal laughter, courtesy of Yorke, and bowed guitar from Greenwood.
In late February, Radiohead announced it would embark on an 18-date North American headlining tour in July and August. On Friday (July 6), the tour kicked off with the first of two sold-out nights in Chicago. Without new music to promote, the main question on the minds of many was if the setlist would still be mostly filled with tracks from the band’s latest album, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, which they already toured behind (including stops at Lollapalooza in 2016 and Coachella in 2017).
So when Radiohead opened with the trio of “Daydreaming,” “Desert Island Disk” and “Ful Stop” it seemed that these new dates could be a continuation, one final promotional farewell. But by the 30-minute mark, it became clear that the only thing this show, and this tour, is promoting is the U.K. experimental rockers’ 30-plus years as a band, and the greatest hits that have come from them.
Favorites from all nine studio albums were sprinkled into the setlist: “Paranoid Android” off 1997’s OK Computer, “Everything In Its Right Place” off 2000’s Kid A and “Bloom” off 2011’s King Of Limbs. The first encore was heavy on 2007’s In Rainbows, stacked with “15 Step,” “Nude” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” while the second featured the most surprising song choice of the night, “Blow Out,” the closing track off the band’s 1993 debut Pablo Honey, which hasn’t been played live in a decade.
But no matter how many years or albums the setlist spanned, what stood out the most was how nothing really stood out at all: the lyrics are universal and never anchored in a particular time or place, which helped make the show sound like one cohesive epic. Each song flowed into one another effortlessly. Radiohead’s ability to artfully weave in and out of tempos was best heard on “Myxomatosis” off 2003’s Hail To The Thief, during which Yorke was at his most dynamic.
By the time the second encore came to an end, minutes before 11 p.m., Radiohead had proven that they weren’t back on stage because they needed to be, or even because they wanted to be (Yorke’s banter was, as always, lacking to say the least), but because they never really left. But now, without a new project to promote, they were free to pick as they please and play what they want. And judging by the endless amount of energy, evidenced by their return to the stage not once but twice, they might just be better off for it.