We Went There: Thom Yorke at Northrup Auditorium
Can a show be both “good” and “underwhelming” at the same time? That was my internal question following Thom Yorke’s return to Minneapolis for a “solo” show at the Northrup Auditorium on December 4th.
There was a palpable energy at the sold-out show, which isn’t surprising as the Radiohead frontman has not performed in our state, whether solo or with his acclaimed band, for a very, very long time. But Yorke wasn’t playing his band’s highly regarded cannon, and in fact for a good third of the show he didn’t even play songs the audience knew. The batch of new songs were all cool, blending Yorke’s interest in dub, kosmische, electronic and scratchy post-punk, but I couldn’t help but feeling the audience was being put through an expensive rendition of hipster karaoke (even if it was probably the coolest version possible). The crowd stayed mostly engaged, but there was a distinct decrease in energy in the sections around me as the set went on. I’m a big fan of Yorke’s solo material (and his Atoms for Peace project), and there were flashes of that brilliance seeing Yorke and his two bandmates (one of whom was Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich) play songs like “Black Swan,” “The Clock” and “Amok” that really piqued the crowds interest, but the overall set feel like an extended version of listening to your coolest friend play their avant-garde records for you. Yes, it’s good/interesting, but you get the sense you’re not quite enjoying it as much as they happen to be enjoying it. The musicians stood behind proto-Kraftwerk workstations full of computers and electronics, while Yorke jumped between a rack of electronics, a keyboard on the side of the stage and playing guitar and singing/dancing at a mic stand in the front of the stage.
Adding to the spectacle were panels behind the artists featuring the mind-bending work of Tarik Barri. I won’t do it full justice, but it basically was the best screensaver you’ve ever seen, set to the the songs the band were unwinding on stage. Even when I got a bit underwhelmed with the music, the visuals were outstanding. I know the show was a quasi-bucket list type event for many in the audience, especially longtime Radiohead fans who feel like they may never see their favorite band within hundreds of miles of their hometown. But I couldn’t help but shaking the feeling that while the show was good, the product on stage would have gotten a much different reception if it was Tim York instead of the folk hero twitching around the stage. I guess that is the reservoir of goodwill you build up with when you create genre-defining music for over 25 years, but it still was a bit of a letdown.
A big highlight for me was getting to see Oliver Coates open the show with a beautiful 40 minute set that showcased the young artist’s musical dexterity. As he has on record (and as a part of crafting late-period Radiohead sound), Coates jumped between glitchy electronics, noisy cello screeches and hypnotic neoclassical music throughout his solo opening set. I was hoping to hear a bit more from his Arthur Russell-esqe Upstepping album, but was perfectly happy with his choice to explore his soundscapes in the cavernous Northrup space. It was a great opening set and one that, for me, ended up being the best part of the evening.