Radiohead’s first American show in four years was terrifying. Throughout the band’s two hours and 15 minutes on stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, my mind fixated on violence, death, and the end of the world, which means it was a very good Radiohead concert.
The set began with a version of "Burn the Witch" shorn of the dazzling string arrangement it has on this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and of any trace of cuteness once created by its disturbing/winsome stop-motion music video. Rather than orchestral pop, the band played the song as lean, furious rock while bathed in red light. It’s long been agreed that “Burn the Witch” is about paranoia pushing civilization to savagery, but the message seemed particularly urgent with this arrangement and, perhaps, in this context. After the Bataclan attack, after Orlando, after Nice, attending a sold-out concert—or any packed entertainment gathering—means knowing exactly what, in Yorke’s words, a “low-flying panic attack” feels like. It means realizing that when he sings “abandon all reason / avoid all eye contact / do not react / shoot the messenger,” he’s giving voice to a primal and dangerous impulse that’s at issue in this election, an impulse that has fascinated Radiohead for decades.
Previous Radiohead tours have featured forests of LED columns, or glowing shards hanging like chandeliers. But last night’s visuals consisted of a relatively simple, symmetrical array of lights and screens above and behind the band. Sometimes, they strobed in chaotic or gorgeous patterns. But between songs, the house lights would go up on stage as the band members traded instruments, breaking whatever spell the previous tune had cast. The muted visuals and discrete borders between performances had an intensifying effect on the music itself. We were being asked to consider Radiohead’s work on its own terms, not through the lens of arena spectacle.