If you take all the most famous bands of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, very few have Radiohead’s aura. It’s simple, every time Radiohead announces a tour, or something related to any of Thom Yorke’s side projects, getting a ticket (at a decent price) becomes this mission-impossible operation. I have failed miserably a few times, although I got the chance to see Radiohead many times and Thom Yorke’s solo project at intimate venues: at The Fonda in December 2017 and at the Orpheum in December 2018. If you skip the pandemic years, December seems to be Thom Yorke month as I managed to see another of his side projects, The Smile, on Thursday night at the Shrine Auditorium. Fortunately, they added a second show since their first one, on the 21, sold out in a few seconds, as expected.
Formed during the pandemic, The Smile is half of the size of Radiohead, as it only consists of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, backed by drummer Tom Skinner, a musician of London’s avant-garde jazz scene. However, the infatuation of the public is almost the same. Radiohead’s stardom is unique and unmatched despite what Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, or Green Day fans may tell you – having spent a few hours on Radiohead’s forum in the ‘00s, I can attest that the fans’ dedication to the band has reached cultish degrees… but it is well deserved. I will not point any fingers at anyone – although I may point one at Weezer, a ‘90s band that has grown in mediocrity at each release – but most ‘90s bands do not reinvent themselves and generally avoid challenging their fans after a few decades of success. This rule doesn’t apply to Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood: they could have rested happy with Radiohead’s enormous success, but Thom keeps doing these side projects (Atoms for Peace, his entire solo project) while both of them (especially Jonny) have composed cryptic music for movie soundtracks: “Suspiria,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” “Inherent Vice,” “Phantom Thread,” “The Power of the Dog” to just name a few. Radiohead simply seems to fly at another level than the rest of the music business: instead of resting comfortably, its members dare to challenge their audience with each new project. The Smile is part of this challenge, probably because the music doesn’t have Radiohead’s familiarity. The creativity is nevertheless omnipresent as the trio effortlessly demonstrated it on Thursday night.
The night started with a short set by Robert Stillman, a multi-instrumentalist who brought numerous influences on stage, from Jazz to electric minimalism, to noir saxophone and wild experimentation. Some ambient compositions were slow and avant-garde, but if there was a public able to appreciate this pre-modernism, it has to be The Smile audience. His saxophone pieces were the ones that resonated the most, making the crowd cheer at the sound of a festive cacophonic delirium. Stillman came back on stage to back up the Smile with a sax part, which illustrates how relevant his sound was.
Thom, Jonny, and Tom took the stage under a loud noise coming from every part of the theatre. The audience was ecstatic and they immediately launched the show with “The Same,” the first track of their debut album “A Light for Attracting Attention.” The decor was rather sober. I remember about the incredible visuals created by Tarik Barri during Thom’s last solo show, but this time, there was barely anything, and certainly no elaborate stage decorations besides some flashing lights
They played almost every song of the album, plus five new ones (?) which made everyone believe that there’s gonna be a second album very soon. The mood was switching from melancholic ballads to anxious and loud soundscapes, often reminiscent of Radiohead’s compositions because of Thom’s recognizable feral falsetto and Jonny’s experimental and inventive guitar licks. Meanwhile, Tom Skinner’s light-touch drumming was consistently conversing with Greenwood’s guitar picking, and never lost a part even during their most adventurous sections.
The frenetic assaults of “Thin Thing” and “The Opposite” were intense numbers that brought half of the room on their feet, while the other half wanted to stay seated… how come? Some people kept shouting “sit down” while other ones continued to ignore them… seated concerts are always tricky! The slow songs (like “Speech Bubbles” and its undeniable Radiohead accents) forced everyone to seat down, but soon, there was another intense and more aggressive moment with Jonny and his bow on guitar, followed by a throbbing angsty noise, and it was chaos again. People stood up in the alleys, cheering and applauding louder each time, and I took advantage of these repeated instants of chaos to get a bit closer to the stage each time.
The main difference between Radiohead and The Smile may have been the omnipresence of guitars. Thom was constantly switching between guitar and bass when he was not playing piano – the crew actually brought a piano onstage for a few songs. “Waving a White Flag” had a strong cinematic flavor with Thom’s vocals sprawling like never before, while a new one, ”Colours Fly” had an obsessive and fantastic groove, building a mysterious tension with a middle eastern flavor. Since I was not too familiar with most of the material, it is somewhat difficult to say but it seems that they were partially improvising: the band moved through the songs with amazing fluidity, a volatile style, and a real looseness not seen during a Radiohead concert, stretching out openings and endings of the songs into inventive jams. It was especially true during these spiky guitar bangers between Thom and Jonny. However, my attempt at catching them together in one pic doing some epic pose failed, as there was never an occasion for that. Think what you want about them, but flashy they aren’t.
“We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” was aborted and immediately restarted (Thom’s keyboards had some issues) and it was another happy cheering crowd moment before the execution of the krautrock-vibe piece getting more and more anxious at the second. The alarm-like guitar effects during the new “Under Our Pillows” had a hypnotic effect while Thom’s vocals and the synth textures could have been a Radiohead deep cut. That was also the case for “Skrting on the Surface,” and its haunting melody, delicately executed with Radiohead’s emotional depth and elegance. Robert Stillman added some interesting and frantic saxophone to the unsettling textures of the piano ballad “Pana-Vision” and he stayed for a few other ones.
The riotous, rousing, fuzzy, angry “You Will Never Work In Television Again” was the perfect set closer, but the band came back for a generous encore of three songs, starting with the magical lightness of “Open The Floodgates,” the ethereal beauty of “Bending Hectic,” with Thom’s soaring voice affronting a surging and chaotic instrumentation, and they closed the night with a rare Yorke solo cut, the angsty noisy “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses.”
The Smile is probably here to stay, it’s a too-good, too-adventurous live act to just be a lesser Radiohead offshoot. Their songs effortlessly moved from one mood to the next, painting a complicated and rich soundscape while the trio displayed a visible enthusiasm and excitement in playing these songs… And I had never seen Thom smile so much.
Waving a White Flag
We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings
Under Our Pillows
Skrting on the Surface
Read the Room
You Will Never Work in Television Again
Open the Floodgates
Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses (Thom Yorke song)
Miley makes it three at the top
better than you remember
it has been four years since her last long player
quickly get your music noticed
A fast rock & roll song performed with a retro punk vibe
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