40,000 people under a leaden sky faced towards some scaffolding with grey strips of fabric either side, each depicting the bear-like cartoon character from Amnesiac in tears. One of Radiohead’s latest pieces of artwork and horribly appropriate for today considering the weather, it dominated the stage during the support acts. These were a varied bunch, kicking off with a Duke Ellington-inspired set from Amnesiac guest jazz star Humphrey Lyttelton and his merry band of old jazz cats.
Surprising numbers of the audience were into the music; perhaps because of the jazzier moments on Amnesiac; there again perhaps not. They left the stage to wild applause from the already busy sloping field that made up this venue, to be followed by Sigur Ros.
The Icelandic experimental band produce quite beautiful music, with lead singer Jonsi Thor Birgisson playing his electric guitar with a cello’s bow while wailing counter-tenor lyrics whose sounds, rather than words (he sings in a half-language sometimes called Hopelandic) worked their way into the brain. However beautiful, though, this music was far better suited to a late night in a bedroom with the lights off than a festival. It was a good thing they left after just five elegiac songs.
Just for consistency we were then treated to Oxford’s own Supergrass who were in fine form, rocking their way through familiar songs with huge guitar riffs and setting the crowd surging first this way and that. Richard III was predicatably superb and, although the inter-song breaks were curiously without audience connection for the most part, at least the audience was awake again.
It wasn’t to last. Beck Hansen, a man I’ve wanted to see live for ages (ever since I heard his wonderful Mellow Gold album some seven years ago), appeared and offered us a downbeat acoustic set. Even he seemed to sense that the songs were not working on the audience as he launched into an impromptu effort involving a harmonica, quasi-tap-dancing and some vocals; but after that we were back to more of the same. Like Sigur Ros, he did not play a full set – most of the material was from Mutations and none of it included any big crowd pleasers.
As our feet, backs and necks began to ache in earnest and the sky looked ever angrier, the blacked-out back of the stage was removed to reveal horizontal flourescent strip lights which would flash in a manner akin to the landing pad in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Speculation in our group centred on the identity of the first song – in this setting, would it be ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’? We thought not – much more likely to be something from Kid A or Amnesiac, we concluded. All of this before Mr Yorke, Messrs Greenwood and friends even appeared.
When they did appear, it was a gutsy rendition of The National Anthem from Kid A that roused the audience into a stomp immediately. While not all Radiohead fans have been impressed with the last two new albums, it is fair to say that the majority of the songs from these recordings are excellent live. Like The Divine Comedy‘s Regeneration, also produced by Nigel Godrich, Kid A and Amnesiac on CD offer excellent songs in a dull production and this is unfortunate.
There were to be more examples; Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box was electrifying (“I’m a reasonable man/get off my case” howled by Yorke at his enraptured audience), Everything In Its Right Place was upbeat (!) and How To Disappear Completely was the definition of gorgeous. Slower numbers, such as Knives Out and You and Whose Army bordered on spellbinding, with Johnny Greenwood swapping places with Thom on upright piano and showing that he isn’t just one of the best guitarists a band could hope to have. Pyramid Song is of course the piano song, with its bizarre jazzy 5/4 and 7/8 timing, soul-seeping synth effects, beautiful lyrics (“Jumped in the river what did I see/black-eyed angels swam with me”) and drumming that almost sounds like breakbeat.
It was the older material, especially from The Bends, that got everyone going. The audience reaction to My Iron Lung was quite terrifying for some – 40,000 people surging means people fall over. Many were helped over a “safety barrier” during the crush caused by the freak-out, induced by My Iron Lung. More would come with The Bends, Paranoid Android (cheekily dedicated to Geri Halliwell) and Karma Police.
Radiohead’s set, gutsily performed by a band who know they are better than they have ever been, was the saving grace of the day and made the degradation almost worthwhile; and after all, even Thom Yorke cannot control the weather. When, during the third encore, Thom’s synth failed (“It’s kapute, ja?” he intoned, Kraftwerk-style) we were treated to a hastily organised set closer which turned out to our amazement to be ‘Creep’. As pleasant as it was unexpected, this song is supposedly hated by Thom, but 40,000 people were singing every word of it. “Thank you very very much,” said Thom to his public. The end was nigh and we’d survived. Quite an experience, provided by quite a band.