Radiohead at the Auditorium Theatre Chicago, 2006

By Mark Guarino

Radiohead is a band always making statements, even when they’re not playing a note. That was the case Monday at the Auditorium Theatre where the band not only directed their attention to the audience they could make eye contact with, they frequently played to fans high in the back rafters. “Don’t lean over,” singer Thom Yorke warned them politely.

In a sports stadium, he wouldn’t have bothered. Even with no new album to promote, as was the case Monday, Radiohead can easily fill venues six times the Auditorium’s size. (They last played this area in 2003 at Alpine Valley, a 35,000-capacity venue compared to the Auditorium’s 6,000 seats.) But keeping fans close and ticket prices low — top price was $42.50 — the British quintet is out of fashion this summer concert season, where artists are hiking prices and going so far as to auction desirable seats to compete with scalpers.

But Radiohead is not Madonna (top price: $385), which means it isn’t celebrity that makes this band one of the most revered on the planet. They continue to circumvent, not just the supply-and-demand pace of the music industry, but also the artistic expectations of their fans. So far, both have worked out beautifully.

On Monday, the first of two sold-out nights, it was easy to see why. Radiohead played with moods like scientists, spiking songs with atmospheric fuzz and blips, through a console of wires and keyboards controlled by guitarist Jonny Greenwood and a floor of pedals handled by guitarist Ed O’Brien. They gave the music a complicated life, shifting the mood from tension to release in an instant. The songs had a tendency to submerge into atmosphere, but peaks broke through. On “Morning Bell,” Greenwood detonated a brief racket into otherwise cool, slithery grooves while during “There There,” both guitarists doubled on drums, filling up the song’s fleshy spine with a mighty sound.

The 23-song set was mostly split between songs from “Kid A” and “Amnesiac,” the band’s mood-heavy albums released in 2000 and 2001 respectively, and new songs from an album due next year. The latter songs shifted backward to earlier albums like “The Bends,” where guitars and conventional song structures ruled. The new song “Bangers ‘N Mash” was a taut rocker, featuring Greenwood and O’Brien doubling up on a single riff while “Videotape” featured Yorke using his Rickenbacker guitar to bring chunky power chords. These new songs were primed for dancing — “Down Is the New Up” had a bristling groove and “15 Steps” rattled with a jagged beat.

Radiohead’s fan devotion — titters rippling through the crowd with every Yorke quirk — allowed the band to get away with things other bands can’t, including brief interludes that were more ideas than songs. Yorke carries even these inadequacies. His choirboy voice brings the unusual mixture of naiveté and tension to whatever he sings. On piano and guitar (and often dancing with a nervous tic of an early David Byrne), he humanized these otherwise ominous songs. The band drew their momentum from his voice. As he sang “4 Minute Warning,” a folksy new song, his bandmates huddled around him for the first time in the night, his vocals themselves becoming the glow in a campfire.
Going to the show tonight? Here’s Monday’s setlist:

01 You and Whose Army?
02 The National Anthem
03 15 Step
04 Morning Bell
05 Exit Music (For A Film)
06 Open Pick
07 Videotape
08 Knives Out
09 The Gloaming
10 Nude
11 Down Is The New Up
12 Paranoid Android
13 Bangers ‘N Mash
14 Like Spinning Plates
15 Spooks
16 Idioteque
17 There There

Encore 1
18 A Wolf At The Door
19 4 Minute Warning
20 Bones
21 Lucky

Encore 2
22 House of Cards
23 Everything In Its Right Place

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