Piers Barber heads up north to catch Radiohead’s rearranged super-gig at Old Trafford cricket ground. Despite some serious sound issues, a triumphant final hour makes it just about worth it.
And so to Manchester, for my latest attempt to witness the perfect Radiohead show. Previous attempts have been great, but not so great: Coachella 2012, an exquisite musical performance, but one undermined by a bizarrely passive, ‘Creep’ obsessed Californian audience; and Glastonbury 2011, where all that post-King of Limbs experimentalism during their surprise Park Stage outing was admittedly pretty wonderful, but by no means constituted their definitive show.
So here we are on a grey and drizzly late afternoon at Old Trafford cricket ground, eagerly awaiting a one-off show arranged to replace the two dates originally scheduled to take place in Manchester’s MEN Arena. For all the understandable and tragic developments that forced the switch, it’s a venue which presents a highly different proposition to the one we originally signed up for.
This is a 50,000 capacity space, with one temporary stage installed at one side of the circular stadium (Old Trafford’s shape means the nearest ticketed seats to the stage essentially point away from it). There’s also a gigantic pit, presumably for those willing to cough up even more than the £70-odd I paid, which never approaches full capacity at any stage of the show and forces everyone else to stand at a considerable distance from the action. And then there’s the Manchester weather: this evening it’s densely cloudy, with wind and occasional rain.
In short, it’s not an arena finely curated for the purpose of delivering a kick-ass concert, and regrettably it’s these factors that wreak havoc to the first half of the show. The band start with the exquisite ‘Let Down’, a shimmering highlight from OK Computer, the album recently re-released with accompanying bonus material this year. But it’s instantly noticeable that it lacks a punch – the weather, acoustics and volume are just not right. And it’s soon clear it’s not a one off, with these issues persisting long beyond the normal two or three songs it normally takes to iron out mistakes made in the original sound check.
There are moments when things threaten to kick into gear – a satisfyingly muscular ‘Myxomatosis’, for example – but upsettingly it’s mostly a struggle to hear the band at all above nearby chat or singing. It is slightly heartbreaking to hear the stupendous ‘Pyramid Song’ or compelling ‘Everything In It’s Right Place’ delivered at such tepid volume against a light grey sky. At one point an annoying ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant also breaks out, one which the band do absolutely nothing to incite and seem amusingly eager to drown out by launching into another song.
As the show goes on it feels slightly like listening to a Radiohead greatest hits playlist played at full blast in the room next door: you can tell the songs are brilliant, yes, but the experience is just not quite as satisfying as it should be. It feels, as a friend points out, like Radiohead have been booked as the support act before the real headliners – Radiohead! – make their triumphant entrance later in the evening.
The band troop off for the first time after ‘2+2=5’. It’s still light – the same friend is convinced it’s getting lighter – and barely a single song has really hit the spot. A first encore begins with a low key version of A Moon Shaped Pool‘s ‘Daydreaming’, which somehow seems to lack anywhere near the emotional punch that the recorded version delivers through a decent pair of headphones. It hardly does much to inspire confidence that anything’s going to much improve.
But then, with around 45 minutes to go, something really does happen: Manchester finally gets dark, somebody locates all the volume controls, and suddenly we’ve got a proper live show on our hands – for everyone in the ground, not just those at the front. And Thom Yorke finally says something that’s genuinely poignant and appropriate: “Thank you Manchester, god bless your city.”
‘Plastic Android’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ (the line “It wears you out” is sung with real gusto by the band’s amusingly stereotypical gathered fan base) close the first encore, and you’re reminded just how much Radiohead really are a great rock band; masters of rapid walls of drumming and crunching guitar riffs. In fact, the whole show reinforces my sacrilegious theory that, well, Kid A is maybe just electronic music that other less prominent artists have actually done a bit better, and that it’s the less fashionable OK Computer that really constitutes this band’s true masterwork.
The band’s second encore is genuinely special, a stunning quartet of ‘There There’, ‘I Promise’ (a new song from the OK Computer sessions), ‘The Bends’ and ‘Karma Police‘, delivered in darkness, at a volume you can feel in your bones and to a genuinely adoring audience. The line, “For a minute there, I lost myself” rings out long after the band have left. My highlight is the rare live outing for ‘The Bends’, which fizzes brilliantly and is a perfect adrenaline hit for super-fans desperate to take home memories of the performance of some memorable oddity.
I’m finally reminded why I came all this way: to soak up a 26 song extravaganza – which ultimately stretches to over two and a quarter hours – from one of British music’s most undeniably vital acts. It’s just a shame that, with all these fans having made their own respective pilgrimages from across the country, that we’ve had to wait so long into the show to really appreciate it.
Main image credit: Guardian