SANTA BARBARA — Halfway through Radiohead’s set on Tuesday night, a full moon rose above the Santa Barbara Bowl, providing an almost eerie mise en scène for the show. It was, after all, in support of “A Moon Shaped Pool,” their ninth studio album. But frontman Thom Yorke refused to take credit for the lunar mystics.
“It’s the music, baby,” he assured the sold-out crowd.
The smallest concert of Radiohead’s 2017 tour — the band headlines Coachella this weekend — their two-hour-plus setlist was largely devoted to material from their latest record as well as 2010’s “In Rainbows.”
Skipping all 10 of their top-selling singles, including “Karma Police,” “Paranoid Android” or breakout smash “Creep” — a bold move for any popular artist in this day and age — their 25-song performance played expertly in the intimate, 80 year-old amphitheater.
Nestled along the California coast, the Santa Barbara Bowl has become one of Radiohead’s most intriguing tour stops in the U.S. It’s where Yorke bellowed out “True Love Waits” in 2001 before it was a fan favorite — this, just minutes after the band performed a rare cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” It’s also a tiny venue that, at 4,500 capacity, leaves the U.K. outfit all the more exposed, the emotions and disillusionment more sentimental. And yes, tickets were very hard to come by (scalper prices online started at $1,000).
After a Will Call mix-up held up the show for 20 minutes or so, Yorke and his band mates sauntered on stage at 7:50 p.m., kicking off their set with the slow, new-ish ballads “Daydreaming” and “Desert Island Disk.” Tension began to swell with the rhythmic “Ful Stop,” another new track, before unleashing “Climbing Up the Walls,” a chilling headbanger from the “O.K. Computer” era.
Highlights included the percussion-heavy “Bloom” — which featured three separate drummers: Phil Selway, new drummer Phil Deamer (Portishead) and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood — as well as the beautifully somber “How to Disappear Completely,” which was accompanied by a lush, whirling organ melody provided by Greenwood. That’s the beauty of Radiohead — they’re a band that continues to reinvent themselves, even when most of their catalogue is older than Facebook or the iPhone.
Yorke, now 48, remained tight-lipped throughout the show, chuckling here and there, which played more into the music and lingering synthesizers than anything else. But the U.K. outfit, not exactly known for their camaraderie onstage, were visibly excited. During “Myxomatosis,” Yorke’s mic fell to the ground as he danced and trembled to the dizzying number–he quickly recovered–and after “Everything In Its Right Place,” which featured an extended, EDM-friendly outro, Yorke ran over and patted Ed O’Brien on the back. Bassist Colin Greenwood, Jonny’s brother, also gave an enthused thumbs up to O’Brien, who was on his hands and knees, as he twisted and turned his monster pedal board.
Also special for the lucky few in attendance were rarities “Let Down” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” both of which hadn’t been played in Southern California in nearly two decades.
The stage’s centerpiece, a giant mirror-like oval, projected manic images of the band throughout the show — including a close-up of Yorke’s eye during crowd-pleaser and final song “You And Whose Army?” Even more vivid was the first-rate light show that turned the Santa Barbara mecca every which color. Coupled with the ovoid, it could have been listed as a seventh member of the band.
Radiohead plays the Coachella Music and Arts Festival on Friday night in Indio, Calif.