If you were going to pick lyrics that are sure-fire crowd pleasers, “We hope that you choke” might not be your first choice … or even your 100th. But when Thom Yorke intoned those lines at the Hollywood Bowl, both lighters and voices were raised. Then again, this was a Radiohead crowd, a crew who have sent the band’s last two Capitol discs, “Kid A” and “Amnesiac,” to the top of the charts, even though the band’s sentiments can be boiled down to “we’re rich, we’re famous, we’re miserable and it’s your fault!”
Live, the band injects some flesh and blood into the over-intellectualized chill of the albums, turning them into the most exquisite melding of guitar sounds and self-loathing since the heyday of Public Image Ltd. He may not perform it anymore, but some part of Yorke still believes he’s a “Creep.”
Allowed to breathe, the songs take on a bruised fervor as Yorke’s keening, reedy tenor strains to bridge the chasm between what he feels and what he can make understood. The staging during the band’s opening number, the propulsive “The National Anthem,” underscores this theme — bars of lights flashed above the band in some indecipherable semaphore.
But when you can have nearly 18,000 people in the palm of your hand and still sing about how you can’t communicate, that’s going to lead to some contradictions, if not downright perversity. And Yorke has issues. Stepping onto the stage wearing a “New York City” shirt (yes, a reference to a famous photo of John Lennon, but not the kind of move that will get an L.A. crowd on your side), he barely said a word all night. His most intimate connection with the crowd was during “You and Whose Army,” when he pointed the camera on his mikestand toward the audience.
The lyrics are nearly impossible to make out at times, but that’s not a bad thing. His operatic whine is more eloquent than anything he sings. Images of disappearance recur throughout the songs, alternating with a spiky, mannered misanthropy. A master of the oblique kiss-off, he can shrug, “It’s not my problem,” during “Optimistic” but end the evening by standing onstage, singing a solo acoustic version of the unreleased “True Love Waits,” his final words a pleading “don’t leave.”
Although Yorke is the frontman, the real star of the band is guitarist Jonny Greenwood. Energetically bounding around the stage, his sure hand in sculpting beautifully craggy guitar and keyboard sounds keeps Radiohead from becoming another group of sad sack musicians. Playing though any number of gadgets and analog synthesizers, he can wail like Television’s Tom Verlaine, spray arcing waves of notes like Echo and the Bunnymen’s Will Sargent or “Revolver”-era George Harrison, riff like Jimmy Page or squall like vintage Suicide.
Songs such as “My Iron Lung,” “Knives Out” and “Fake Plastic Trees” have a firm base in post-punk new wave rock, but unlike many new wave bands, Greenwood can admit to liking post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd. Along with the solid rhythm section of Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood, this gives the music an extra layer of prog-rock stateliness, which can be heard in ballads such as “Lucky” or the Os Mutantes-styled syncopated psychedelia of “Dollars and Cents.”
For all their protestations and attempts to obfuscate the issue with arty production gambits, at heart Radiohead is first and foremost a guitar band.