CHICAGO — No offense to the many massive outdoor festivals that Radiohead have headlined over the years, but there’s nothing like seeing them indoors, in a space that can project both their brightest and darkest tendencies. Friday night’s show at the United Center kicked off an 18-date North American tour that will find them packing arenas instead of sprawling fields, playing to roughly 20,000 fans every night instead of exponentially more at Coachella or Lollapalooza. It’d be a stretch to call either experience “intimate,” but one is far closer to it.
Over more than two hours and two dozen songs, the band both indulged their need to get weird and embraced their most populist tendencies — occasionally in the same moment, but mostly by building and releasing tension in roughly 30-minute cycles. Considering that they’ve been at it for more than 25 years, it’s no surprise that Radiohead have setlists down to a science.
They started off on Friday with the near-ambient “Daydreaming,” a quiet, piano-driven song accented visually by a sea of strobes, and the folky, similarly subdued “Desert Island Disk,” both from their latest, 2016’s “A Moon Shaped Pool.” (Though they didn’t play any brand-new material, as ever, a Radiohead album could drop from the sky at any moment — they’ve also perfected the art of the surprise release.) Singer Thom Yorke, top-knotted and grizzly bearded, tossed his leather jacket before starting “Ful Stop,” stalking the stage with a small keyboard cradled in his arm and turning the song — which chugs along dreamily on “Pool” — into sneering electro-punk.
After that nod to their newest material, Radiohead dove headlong into a set that spanned their entire career, touching on every one of their nine albums. An egg-shaped screen matched visuals with the mood, from chill-looking dots and lines to frantically pulsing bull’s eyes, washing the audience in reds and oranges to fit the vibe.
Playing slightly against character, Yorke seemed delighted to be onstage throughout the show, though happiest during the set’s least traditional, most percussive moments: During the frenetic “Myxomatosis,” from 2003’s “Hail to the Thief,” he danced to beats that he seemed to be adding in his mind, and punctuated the lyrics with hip-hop-like postures. “Bloom,” from “The King of Limbs,” featured three drummers working to build a skittering wall of beats for Yorke and guitarist Ed O’Brien to climb around in, all attention focused on rhythm and none on something as gauche as a traditional chorus — those have been in short supply in Radiohead’s last decade or so, and only occasionally missed.
And of course there were crowd pleasers as well: Both “Paranoid Android” and “Let Down,” from 1997’s band-defining classic “OK Computer,” elicited instant cheers of recognition. But the two songs that closed the main set earned the most applause by combining the band’s itch for experimentation and the audience’s desire to be entertained: a one-two punch of the manic “Idioteque” and the woozy “Everything in Its Right Place,” both from 2000’s “Kid A.”
The encores — Radiohead shows aren’t complete without at least a couple of them — put the show’s contrasts in dramatic relief. For the pop-minded, they offered a soaring “Fake Plastic Trees” and a keening “No Surprises.” For the diehards, they resurrected the 1993 snoozer “Blow Out.” And for themselves, it was the slinky, jazzy “Nude” and an energized reading of the syncopated electro jam “15 Step.” The evening closed with an agitated “There There,” which managed to feature four people playing drums and still sound like the most R.E.M.-inspired song of Radiohead’s catalog.
As Yorke walked offstage, he looked genuinely pleased. Like his more traditionalist rock ‘n’ roll analogue Eddie Vedder, he’s learned over the years to embrace the joy in delivering both the crowd favorites as well as the saddest, weirdest songs in the band’s catalog to a room of people eager to go wherever his band wants to take them. He’ll be 50 this year, but he looks like he’s having more fun being in Radiohead than ever before.