Radiohead Makes Triumphant Return to Santa Barbara Bowl

April 26, 2017 - by: Kim McDaniel

On April 11, Radiohead continued its sixteen-year love affair with the Santa Barbara Bowl. Beginning in 2001, Radiohead and its singer Thom Yorke (as leader of Atoms of Peace), have repeatedly skipped larger venues and cities to play our historic, comparatively-intimate amphitheater. Storied shows by Neil Young, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, The Band—and countless other legends—have lured highly-revered bands like Radiohead here just to experience the “Bowl magic.” In fact, Radiohead roundaboutly confessed to this connection and allure in 2001 when they twice covered Young’s “Cowgirl in The Sand” (the only time the band has performed the song in the U.S.).

So, it was no surprise when Radiohead announced its return yet again to the Bowl, the smallest venue on its entire 2017 world tour (and one of only nine U.S. shows), while on its way to headlining two weekends at Coachella and its massive crowds. As anticipated, the band wowed the Bowl crowd with a phenomenal 25-song show over the course of two-plus hours, adding another high mark in their singular history with the Bowl.

After an energetic opening set by cross-cultural, Jewish-Arabic band Dudu Tassa & The Kuwaitis, we watched Jonny Greenwood’s kids enthusiastically file into the wings for some Bowl-schooling, and prepared ourselves for the band hailed by many as the best live band on the planet. Over the span of their 25-year discography, Radiohead has established themselves as one of the most popular and influential bands, while continuously creating, re-inventing and improving their sounds and songs. Curiously, they’ve gained this stature despite their largely dystopian outlook. Never has such anxiety, paranoia and existential dread been turned on its (radio)head and meshed with such powerful music to bring comfort and lift to so many.

On Tuesday the band bowled over the Bowl crowd with their seamless six-piece synergy, which is fed by their individual virtuosity. Yorke is of course the focal point with his signature vocals and dance antics (but also his guitar-playing, which is underrated). Looming to the right though is Jonny Greenwood, a musical giant who provides the heart of the band’s sound with his compositions, unique guitar, keys and synths, glockenspiel, drums, radio, the theremin-like ondes Martenot and a host of other effects. Jonny’s older brother Colin Greenwood is acknowledged as one of the most gifted bass players in rock and, together with outstanding drummer Philip Selway (augmented on tour again by percussionist Phil Deamer of Portishead), comprises a powerful but nuanced rhythm section. And then there’s Ed O’Brien, who provides proficient and ambient guitar, and whose harmony vocals never fail to enchant. Together they burn and bewitch. Add to the band’s members an ingenious light show that consistently adds to the songs and playing.

They opened with a fantastically spot-lit stage revealing Thom Yorke confidently arm-crossed and Jonny Greenwood bowed deeply at the piano to deliver their climate-change paean “Daydreaming” off their most recent, critically-acclaimed album, A Moon Shaped Pool. Several more sinuous songs from the new album revved up the crowd before the setlist shifted to a measured mix of old and new. Early highlights included In Rainbows’ “All I Need” (with Greenwood adding glockenspiel accents to Yorke’s orchestral piano flourishes) and the ultra-rare “Subterranean Homesick Alien” (which hadn’t been performed in California in 20 years), during which Yorke conducted the crowd to chilling effect as Jonny’s twinkling guitar and O’Brien’s jangle counterpart entwined perfectly. “Identikit” brought on Yorke’s first snake-dance and O’Brien’s first harrowing harmonies and ambient guitar to go with Jonny’s ever-inventive guitar-frippery.

Other highlights included the first encore’s “Give Up The Ghost” on which Yorke looped his mantra vocals and guitar to astounding, harmonized effect. “Nude” then induced chills with Yorke’s jaw-dropping operatic vocals on the supremely atmospheric song. “Lotus Flower” showed the band’s powerful ensemble playing with everything in its right place and Yorke railing on about lust and love. A potent “Planet Telex” (from The Bends) revealed the influences of The Who and their song “Baba O’Reilly.” “Present Tense” closed the encore with the band’s lacey three-part guitars.

The band returned for their second encore with ”You and Whose Army?” Yorke’s eyeball-selfie visuals provided intentionally eerie effects throughout the song. The great dystopian anthem, OK Computer’s “Let Down” (another song not played in 20 years in California), provided the crowd with its first great singalong moment and they responded in kind. The otherworldly harmonies of Yorke and O’Brien did not let the audience down, proving once again that no matter how dark the band’s themes, the net effect on the band’s fans is usually inspiring and hope-filled. The band then barreled past the 10 pm curfew and finished with a ferocious, body-rattling read of “Bodysnatchers.”

While it would be easy to lament that the band didn’t perform any of their 10-15 most popular songs, the discerning Bowl crowd ate up the song riches the band delivered and walked away knowing that they had witnessed an extraordinary night of music and an extension of this unique band/venue love affair. Long may it run!

Check out all the show photos by Santa Barbara Bowl House Photographer, A Arthur Fisher, on our photo library.

For more concert reviews and memories, head to the Bowl Timeline.

Kim McDaniel is editor of The Lefort Report, a music blog. Follow him at @thelefortreport.