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Radiohead Buys A Staircase To Austin

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It’s hard to believe that the great PBS concert showcase series Austin City Limits (or ACL) has been doing its thing for 38 seasons now. That makes it the longest running live music program in television history.

What makes this amazing benchmark even harder to fathom, is the fact that it has done so, while maintaining such a high standard of quality. Austin City Limits began its life by mostly spotlighting artists in the more traditional country, alt-country and Americana genres. But in more recent years, it has expanded its focus, attracting younger, alternative bands like Wilco, and just two weeks ago on its 38th season premiere, Radiohead.

ACL’s 38th season continues tonight with a concert pairing blues and soul greats Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples (check your local PBS listings).

But whether it is legends like Raitt and Neil Young, or alternative trailblazers like Radiohead, what probably most attracts artists of this caliber to ACL is the exacting standards of the show. ACL provides a forum particularly unique for television, where musicians are given the opportunity to express themselves artistically in a way completely unencumbered by the constraints of commercial television and its corporate advertisers.

Forget Big Bird. If Mitt Romney wins, my biggest fear (if he actually goes through with the long-running Republican talking point of defunding Public Broadcasting), would be the loss of shows like this. I Want My ACL!

But that’s another story, and one probably best saved for the Op-Ed section.

Radiohead’s ACL performance two weeks ago was a perfect case in point. As a genre, “alternative” music can mean a lot of things to different people, depending on who you talk to. Over the years, it has been defined by everything from the post-punk grunge of Nirvana to the heavily pierced and tattooed “nu-metal” of Korn, to all those quirky pop groups with names favoring the word “The” (Foster “The” People, Young “The” Giant, Minus “The” Bear, and so on). Most recently, “alternative” seems to have become an easy way to describe the revival of earnest, and suspiciously sixties sounding folk-rock bands (think Fleet Foxes, Avett Brothers and Band of Horses).

Radiohead, on the other hand, is probably the band who has most defined the true meaning of alternative. More than just about anyone operating at their level, they alone have made the music that most consistently defies convention, and despite their success, doesn’t adhere to any single commercial formula.

One of the biggest rubs on Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work has been the rather detached and icy-sounding feel of studio albums like Kid A and the more recent King Of Limbs. What fans will tell you about this band though, is that their live performances represent the polar opposite of this.

In concert, Radiohead runs as hot as their records do cold. This is even true, oddly enough, when they are performing the very same material from those albums, as seen here on a considerably sped-up version of “Morning Mr. Magpie” from The King Of Limbs on the ACL broadcast:

But despite the dazzling lights and high production values of these shows (which are easily the most spectacular in all of rock and roll), Radiohead still play by their own set of rules, and their setlists often emphasize obscure and otherwise unreleased material. For these reasons, the no-limits format of ACL proved a perfect fit for Radiohead, and they took full advantage of it — though not necessarily in the ways that you might expect.

At times, Radiohead’s ACL set played almost like an old episode of MTV Unplugged. For veterans of this band’s big-arena shows, it had to be a little weird to see them play without all of the big LED lighting effects, TV screens and other visual accoutrements for one thing.

But this wasn’t the only thing that gave the ACL experience an all-around “smaller” feeling. Perhaps owing to the HD visual presentation, and especially to the pristine, squeaky-clean sound mixing, there was just a much more organic feel than one normally associates with a Radiohead concert.

The up close and personal camera shots — whether it was Jonny Greenwood banging furiously away at his guitar, or Thom Yorke’s famously wandering eye — were certainly one major factor. But the exquisite sound separation also allowed for a rare birds-eye view into what actually makes up the various layers of Radiohead’s densely layered music.

What seemed quieter, even when the band was rocking pretty hard, was actually just a whole lot cleaner. This made for a couple of the best live versions of “Paranoid Android” and “There, There” that I’ve ever heard.

On these two songs — both of which they have to be pretty sick of playing by now — Radiohead pulled off the seemingly impossible task of breathing new life into them. But aside from a frenetic Thom Yorke turn on “Idioteque,” these would prove to be the extent of the more familiar crowd-pleasing songs. The rest of the show was divided between songs from 2011’s The King Of Limbs CD; newer, unreleased songs like “Identikit” and “Staircase”; and obscure B-sides like “The Amazing Sounds Of Orgy.”

Several of these new songs also spotlighted the new Radiohead lineup with two drummers — longtime member Phil Selway and new addition Clive Deamer. On the unreleased “Staircase,” this made for a surprisingly funky sound brought even further home by a mix so tight you could hear the sticks hitting the rims. On “Bloom” (from The King Of Limbs), the busy sounding drums served as a launchpad into borderline Coltrane jazz territory, with Ed O’Brien’s sharp guitar jabs providing the darker shades.

Here is the remainder of the schedule for Austin City Limits 38th season on PBS:

October 20, 2012 | Bonnie Raitt with Mavis Staples
October 27, 2012 | The Shins | Dr. Dog
November 3, 2012 | The Civil Wars | Punch Brothers
November 10, 2012 | ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival 2012 (Hosted by Jim Lauderdale and featuring performances by Carolina Chocolate Drops, Richard Thompson, Alabama Shakes, Lifetime Achievement Honoree Bonnie Raitt and more)

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Charlie Doherty

    Minus The Bear is one of my favorite (newer) groups of the past 10+ years. They are friggin’ geniuses and every bit as alternative and experimental as Radiohead (but obviously not nearly as influential or with a catalog of impressive songs/records as them, I know). But just note that they shouldn’t really be lumped into “quirky pop,” given all their heavy, aggressive and moody songs (mostly from their early years), but if you’re thinking of songs like “My Time,” I can see why you would call that “quirky” (‘cuz of the synths).

  • Glen Boyd

    It was more of an aside than anything else, but still a point I’ve been dying for an opening to make for a little while now. I may have over-generalized just a bit though, and your comment is certainly noted, Charlie “The” Doherty….LOL.


  • Big Dave

    It was a great episode. They definitely played a *lot* of obscure stuff though. I was surprised to see them on ACL. Nice article as usual buddy.