- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

Radiohead is what happens when the smart kids get guitars. Eventually, they stop sounding like guitars. The celebrated Oxonian quintet, which hadn’t played the Washington area since 1998’s Tibetan Freedom Festival at RFK Stadium, brought its heady act to Merriweather Post Pavilion Wednesday night, and guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien spent as much time on their knees as they did on their feet.

Guitars slung behind their backs, they noodled with digital-effects boxes that took tones from their axes and turned them into harsh drones and sky-ripping squeals.

On “There There,” a single off their latest album, “Hail to the Thief,” the pair joined drummer Phil Selway, banging in unison on snare drums of their own.

Obscured by a thick mop of bang-heavy black hair, Mr. Greenwood also was seen crouching over a rack of electronics that produced yet more crunches, blips and squeaks.

Busybody roadies, the galley journeymen of Radiohead’s complicated stage act, hauled out various keyboards and synthesizers for lead singer and rhythm guitarist Thom Yorke and Mr. Greenwood, further adding to the skittering melange — and possibly throwing out a back or two.

Fronted by the gnome-like Mr. Yorke, who dances like a child in mid-temper-tantrum, Radiohead and its company of technical assistants looked like chefs in an open-air restaurant kitchen, scrambling as new orders pour in, juggling ingredients and dishware for any and all to see.

Two tall and slender video screens caught all the action onstage, often splintering into various angles, other times merely showing what looked like the reading from a brain-wave monitor.

Somehow, Radiohead manages all this precious business while still, essentially, acting like a conventional rock band.

When Mr. Greenwood, Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Yorke dispensed with the clubby avant-gardism and started behaving like the guitar-rock heroes they can be at, literally, the turn of a switch, Radiohead was the best band in America on Wednesday.

“Go to Sleep” snorted and snarled with a triple-guitar attack, punctuated by a synchronized light show worthy of Radiohead forebears Pink Floyd.

“Creep,” their seldom-heard breakthrough hit, and “Just,” the only cut heard from their brilliant 1995 sophomore album, “The Bends,” sounded by turns like a lullaby and a hailstorm.

Too often, though, the group relied on tape loops and spot sampling, so much so that it was hard to tell at certain points whether it was Mr. Selway or a machine keeping time, especially on the bundle of songs from the electronica-heavy albums “Kid A” and “Amnesiac.”

Even when performed live, songs such as “Dollars and Cents,” “Idioteque” and “You and Whose Army” still sounded academic, frigid and eerily asexual.

Still, there was something bracing about Radiohead’s experimental hustle, the way the band integrates the sound of an intimate European dance hall into the grandeur of American arena-rock, how Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Yorke’s plangent harmonies reach anthemic heights.

Radiohead isn’t the only band hybridizing electronica and guitar-based rock, but it’s the only one doing so at this level, as witnessed by the huge mass of eager fans that packed Merriweather’s outer lawn.

When Mr. Greenwood rolled out a xylophone for “No Surprises,” a silvery ballad from “OK Computer,” it was clear that the spirit of adventure the Beatles imparted to pop music in the mid-‘60s is still a living, vibrating thing.

It just so happens that today, that spirit is being expressed in the form of ones and zeros on laptops owned by a group of scruffy nerds from Oxford.

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