Thom Yorke Is Music’s Most Charming Enigma

A rare solo show in Oakland by the Radiohead frontman reminds us what makes music’s mysteries so special.

Thom Yorke (Geoffrey Smith)/em>

On a day when fans across the country gathered lawn chairs and Wookiee masks to queue up for the latest Star Wars, a very different line formed at Oakland’s Fox Theater. An email sent from the venue the evening prior had kindly requested that ticket-holders not arrive before 8 a.m. — a concept that most Bay Area music fans would find absurd.

However, when it comes to Thom Yorke, nothing is normal.

Playing one of two rare solo gigs before a headlining set at Houston’s Day for Night festival, Yorke recruited frequent Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich and audiovisual artist Tarik Barri for an evening devoted to the music he makes outside his day job fronting one of the world’s most acclaimed rock bands.

When the dates were announced in early October, tickets sold out fast. While Yorke had already visited in April for Radiohead’s two-night stand at the Greek Theater in Berkeley — and the band had headlined Outside Lands in 2016 — this promised a chance to get up close and personal with a man who relishes his privacy. Yorke rarely does interviews, and he’s always enjoyed shrouding his upcoming releases in mystery. As a solo artist, Yorke’s two albums — 2006’s The Eraser and 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes — each became available with little fanfare.

Keeping fans guessing has always been part of Yorke’s allure, from trying to decipher cryptic website postings that may portend news of a new Radiohead album to waiting with bated breath as the band plays live to learning if you might be among the chosen few to finally hear “Creep” in the flesh. As the crowd jostled for space and waited for Yorke to emerge at the Fox, there were likely some who hoped the evening would bring with it a few Radiohead classics.

What they got was something very different.

Positioned around three stations of equipment, Yorke and company toyed with dials and shifted knobs, creating a brooding atmosphere of dystopian electronica that felt more like a symphony in movements than a curated list of tracks. Without the complements of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar or Phil Selway’s meticulous percussion, the burden of sound fell largely on Yorke’s kaleidoscopic voice, an instrument capable of guttural howls and transcendent falsettos — often in tandem.

Then, of course, there was the dancing. For a man whose music often focuses on the darker moments of life and the villainy of modern society, there is something so joyous in the way Thom Yorke moves. At one moment, he might be auditioning for the role of a street mime, while at the next his limbs jolt out like a mechanical plaything surging on fresh batteries. Given the size of the venues Radiohead ordinarily plays, there was something bordering on voyeuristic with the chance to watch Yorke’s body up close.

Perhaps the evening’s most intriguing moments came when Yorke played songs that almost no one knew. There was some new stuff — “I Am a Rude Person” and “Saturdays” — as well as unreleased tracks that have only been performed a handful of times. It’s hard to imagine another musician of Yorke’s caliber being open to taking the same risks with a solo show. Would Bono ever do an entire set without dipping into U2’s work? Would Dave Grohl be willing to go two hours without a nod to the Foo Fighters? It’s doubtful, and for good reason.

The concept of a band’s lead singer striking out on their own has always felt a touch hollow. For one, their solo material is almost always inferior, and secondly, when Brandon Flowers inevitably busts out “Mr. Brightside” sans The Killers, it gives the impression that the rest of the band is in some sense secondary. Yorke’s refusal to perform Radiohead songs without his bandmates is an impressive testament to the sacred bond they share. It would be so easy for him to throw in a cut off OK Computer or The Bends, but they aren’t his songs to play. That Yorke understands this is the very reason why a sold-out crowd can delight in the foreign noise of unfamiliar works. In Thom we trust.

It would be disingenuous to say Thursday’s show at the Fox was met with universal acclaim. Some fans certainly felt jilted that they weren’t getting the hits, while others came in not knowing what to expect and left unsure what exactly it was they had just seen.   

As music continues becoming more and more predictable — a homogenized diet of pre-packaged singles and generic remixes — we must celebrate the artists who accept alienating their listeners as a necessary risk of continuing to create without boundaries. Yorke didn’t book a show at the Fox to please his fans; he booked it to please himself. The fact that he welcomed us in to watch the process is a privilege, one that comes around all too infrequently.

We are always so eager to know the facts that we often forget the mystery of the unknown is often the best part. If you hunger for easy answers, there are plenty of acts designed to satiate that desire. However, if you’re willing to enter into the dark, to step bravely into a void of reverb and haunting refrains, you’ll find the voyage may just lead you to a man who defies definition — a holy spirit dancing wildly on his own.

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