Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, August 4
by Stephen Slaybaugh

It’s been some five years since rock adventurers Radiohead made a proper tour of the States, back when there was still hope of not another four more years of Bush league leadership. So to say this tour is something of an event in itself, is an understatement; this is more like the return of the kings.

That said, at Monday’s show at the beautiful outdoor Blossom Music Center amphitheater in Cuyahoga Falls (a suburb of Cleveland), Radiohead resisted any unnecessary grandiosity. With a couple pianos draped with Tibetan flags (no doubt a quiet protest to this year’s Olympic Games), the band presented themselves as simply that: a band like any other, hear to play their songs. Of course, this was amidst an ornate light show of LED colors cast on metal beams suspended vertically and a backdrop of live video close-ups. The contrasting high-definition visuals played as an adroit accompaniment to Radiohead’s music, itself a contrast of organic and mechanized tones.

Leading off with “15 Step,” the band wound up playing the entirety of their most recent long-player, In Rainbows, interspersing cuts from their impressive catalog in between. Yorke seemed broken from his recluse tether, dancing maniacally to the album and show opener’s glitched groove. As the show progressed, the singer didn’t necessarily warm to the crowd, but still seemed for the first time to be genuinely enjoying himself in his own ways.

If the rest of the band noticed such enjoyment, it didn’t register. Instead they stuck to the task at hand, delivering a labyrinthian set of mood and music ranging from the propulsive rumble of “There There” to the bass-heavy bomp of “National Anthem” and to the somnolent lilt of “Faust Arp” (just Yorke and Jonny Greenwood on acoustic guitars). Greenwood bided his time between guitar (both strummed and bowed), laptop and electronic gizmos, building the sonic layers entwined in the seams of all Radiohead does. The first set ending on the wistful waves of “How to Disappear Completely,” the band had already proved that they could translate the most nuanced of emotions to panoramic scope.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the show; there were two encores to follow. The first began with the piano reverie of “Videotape,” before moving eventually to “Paranoid Android,” the band’s finest commentary on millennial malaise. But the finale was the real show-stopper: “House of Cards” (“a love song,” according to Yorke’s commentary), “Lucky” (the highlight of the night) and “Everything In Its Right Place” (the perfect denouement). It wasn’t that the show was so extraordinary—though it was at times—but rather that it was impressive in what the band created from the same ordinary means that all bands possess. It was only some guys with some instruments and some lights, but what culminated from them was awesome.

Bon Iver
Wexner Center, Columbus, August 3
by Kevin J. Elliott

Back in March, Justin Vernon was busy convincing crowds in Austin that his Bon Iver debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, was the wholly unique folk testament critics were slobbering over (myself included). Though confident with the material, it was obvious that live he was still feeling his way through the songs. Not that they were any less affecting than on record, it was just that those threadbare performances focused more on Vernon’s haunting falsetto and his deliberate pacing rather than the living, heaving, entities the songs could be when given the proper amount of sonic texture. It was certainly beguiling, earnest and pure, but missing that same bone-chilling quality he conjured from a frozen cabin in Wisconsin.

Last Sunday, in front of a sold-out Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, following months of touring, Vernon and his trio of sidemen were completely in control of their environment (save for some overly enthusiastic yuppie hecklers), and the depth of those tunes was hypnotic and compelling, especially when their basic structure became challenging for those familiar with the album. Leading with “Lump Sum,” the band had the crowd enraptured from the very beginning. Though tight from the road, they still managed to become unhinged when necessary, crafting Vernon’s woodsman spirituals into swooning celestial shoegaze, avant-jazz noise breaks, and with the rousing “Creature Fear,” even distorted rustic metal. Mike Noyce, who at South By Southwest was relegated to acoustic percussion and lilting background singer, here held his own on baritone guitar, slowly weaving clouds of atmosphere to flesh out Vernon’s simple hymnals. Equally engaging were Sean Carey, who veered from drums to piano, and Mark Paulson (who opened as the Bowerbirds) on bass, faithfully conditioned to adapt to each nuance as if these were harmonies they’d sung for decades.

Of course not all was enthralling. “Babies” and another unnamed new song found Vernon as an organ grinder, competent on the keys, but walking a fine line that cut too close to “bearded indie guy does Coldplay” melodrama. Participation from the audience soon erased any doubts that his next endeavor might suffer from ungrounded stardom. His humble demeanor and almost nervous gratitude for the hoots and hollers and sing-alongs bled mightily into exhausting renditions of “The Wolves (Acts I and II)” and the stunning finale (and apparent NPR hit) “Skinny Love.” Judging from the appreciative packed house, Bon Iver has not surprisingly become the latest torch-bearers of traditional sophisticate folk, or at the very least, has found themselves within the upper echelon of make-out music for the 20-something co-eds. Either way, it was a stirring set rarely allowing the room to escape from Vernon’s captivating and all too human mood swings.