Thom Yorke from Radiohead sings at the inaugural Outside Lands Music Festival in 2008. Radiohead returns this weekend for the festival's ninth installment amid a critical revival after May's universally acclaimed "A Moon Shaped Pool." (Courtesy photo/Julio Enriquez)
Radiohead is back in the Bay. Everything is in its right place.
The British art rock quintet returns Saturday to play the Outside Lands Music Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, supporting its ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool.
The band’s last Bay Area gig came April 2012 in San Jose, but prior to that, it claimed the first-ever headlining spot at the inaugural Outside Lands in August 2008.
That remains as a standout moment in the festival’s history, with fans — both ticketed and not — breaking down fences to pack the Polo Field shoulder to shoulder to watch the innovative British group. Sound problems plagued the set, with the audio cutting out several times.
While much has changed for Outside Land since that time, Radiohead returns triumphant as Moon Shaped Pool represents a critical resurgence after 2011’s uneven The King of Limbs.
It’s an unlikely story that festivalgoers are seeing Radiohead amid a critical revival given how the band’s status seemed just months ago. When the band was announced as a headliner in April, the public only knew whispers that a new album was on the horizon. Limbs was the most recent material and, given its lukewarm reception, there was reason to think we had reached Peak Radiohead in the Aughties.
Heck, even I was skeptical. Maintaining the level of quality, creativity and ambition they have for as long as they have is baffling.
But not so fast, said Radiohead. While Pool represents a safe effort by Radiohead’s impossible standards — not as bold and daring as Kid A, not a generational statement like OK Computer — it’s still on par with some of the British quintet’s best efforts in terms of quality.
That’s rare. Few groups get to be so beloved critically and culturally for two decades.
Even comparing to other “golden” stretches, there’s marked beginnings and endings — Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones and Van Morrison in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bruce Springsteen and Prince in the early 1980s, Pavement in the 1990s, Mastodon in the 2000s, Kendrick Lamar so far in the 2010s.
But Radiohead has no chill when it comes to nearly two straight decades of must-spin LPs: The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows and Pool.
Even though Limbs (left) was a failure by Radiohead standards, it was a noble failure. The band was trying to push boundaries and explore new territory, subverting the beauty of In Rainbows with the electronic elements and textures from Kid A.
There’s plenty of smoke blown up the collective backside of Radiohead, brand-making platitudes about how they’re “the band of a generation” or the “saviors of guitar music” or whatever mantle they’ve been assigned this month.
I don’t know what those things mean, but they sound like the sort of declarative statements that look great on a sticker on the album cover, but don’t hold up to scrutiny.
What I am willing to say is that bands that so repeatedly defy expectations are rare.
Radiohead’s at the plot point on the graph where accessibility meets experimentation. They’re both a reflection of ourselves in the digital age as well as a statement about them.
There’s something beautifully funny about a group with themes of isolation and alienation bringing together thousands of people in Golden Gate Park to share an experience together.
I can’t wait for it.