02.26.10 - 10:03pm
by George Osborn and Chloe Mashiter
on 26th February 2010
When the news broke that Thom Yorke had announced his intention to play a gig in Cambridge, all fans of good music in the city fell into disbelief. Yes, we’ve played host to many of the mid to big hitters in our fair university city; from Vampire Weekend, to Dizzee Rascal, all the way through to Bloc Party. But none of these acts are probably as big as the arrival of the lead singer of one of the most influential bands of the decade at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Yet the bombshell of excitement that the Radiohead frontman let off by announcing the gig was instantly followed by my own personal wave of worry. I’d liked the Eraser as an album but it’d never gripped me in the way that Radiohead classics, such as In Rainbows or Amnesiac, did. Combined with the added pressure of performing without his band mates for the first time since Latitude Festival and the need to test out his new songs for his “supergroup” Atoms for Peace, there was some residual fear that the £35 ticket cost would fly into the Green Party coffers on the back of a mixed and experimental gig that left me a tad disappointed.
Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. The gig was an astonishing personal success for Yorke, confirming his position as an exceptional songwriter, musician and performer. His mismatched personal appearance, the combination of the fashion style and body of a 14 year old indie kid and the grizzled appearance Viggo Mortenson carried off in the Road, was never really reflected in a setlist was a coherent and intelligently selected back catalogue of both Radiohead classics and his own original tracks. Ranging from an acoustic version of Airbag to a subtly attractive The Eraser, Yorke managed to regularly tick off the songs that the fans sought to hear while also finding time to trial his new tracks, Daily Mail being a particularly firebrand and potentially explosive future highlight. However, the quality of the set list was merely the starting point to the success of the night. The key to the brilliance on show was the strength it found in the minimalism of a solo performance. As an example, the desolation of Like Spinning Plates and Pyramid Song, two tracks built around electronic effects in their original recording, was stunningly realised through a combination of Yorke’s pitch perfect vocals and the devastatingly simple piano tones he employed. His decision to prioritise his own musicianship over any attempt to create a grander scale gig was a thoroughly justified one. The sublime These are my Twisted Words demonstrated his own musical talent wonderfully, while the rare moments he employed a sample pedal to boost his efforts were rewarded by brilliantly realised versions of Black Swan and Harrowdown Hill that remained true to the formula of simple but effective.
As a result, what was really created was an atmosphere of unbreakable intimacy. The hushing that greeted Videotape was astonishing, sweeping the audience before Thom started to play, and a testament to the quality of the performance: everyone in the room was hooked on what one man was planning to do. On a new track, Yorke announced that he had previously only played it in his bedroom and for all we thought, we might as well have been sat on the edge of the bed listening to him in the corner. The immersion was night on total. It is worth bearing in mind the night wasn’t perfect. The long delay between opening doors and the first act was an irritant, while Pete Um’s eventual appearance and performance left most of the audience bewildered by a half hour that can only be described as the musical equivalent of an unexplainably strange dream. As for Thom, he made a complete hash of Weird Fishes while his vague call for some form of literal revolution during the encore was met with nervous shifts in the audience. But these quibbles are minor in comparison to what I saw for the majority of the night. Brilliant, beautiful and fantastically personal, Thom Yorke has given me a fantastic excuse to vote Tony Juniper: he may come and play again at the victory party.
Whoever paired up Thom Yorke with support act Pete Um might just be a genius. Not because Um’s baffling music made you appreciate Yorke’s fantastic songs all the more; nor because Um’s somewhat shuffling, unimposing presence was the perfect contrast to Yorke’s ability to hold the Corn Exchange entranced for two hours. It’s that in addition to Thom Yorke, we were treated to half an hour or so of impeccable comedy beforehand.
I wasn’t the only one – by a long shot – reduced to giggles by Um’s frankly bewildering repertoire. Looking like someone from middle management come to give a motivational speech, Um sang songs to do with ‘geographical locations, or unemployment situations, or relationships’ over beats and laser sound effects. He might have been boring were it not for his bizarre dancing and penchant for wearing oversized novelty sunglasses during songs – he was enjoyable, just for all the wrong reasons.
The problem with writing about Yorke is that I don’t how many synonyms for ‘beautiful’, ‘mesmeric’ and ‘sublime’ I can get away with and if I wanted to represent my experience as accurately as possible, I would probably just write a list of those words. Yorke’s performance was simply incredible – I defy you to find anything more heartbreakingly beautiful than his live rendition of The Eraser. Yorke, with his causal presence and stunning songs, kept the Corn Exchange hushed and still, hanging on every chord, a very impressive feat that I dare say few other performers could achieve.