The Smile's Toronto Show Highlighted the Virtuosity of Radiohead

Massey Hall, November 26

Photo: Stephen McGill

BY Alex HudsonPublished Nov 27, 2022

It's easy to overlook Radiohead's technical mastery, since their songs tend to rely on things like spine-tingling atmosphere and haunting melodies rather than what music nerds like to refer to as the playing.

But watching Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood in the Smile, their side-project with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, it was impossible not to be bowled over by their virtuosity on their instruments. Yorke, who usually plays guitar or keys in Radiohead, is a beast of a bassist, whether slithering through the walking low end of "The Smoke" or adding fuzzy syncopations to complement Greenwood's dizzying guitar slapping on "Thin Thing." And when Greenwood wasn't playing head-spinning licks on a Les Paul, he was sawing a bass with a bow to lead into "A Hairdryer" or playing piano with one hand and tinkling a harp with the other on "Speech Bubbles."

And then of course there's Skinner, whose jazz drumming is the main thing keeping from this year's A Light for Attracting Attention from simply sounding like the next Radiohead album. His live playing made his studio performances seem tame by comparison — like how the 7/8 feel of "Pana-vision" felt proggier than the ghostly album cut, or how the alt-rocking "You Will Never Work in Television Again" exploded rather than simmered.

It was staggering that only three musicians were able to make such intricate, fleshed out arrangements — partly through technological trickery, like the queasy synths that droned in the background of the acoustic ballad "Free in the Knowledge," but mostly because of the rhythmic complexity each member brought to the stage. Yorke said very little between songs, instead letting his instrument do the talking, and he busted out a few of his signature twitchy dance moves during the upbeat numbers.

Performing in front of a snazzy scaffold of LED lights, plus a couple of retina-searing strobes, the group were joined for a few tracks by the opening act, saxophonist Robert Stillman. This included a number of new songs, which exaggerated the band's tendency towards prog intricacy: the sprawling "Bending Hectic" practically sounded like free jazz until its enormous alt-rock crescendo, while "Colours Fly" dabbled in Arabic scales.

The crowd seemed practically awestruck by the musicianship — more quietly reverent than wildly enthusiastic (although one fan yelled "That's what she said!" when Yorke was introducing a song, an unfunny gaffe that I heard people make fun of after the show). Radiohead played Scotiabank Arena the last time they came to town, as did Yorke solo, so seeing them in the cozy Massey Hall felt a bit like being invited to the city's most exclusive party. 

To close out the night, the band played Radiohead's "Creep." Just kidding! Instead, they wrapped up with the obscure Yorke solo track "FeelingPulledApartByHorses," the vocalist and Greenwood playing some of their quickest riffs high up on their fretboards. We don't know what tomorrow brings for Radiohead, but there's no point in worrying about the band's future when its members sound so invigorated by their side-project.

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