Radiohead - Live At Astoria, London DVD

The zeal of Radiohead fans is comparable to that of the music world’s most ardent addicts. Phish, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Metallica, and Frank Zappa, to name a few, all have certain fan bases that hang on to every note, news item, and archival action as if it were their last foothold on reality. While this affliction is much more prevalent around bands that are no longer together, it’s a testament to just how special Radiohead is that they share this characteristic while, by all accounts, remaining active and writing new material. For a band like Radiohead, even the hint of a new album gets fans in a tizzy, speculating songs that will appear, release dates, producers, and the like to an obsessive degree.
For those folks, Radiohead's The Astoria London DVD is something to get them by, maybe even a shrewd move by the organization to whet devotee appetites for some unknown new release a few months (years?) down the road. That momentous occasion aside, what the rest of the populace gets is an essential performance that made the rounds on VHS back in the day and went out of print before they put it in its right place on DVD last month.

Filmed just under a year before the release of The Bends on May 27, 1994 at the historic and jam-packed London venue, this DVD has been a long time coming and amazingly marks the world-famous band's first foray into concert film releases (The film Meeting People Is Easy was never a pure concert film from the start). Fans that have never seen the band live or on video will definitely enjoy the removal of the surreal and sometimes spooky mask that Radiohead likes to wear via their confounding website, abstract album art, and general aversion to being pop stars. It's a revelation to see them giving their all onstage, unaware of the mega-stardom that The Bends would bring in just 11 months.

The band's disparate stage personalities only add to their legend. The mild-mannered rhythm section of Colin Greenwood (bass) and Phil Selway (drums) devote the utmost concentration to their craft, as Greenwood's eyes rarely divert from Selway's hands and feet. The guitarists are a stark contrast, as Jonny Greenwood (brother of Colin) stands in a tense, foreboding lurch, Ed O'Brien careens about the stage creating his orchestras of synthetic oblivion, and the rubber-faced Thom Yorke wails on his instrument with dangerous abandon, screaming and whispering all the while.

Squeezing almost their entire debut album Pablo Honey into the set, Radiohead also broke out several songs that would wind up on The Bends to the delight of the frenzied crowd. But there's little of the "High And Dry" poignancy that they would later develop found here, as the band favors their more energetic material of the day throughout the set. The dense "You" comes crashing out of the gates, and the band settles in for "Bones," "Ripcord," and a now-rare performance of "Black Star" before igniting the crowd with "Creep." Now they're well on their way and pulling no punches, ripping through "The Bends" and threatening to instigate pandemonium with the live favorite "My Iron Lung."

The second half of the show is simply a feast for the eyes and ears, as the band lines up a cavalcade of their best material. The unreleased "Maquiladora" and the triumphant strains of "Vegetable" give way to the delicate intro of "Fake Plastic Trees." The finger-pointing "Just" brings the intensity back up just in time for an epic pairing of "Stop Whispering" and the ballistic "Anyone Can Play Guitar." The snide "Pop Is Dead" has become a timeless, fitting tirade against manufactured music even a decade after this show, despite Thom Yorke declaring the song "a kind of epitaph for 1992." The set closes with "Blow Out," one of the band's consummate songs and just the kind of wistful mayhem that Radiohead has perfected over the years.

With a fantastic setlist, explosive surround sound, and dizzying visuals, Radiohead's first live DVD is a triumph. We can only hope there are many, many more to come from the band's career, past and future.

--Bryan Rodgers