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Live Review and Photo Gallery: The Smile at the Riviera Theatre • Chicago

| December 4, 2022

The Smile

Riviera Theatre

Chicago, IL

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Review by Jeff Elbel, photos by Curt Baran

The Smile has earned praise as the most satisfying among Radiohead’s side projects by many fans, a status that benefits from inclusion of Radiohead’s creative engine. Singer Thom Yorke is joined by multi-instrumentalists Jonny Greenwood and Sons of Kemet‘s Tom Skinner, who create an expansive sound together that belies their trio formation. The group’s 2022 album A Light for Attracting Attention is more overtly organic than Thom Yorke’s electronica-savvy solo work, but no less adventurous.

Throughout Thursday evening’s concert at the Riviera Theatre, the band seemed to spend as much energy outside of conventional 4/4 time as in it. Skinner’s acumen for jazz, motorik, and afrobeat rhythms produced engaging rhythms in odd meter. The combined melodic sensibilities of Yorke and Greenwood made their challenging musical excursions accessible. The players shifted to different instruments between songs and within songs, covering the sonic territory of a larger ensemble.

The 95-minute performance was a showcase for  A Light for Attracting Attention, featuring every song from the album. The show began with the plaintive “The Same,” describing unity through societys collective fallibility. Yorke sang a scat-style vocal rhythm and played bass while Skinner created undulating loops and textures on a modular synthesizer. Greenwood switched from glitchy keyboard sounds to guitar while Skinner played a driving drumbeat for “Thin Thing.” Yorke sang through a vocoder about a shadowy figure robbing her prey of fingers and toes before the ultimate indignity of taking the photos from their phones. The fog and strobing red LED lights on stage amplified the dystopian dread.

“The Opposite” was a dense and time-twisting math rocker, with a cacophonous Afropop/prog-rock riff reminiscent of “Thela Hun Ginjeet” by King Crimson. The ethereal “Speech Bubbles” veered closer toward Cocteau Twins, with Yorke’s cooed and indistinct vocal. Skinner played a muted rhythm with mallets while Greenwood coaxed droning synth textures and stroked a twinkling harp behind Yorke’s arpeggiated guitar. Greenwood’s piano and Yorke’s strummed acoustic guitar presented “Free in the Knowledge” as a bleak ballad in the tradition of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” As the arrangement progressed, Skinner left his synth station for his drum set and Greenwood moved to bass, covering the sound of a five-piece band.

The group skirted closest to Radiohead territory with “A Hairdryer,” pulling similar textures to tracks like “Bodysnatchers” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” from 2007 album In Rainbows. Skinner sang counterpoint to Yorke’s vocal while playing an intense but intricate beat. The burbling synthesizerdriven “Waving a White Flag” recalled Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, evolving into a broken waltz.

The trio added a handful of non-album tracks that provided a glimpse of the Smile’s future. “If we played the whole record, the show would be over in 45 minutes,” quipped Yorke when introducing new song “Colours Fly.” Opening artist Robert Stillman joined to play bass clarinet for the song, contrasting Greenwood’s hypnotic and repetitive sitar-style guitar riff. Yorke delivered the song’s vocal like a fevered nightmare, singing “no, no, no” into cavernous echo.

The trio made a false start on “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings,” allowing Greenwood to pivot to the appropriate instrument. The song was a rocker driven by Greenwood’s urgent bass and Skinner’s restless pulse. Yorke played icy synthesizer lines reminiscent of Gary Numan before switching to clattering guitar as the song reached its apex. Yorke and Skinner repeated the song’s title as a paranoid mantra, offering a statement for troubled times: we don’t know what tomorrow brings, but we have a suspicion that it won’t be good.

New song “Bodies Laughing” was a groover carried by Greenwood’s dub bassline and Skinner’s Tony Allen-influenced drum beat. Yorke’s flanged guitar erupted into twisted howls that underscored the lyrics’ derisive laughter at someone’s comeuppance. “We can’t control it anymore,” sang Yorke.

Another non-album song “Bending Hectic” described a sheer drop from the road over an Italian mountainside in a car. “If you’ve got something to say, say it now,” sang Yorke to his unnamed passenger. Yorke raised his arms from his bass duties to coax a roar from the crowd during a quiet passage of “Skrting on the Surface.”

“Set change, ladies and gentlemen,” announced Yorke as the perpetually busy stagehands wheeled an acoustic piano back to center stage for “Pana-Vision.” Fans cheered at recognition of Yorkes opening piano arpeggio. Greenwood and Skinner played a subdued and bluesy math-rock groove. Stillman’s saxophone covered for the brass section on the studio album.

Despite its off-kilter rhythm, the Afropop beat of “The Smoke” inspired actual dancing in the crowd as the show’s energy neared its peak. The main set concluded with the acid-tongued chaos of “You Will Never Work in Television Again,” a withering portrait an abusive entertainment mogul preying upon the dreams of young hopefuls.

The Smile encored with Yorke at the piano for the weightless and floating “Open the Floodgates.” “Someone lead me out of the darkness,” sang Yorke in his gliding falsetto over the song’s sublime and sparkling coda. New song “Read the Room” reacted to the news cycle of denial and diversion in the pandemic and post-truth eras. “I’m gonna believe a lie,” sang Yorke, singing over a heavy, swaggering groove about egos so massive that they bend the light. The show concluded with Yorke’s 2009 track “FeelingPulledApartByHorses,” retooled as a darkwave track incorporating Amnesiac-era textures and bearing shades of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Songwithin Greenwoods muscular guitar lines.

Radiohead’s many fans may pine for the band’s return to action, but those who have followed Yorke and Greenwood have just as much reason to hope for more from The Smile. The partnership with Skinner appears to be electrifying for all three, and the batch of new songs performed at the Riv suggest that fresh ideas abound.

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