TAMPA — Thom Yorke is a weird cat with a gorgeous purr, a soaring, seemingly incongruous puzzle piece in the confoundingly beautiful — and sometimes just confounding — art-rock band known (and loved, and loathed) as Radiohead.
At the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Wednesday — aka Leap Day, appropriate for a band whose massive success leaps commercial logic — the eccentric Yorke and his brainy Brits made pretty, perplexing noise for 11,962 fans. Not a sell-out, but it roared like one. Even if you didn't so much sing along as play connect the sonic dots. That might be a melody — grab it!
Has there ever been a band that so bucks the mainstream and yet plays spacious venues seemingly built for Bruces and Bon Jovis? It's pretty cool, although to see these guys in a small, quiet joint is the ideal, such are the paisley, electronic portraits they paint about love, alienation and, well, Myxomatosis.
Opening the two-hour show with Bloom, a tumbling collage of sound that kickstarts their latest album, 2011's The King of Limbs, the quintet played five warring parts until it all made a certain cosmic sense. Yorke's epic vocal hovered trancelike: "Open your mouth wide / A universal sigh / And while the ocean blooms / It's what keeps me alive."
Calling Jonny Greenwood a guitarist undersells a maniacal noisemaker with all manner of effects in his aresenal. That said, Yorke's nutter-in-crime ripped off a heavy lick for the new Little by Little, a relative return to bombast for these blokes. Fan fave Staircase was next, setting a nightlong trend of newer material in lieu of stuff from their mid-'90s genesis.
Part of the art in Radiohead's art-rock is its visual sense, and as the band played the hypnotic Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, from 2007's groundbreaking In Rainbows, myriad screens tilted this way and that, flashing oceanic blues and blurring shapes that matched the rhythm. Drummer Phil Selway should get a medal in math for keeping the complex beat.
Just as it started to moosh together, Yorke took to the piano for Pyramid Song, a makeout special for strange lovers. This, as well as the lovely All I Need, signaled a change from their tour-opening setlist in Miami two nights earlier. They also sent Radiohead-heads into delirium with unreleased cut Identikit.
Through it all, Yorke was a bouncing, spasmic wonder; it's a magic trick how that voice comes from that guy. I swear he was doing "the Sprinkler" dance move during Lotus Flower. Grabbing a guitar, he twanged like a 21st century Duane Eddy for the menace of There, There and Bodysnatchers.
If you craved older stuff: Idioteque, from 2000's Kid A, when Radiohead first vastly altered their vibe, turned the venue into a squirming, strobing rave. From that same album, the insistent Everything in Its Right Place was a highlight of the first encore.
And then, in the second encore, as a gift for those who've followed the band for two decades, Radiohead played the softly menacing Karma Police from 1997 masterpiece OK Computer and then the transcendent Street Spirit (Fade Out) from '95's just-as-good The Bends. Wow. Didn't see that coming. And if you, like me, left the show floating on a cloud of "What just happened?" well, mission accomplished.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.